India voting rights: a watershed moment for Tibetans

Lobsang Wangyal

Lobsang Wangyal

By Lobsang Wangyal

MCLEOD GANJ, India, 7 May 2014

Voting has become a reality for Tibetans in India. Tibetans have voted in various parts of India, although the number is hard to tell since separate data for Tibetans was not taken. There are about 90,000 Tibetans living in India, of which about 25,000 are in the state of Himachal Pradesh. In McLeod Ganj 140 Tibetans have voted from 170 registered. I was one of them. I feel like I have a voice in India now.

India will elect the 16th parliament of 543 members by over 800 million voters over a period of one and half months.

The Election Commission of India ordered the state units to register Tibetans in the electoral list. In Dharamshala, 217 Tibetans have been approved as eligible voters. The EC order came in the view of Karnataka and Delhi High Court rulings that Tibetans born in India between 26 January 1950 and 1 July 1987 are Indian citizens according to the Indian citizenship law, and hence have voting rights.

Due to lack of proper guidance, many people have remained confused about whether to accept the EC’s order and enrol to vote, or just ignore it altogether. Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, the political head of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), stated that the decision to apply for Indian or any other country’s citizenship is a personal choice, and that the CTA cannot prevent any Tibetan from applying for Indian citizenship.

Supporting or encouraging Tibetans to take citizenship of India or any other country by CTA would send a wrong signal to Tibetans in Tibet, giving an impression that CTA is pulling down the curtains on the Tibetan movement. At the same time, CTA may have the fear that aid that Tibetans have been receiving from different international agencies could be withdrawn if Tibetans become citizens.

Within the Tibetan community there are various thoughts about this new voting right and becoming a citizen. Some think it will dilute the Tibetan movement and that the CTA will be weakened.

There are others who are thinking of opportunities offered to Tibetans such as immigration by different countries. In such situations, some say, one has to prove that they are displaced people and not citizens of any country. Hence, they will be asked to show their registration certificate (RC), the stay permit in India. Some argue that the Green Book (the tax receipt) would be more appropriate to prove exile Tibetan status.

On the other hand, by becoming a citizen of India, a Tibetan will have the right to vote, will be entitled to a passport and better job opportunities (although Tibetans have not been attracted to Indian government jobs).

With citizenship there would be no more of the hardships that accompany holding of the RC: periodically renewing it, as well as no more need for departure and arrival stamps on the RC when travelling to other parts of India. There will be a passport instead of the infamous Identity Certificate, the travel document popularly known as the Yellow Book. There will be no more hassles about getting exit permit and return visa when one travels abroad.

Since the EC’s order, many have remained in confusion whether to enrol in the electoral list or to retain their RC, as India does not allow dual citizenship. But retaining the RC would mean foregoing Indian citizenship.

According to the exile Tibetan charter, Article 8 (2): “Any Tibetan refugee who has had to adopt citizenship of another country under compelling circumstances may retain Tibetan citizenship provided he or she fulfils the provisions prescribed in Article 13 of this Charter.”

Article 13 is about “Obligations of Citizens” and says: “All Tibetan citizens shall fulfil the following obligations: bear true allegiance to Tibet; faithfully comply and observe the Charter and the laws enshrined therein; endeavour to achieve the common goals of Tibet; pay taxes imposed in accordance with the laws; and perform such obligations as may be imposed by law in the event of a threat to the interest of Tibet or other public catastrophe.”

A large number of Tibetans living in other parts of the world fall within the purview of Article 8 (2), as although they are citizens of their host country, they also could retain allegiance to CTA, which hopes that Tibet will be free one day and that the Tibetans in exile could return to Tibet. Allegiance to CTA is proved by a nominal tax, which is recorded in a ‘Green Book’. This document also serves as proof of Tibetan identity as well as nationality.

For those who would like to enrol in the Indian electoral list, in effect becoming an Indian citizen by exercising citizenship rights, there are no directions on these issues from either CTA or the Government of India. CTA has not given guidance on the rights and responsibilities of holding RC, and the government of India has not clarified where and when to surrender the RC and IC in exchange for a passport.

With this new development of voting right, many questions arise that need to be answered by both the CTA and the Government of India. Would the RC remain a requirement in CTA applications for jobs, scholarships, immigration, etc, or will this change? Some argue that it must be changed as it will no longer be feasible to make the RC as a requirement for those Tibetans who have become Indian citizens.

Would losing RC affect a Tibetan’s refugee status in other countries? How much closer to a passport are Tibetans who have voting rights?

As for myself, I am ready for a passport.

About the author

Lobsang Wangyal lives in McLeod Ganj, and edits

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