July 6, 2006Foreign AffairsPublic Policy

Don’t let their children be refugees’ too

Securing the future for Tibetan-Indians

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

I am more of an Indian. Except for my Chinky Tibetan face: When the Tibetans first settled in Karnataka, they decided to grow only papayas and some vegetables. They said that with the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it wouldn’t take more than ten years to return to Tibet. But now even the guava trees are old and withered. The mango seeds they dumped in the back yard are bearing fruits. Coconut trees are brushing shoulders with our exile house. Old folks bask in the sun drinking chang or butter tea, chatting about the good old days in Tibet with their prayer wheels in their hands, while the youngsters are scattered all over the world, studying, working. This waiting seems to be redefining eternity. [My kind of exile/Tenzin Tsundue]

The question of Tibet’s status is essentially one between the Tibetan people, led by the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile, and the Chinese government in Beijing. By and large, Indians remain sympathetic towards the Tibetan cause. They also hold the Dalai Lama in high regard, for his spiritual leadership as well as for his determined commitment to a non-violent political struggle. India’s policy on Tibet though is informed by additional considerations: arising from the changing tone and content of its bilateral relationship with China, but also from the changing geopolitical environment. What this means, in essence, is that it is not in India’s interests to overplay Tibet while engaging China. Tibet’s economic development under Beijing’s watch is being viewed with suspicion, much of which may actually be justified. But it sets the pace for India to develop its border regions with similar vigour. Indeed, the challenge is for India is to achieve the same economic success on its side of the border while adopting democratic, more environmentally and socially sensitive policies.

While the geopolitics of Tibet gets played out, what of the Tibetan people in India? For many of whom India is the only home, and for many others it is the only refuge. Most Tibetans, even those eligible for Indian citizenship, do not take it up, preferring to remain stateless. In day-to-day terms this means most of the privileges of citizenship, but no rights, and certainly no political representation. It also means having to renew the Foreigner’s Registration Certificate every year. The Dalai Lama’s government discourages Tibetans from becoming Indian citizens—for fear of diluting the political struggle. In the face of China’s policy of encouraging transmigration of ethnic Hans into Tibet, it also discourages new refugees from settling permanently in India. For this reason, registration certificates have been hard to come by for over a decade.

India’s policy towards Tibetan refugees is characterised by a lack of institutionalisation that has so far worked to the Tibetans’ benefit. Julia Meredith Hess, an anthropologist with Macalester College, Minnesota, USA, points out that while Tibetans have been at the “receiving end of a generous and receptive Indian state policy that allows their settlement, contributes economically to their well-being, and finances their education”, they are nevertheless insecure about their legal status, especially after the current Dalai Lama is no longer on the scene. This insecurity must obviously square with the reluctance to acquire Indian citizenship. That is a question for Tibetans—as individuals and as a community—to decide. But India must keep its doors open and progressively formalise the status of its Tibetan residents.

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