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A string of court verdicts and government decisions in recent years has eased the way for Tibetans living in India to acquire Indian citizenship and enjoy the benefits that come with it.

However, this has put them in a dilemma. While Indian citizenship would secure their present and future to some extent, there is concern over its implications for the Tibetan struggle against China.

“A Tibetan raising his voice against Chinese repression has far greater legitimacy than would an Indian citizen of Tibetan origin,” a Tibetan activist who lives in the Bylakuppe settlement in southern India told Asia Times Online. Becoming an Indian citizen would “weaken his Tibetan identity and commitment to the Tibetan cause.”

Political rights
Not everyone thinks so. According to Sonam Dorjee, a member of the Central Tibetan Administration, Indian citizenship and voting rights would empower Tibetans and make them a “vote bank” in India’s electoral politics. They would be more strongly placed to lobby the Indian government to take up the Tibet issue with China too.

Importantly, Tibetans would be able to protest and engage in political activity in India, without fear of arrest. Their present status as foreigners in India restricts them from engaging in political activity and protests.

There are roughly 100,000 Tibetans living in India. Although they are often referred to as “refugees” and would, in fact, be eligible for such status under international law, officially they are not refugees in India and do not have the rights that refugees typically have. This is because India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1969 Protocol.

Tibetans living in India fall under the category of “foreigners.” They are issued Registration Certificates (RCs) by the Indian government and when they travel abroad they get Identity Certificates (ICs). In addition, the Tibetan government-in-exile issues them a “Green Book,” which is proof of their Tibetan identity.

Citizenship issue
According to India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1986, anyone born in India between January 26, 1950, and July 1, 1987, is an Indian citizen. This would make a large section of the Tibetan exile community in India eligible for Indian citizenship. However, not many have applied for citizenship in the past and those who have were rejected for one reason or another.

Tibetans say they are in the grip of ‘a constant feeling of impermanence’

In 2010, Namgyal Dolkar, an India-born Tibetan, challenged India’s Ministry of External Affairs in court for denying her a passport. In a landmark decision, the Delhi High Court ruled that she was entitled to claim Indian citizenship by birth and “cannot, therefore, be denied a passport.” She went on to become the first Tibetan to be granted Indian citizenship.

In 2016, the Delhi High Court went further. It ordered the Indian government to treat all Tibetans who meet the criteria of being Indian citizens by birth as Indians and to issue them Indian passports. This became government policy in March 2017.

More secure
Many Tibetans are relieved. As “foreigners” in India, they cannot own property, take up government jobs, operate large businesses, and secure bank loans or driving licenses. Indian citizenship would change that.

Tibetans say they are in the grip of “a constant feeling of impermanence.” They have to renew their RCs every year to keep their stay in India legal, making them feel uncertain about their future.

They complain about restrictions on travel in India and abroad. Getting an exit permit from Indian officials to travel overseas is a tedious process that takes many months. Indian immigration officials, being ignorant of the ICs that Tibetans carry, often harass them at airports. Becoming an Indian citizen, some Tibetans believe, would make life easier for them.

Diluting struggle
Would a more secure and settled life undermine the Tibetan struggle? “Struggles live in insecurity, where the fire of desire for freedom is enhanced by suppression and deprivation, and not in the security of homes,” Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan activist and poet told Asia Times Online.

It could dilute the passion and commitment that fuels the Tibetan struggle at present.

The impact on the Tibetan struggle would be felt only if applying for Indian citizenship “becomes a trend” in the Tibetan exile community. “The fact that out of the hundred thousand Tibetan refugees living in India, only a hundred have applied for citizenship [so far] proves that we still believe in our dream of returning to our homeland,” he said.

There may be just a trickle of Tibetans applying for Indian citizenship now. But their numbers are growing. It could turn into a flood in a post-Dalai Lama era.

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Sudha Ramachandran

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.

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