The Tibetan refugee community in India has sharply declined since 2011 from around 150,000 to 85,000 according to Indian government data. Tibetan authorities say that the Tibetan diaspora now spreads across 40 countries. Quoted Indian officials say the decrease could be linked to the absence of a national refugee policy. Having refused to sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention – which defines refugee rights and state responsibilities to protect them – the Indian government recognises the Tibetan community as foreigners. As such, they are denied access to many jobs and face difficulties travelling in and outside India. The Delhi High Court ruled in 2011 that Tibetans born in India between 1950 and 1986 be eligible for Indian citizenship. However, those who are eligible are required to leave their settlements and lose the accompanying welfare benefits. Hindustan Times reported that fears of relinquishing their Tibetan identity have prevented many from doing so, preferring to remain stateless within India, return to Tibet, or leave and link up with Tibetan diaspora communities for better employment and citizenship opportunities.
Dr Yeshi Choedon of Jawaharlal Nehru University says that India needs to rethink its policy towards Tibetans acquiring Indian citizenship. “India has invested nearly six decades in these Tibetan settlements and in the preservation of the Tibetan civilization in general,” she says. She continues that: “India could project these thriving Tibetan settlements at the international level as a model for post-conflict reconstruction of war-devastated societies and try to project its expertise to acquire a greater role in United Nations’ post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding activities with local ownership.”
March 2019 celebrations across the Tibetan settlement camps in India marked 60 years of their struggle in exile. Most second, third, and fourth generation Tibetans in India were born and raised in one of these refugee camps. They are hardly foreigners. It is time they were given greater opportunities and some sort of unrestricted permanent resident status. These opportunities must not come at the cost of their identity and community.
However, although India has in various ways supported their struggle for the autonomy of their homeland, it has always maintained that Tibet is part of China to ease tensions between the Asian powers. China has occupied Tibet since the invasion of 1950. When a failed uprising in March 1959 resulted in Chinese troops massacring tens of thousands of Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, escaped across the Himalayas to India. He was soon followed by a mass exodus of over 80,000 refugees. The Dalai Lama has since lived mostly in the Northern Indian town of Dharamsala, running a small government in exile with his supporters and advocating for full Tibetan autonomy by peaceful means. For years, the adopted political strategy has been to attract international support from Western countries against the abuses and misgovernment by China. Now with large numbers leaving India, the cause risks fading into irrelevancy, without a stateless population to draw sympathies from Western democracies.
However, the situation may offer new avenues for peace. With migration comes greater awareness in new places about the Tibetan cause, and the improved financial standing of emigrants puts them in a better position to advocate. Neither does the Tibetan struggle end with those adopting Indian citizenship. The decades-long political focus on public relations could be improved by working within India’s political systems to form a strong lobby group and coalitions for change. Dr Choedon says the government in exile would need to take a more proactive approach to help those who want Indian citizenship while preserving the Tibetan community.