Don’t let their children be ‘refugees’ too

Securing the future for Tibetan-Indians

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.

6 thoughts on “Don’t let their children be ‘refugees’ too”

  1. You have raised very important points. What actually happens when the 14th Dalai Lama is not on the scene? A solution for the Tibetans must be reached in the Dalai Lama’s life time.

  2. No country has ever publicly accepted Tibet as an independent state [14], in spite of several instances of government officials appealing to their superiors to do so [15]. Treaties signed by Britain and Russia in the early years of the twentieth century [16] and others signed by Nepal and India in the 1950s [17], recognized Tibet’s political subordination to China. The Americans presented their view on 15 May 1943

    “For its part, the Government of the United States has borne in mind the fact that…the Chinese constitution lists Tibet among areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China. This Government has at no time raised a question regarding either of these claims.” [18]

    Not a single sovereign state, including India, has extended recognition to the Tibetan Government-in-exile in the more than two decades of its existence, despite obvious precedents for such an action. This lack of legal recognition of independence has forced even some strong supporters of the refugees to admit that

    “…even today international legal experts sympathetic to the Dalai Lama’s cause find it difficult to argue that Tibet ever technically established its independence of the Chinese Empire, imperial, or republican” [19]

    In spite of these circumstances, there recently has been a concerted effort by lawyers, particularly in the United States, to build a legal case for Tibetan independence, and there is a growing literature on this topic. Theoretically, the United Nations recognizes four criteria for statehood: (a) a permanent population, (b) a defined territory, (c) a government, and (d) capability of entering into relations with other states. Tibet fulfills those requirements. However, so does the Canadian province of Quebec and, for that matter, any state of the United States.

  3. James,

    And what about districts and counties in those provinces. And then, individual villages perhaps. But that still doesn’t account for those who don’t want the village committee to impose conditions on them.

    What we need is for States to recognise, tolerate and protect the interests of all its citizens. How big, or how small they are still won’t help if those units are organised on an intolerant and tyrannical basis.

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