KO PHANGAN, Thailand, 24 April 2017
My first travels with a passport took me to the beautiful Thai island of Ko Phangan for a much-needed retreat after an arduous year working for passport for all Tibetans. Since discovering the island a few years ago through a friend, it has been not only one of my favourite places, but has become like my third base, and that’s where I headed.
But the dream of a month’s retreat had to be shortened, as the “visa on arrival” for Indian passport is for only two weeks. Thai immigration officials wouldn’t let me pass unless I changed my return plane ticket to depart Thailand two weeks earlier than planned. Luckily my efficient travel agency in Majnu ka Tilla, Chokhor Tours and Travels, immediately adjusted the flight ticket after I contacted them by email and WhatsApp, using the free wifi at the airport.
Now I have been a few days in Thailand, but the plan for a quiet retreat is becoming work as usual, as half the time I am attending to queries coming in through Facebook and WhatsApp from people applying for passport. This prompted me to compose this article, which I have been meaning to do anyway for a while.
History of Indian passport for Tibetans
Many may wonder why getting passport for Tibetans living in India is suddenly so much talked about. Here is the history.
Following the Chinese occupation of their country in 1959, thousands of Tibetans took refuge in India. They were issued residential permits (popularly known as RC) to live in India until they could return to a free or an independent Tibet, whichever happens first. Free Tibet is about Tibet remaining a part of China but Tibetans run their own affairs, and an Independent Tibet would be a separate country.
Holders of an RC are not part of mainstream India, and hence they are outsiders. When travel opportunities started to come up for Tibetan refugees, they were issued a travel document called Identity Certificate (IC, but it is popularly known as the “Yellow Book”, from the colour of the cover).
The historic non-availablity of passport to Tibetans was due to Indian officials following that regulation, seeing Tibetan exiles as not being Indian citizens. It was not that the Indian government was actively denying Tibetans a passport.
Over the years the number of Tibetans travelling abroad grew, and the frequency increased for some. The Yellow Book was not coping well with their requirements. It takes at least a year to process the document, and once holding it, getting a visa for the destination country is difficult. Embassies don’t like this Yellow Book, as paranoia about a refugee not returning to an underdeveloped India is high on their mind.
While travelling on the Yellow Book, the Tibetans need a permit to leave India, called an exit permit. And then, to come back in to India, since the Tibetan refugee is not a citizen, they require a return visa!
The exit permit rules are obscure. Immigration officials at Indian airports seem to have no idea at all about it, or have their own version of the rules for it. The return visa is gratis, but many times Indian officials working in embassies have no understanding of the rules, and either Tibetans end up paying for the visa, or the procedure to get it becomes very lengthy.
The exit permit is sought from the local police. In Dharamshala it is relatively easy and you will get it in two days if you do the runnings well. On the other hand, in Bylakuppe in South India, it takes from two to three months to process the exit permit due to the slow officials and unnecessary lengthy procedures. Tibetans there may pay from a few thousand to up to 25,000 rupees in bakshish to get that permit.
The worst encounter for carrying the Yellow Book is when passing through immigration. The officials see an “Identity Certificate” instead of a passport, so you are taken aside while all the other travellers look on with curiosity, a sense of intimidation is created for no reason, and the questioning and waiting can take hours. At times, even the Indian immigration officials are perplexed to see the Yellow Book. Obviously they are not given enough training before they are given that job.
With these unpleasant situations as a backdrop, many Tibetans living in India aspired for an Indian passport.
It happens that there is a Citizenship Act of 1955, which clearly says that anybody who was born in India between 26 January 1950 and 1 July 1987, and their children, are citizens of India, and therefore entitled to receive a passport in the same way as any Indian.
Upon learning about this law, a Tibetan woman named Namgyal Dolkar filed a case in Delhi High Court after her passport application was rejected by the Regional Passport Office (RPO) Delhi in March 2008.
Hearing the case for two years, the judge ruled in her favour two years later. Another Tibetan, Ling Rinpoche, filed a case in Bangalore High Court after his passport application was rejected. A judge there also gave a decision favouring the Tibetan petitioner. But these two cases in favour of Tibetans still did not pave the way for the rest of the Tibetans to be able to get passports as citizens.
A final and clear ruling applying to all Tibetans came after a public interest litigation was filed in Delhi High Court in May 2016. The honourable judge gave a judgement on favour of the petitioner (who happens to be me) in a record four months time. Following the court order, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on 17 March ordered all Indian passport issuing authorities and missions abroad to issue passport to Tibetans.
How to apply and what are the requirements
Here’s how it works to apply for a passport. This is how it was for me. It should be same for others, but due to lack of centralised rules officials at different offices make their own rules.
The first step will be to fill the online passport application form. If you have an IC, be sure to mention your IC number in the form. Otherwise they will fine you Rs 10,000 for “hiding the information.”
After you fill the form, you pay online Rs 1,000 for a regular 30-page passport, and Rs 2,000 for a jumbo passport of 60 pages. Then take the appointment as per the dates shown on the form and pick a date that is convenient to you. And finally, print out the form.
Go to the RPO with the form as per your appointment. Bring Aadhaar card and birth certificate. These are two main documents. If you don’t have these two, bring voting card and class ten certificate. In any case, a combination of these documents are good. Aadhaar is the best. Since many in India do not have a birth certificate, a government document such as Pan Card is accepted as date of birth proof.
Don’t forget to bring your RC and IC. There’s nothing to do with the RC, but bring it just in case. When the officials accept your application, a staff will take your fingerprint and photo for the passport. Make sure about your clothing, as that photo will be pasted in your passport. Next, your IC will be cancelled and returned to you. If you don’t have IC, then there’s nothing to do about it.
That’s all that will happen at the RPO. After a few days police will come to do a verification. They will check if you are staying at the address you have given, and whether you have any criminal record. After the police send their report, (and assuming it is positive), RPO will send your passport to you by speed post.
All this should happen within a month. If the police send an adverse report, then you have to follow up on that to clear whatever is the problem. An affidavit must be send to RPO for them to reinitiate the police report. A second police verification will then be sent by the RPO.
Police sent an adverse report twice in my case. They were making useless excuses saying that I have no house or property. It is their own made rule. How many people in India have their own house or property. Passport is a basic right of the citizens. Authorities cannot deny passport by making their own rules. RPO Shimla bypassed these adverse police reports against me, and issued me a passport.
After you get your passport, then it’s time to surrender your RC. I went to FRO (Foreigner’s Registration Office) under the Superintendent of Police (SP) Office Dharamshala. They took the RC and issued me a receipt stating my RC has been surrendered. But I am hearing about other Tibetans facing problems surrendering their RCs.
Authorities making their own rules
The most important rule has been made: That any Tibetan born in India between 1950 and 1987, and their children, can be issued Indian passports. But the follow-up rules have not been issued, such as cancellation of the Yellow Book and surrender of the RC.
Even though it is clearly mentioned in the Yellow Book itself that IC should be surrendered to the nearest RPO, the RPOs are insisting that the Yellow Book should be surrendered in Delhi as it is issued to all Tibetans from there. When I argued with the officer in-charge that the rule is written right there in the Yellow Book, he yielded and asked me how it is done in Delhi. After I told him that it is cancelled and returned to the IC holder, he agreed to do that. He then put a stamp in the Yellow Book which said ‘cancelled and returned’, and cancelled my IC from the system.
This officer understood my explanation and returned the Yellow Book after cancellation as I have my travel history in there. And in some cases a Yellow Book holder may have a ten-years valid visa for some country.
In the case of the first Tibetan who applied for a passport in Bangalore on the 18th of this month, the officers held a long meeting and finally agreed to cancel his IC at the RPO Koramangala. But they decided to send his Yellow Book to Delhi, and told him that Delhi may return it for him to pick up later.
Surrendering the RC is also turning out to be problem for some. A person who applied for her passport from Solan, which comes under RPO Shimla, was told to surrender her RC prior to issuing the passport, rather than after. So the same passport office that issued me mine, without requiring me to surrender my RC prior, is now setting a different rule for this person. She obliged and went to surrender her RC at the FRO in Solan. There she was asked to go to FRO Shimla, arguing that her RC has been issued by FRO Shimla. She obliged again and when she was there, the officers told her to bring a letter from the Tibetan Welfare Office. But what has passport and RC has to do with the Welfare Office, as it’s an Indian government document. And she may not be issued a letter from the Welfare Office Shimla anyway, as she lives in Solan.
If the RC needs to be surrendered to the office where it was issued, then many Tibetans will have to travel for days to do that, as many have RC made from one place and are now living at another place. The Dharamshala FRO accepted surrender of my RC, which was issued in Shimla. That’s exactly how it should be. The Yellow Book rule is similar to this one, stating it shall be surrendered to the nearest RPO. And this makes sense.
The Sikkim RPO wanted to see a copy of my passport, apparenty to convince themselves that the order was real. I sent a copy to a person who has been going the RPO in Gangtok. I hope they are now convinced that the MEA order is real and that it works in other parts of India.
Passport and the Tibetan movement
Now, I have become a Tibetan-Indian. What does that mean? Will I start speaking in Hindi, move away from Tibetan society, change all my friends, stop paying the green book (tax to the CTA), and shun the Tibetan movement for a free Tibet? The argument that carrying an Indian passport by Tibetans in India will weaken the Tibetan movement is how Tibetans say, the rabbit worrying about the sky falling.
Having a passport makes life easier. One is free from the problems related to the Yellow Book. Holding a passport saves a lot of time and will make a person more efficient in doing things for the Tibetan cause. If one feels that holding the Yellow Book is patriotic and does more for the Tibetan cause, they can continue to hold that. There is no one forcing anybody to carry an Indian passport. But the opportunity is there now, one can make their own choice. Thinking that the Tibetan movement will be weakened by one holding a passport is not understanding and trusting their own fellow countrymen.
Another argument is that holding a passport will make the holder just a “Tibet supporter” rather than being a Tibetan. That argument disregards the exile Tibetan charter itself. Article 8 of the Charter says that if a Tibetan domicile out of necessity has to take up citizenship of other countries, that person could do so without losing their Tibetan domicile, as long as the person abides by Article 13 of the Charter.
Article 13 of the Charter has five clauses — that a Tibetan: 1. Has belief and trust in the Tibetan nation; 2. Respects and practices the Charter and other rules and regulations; 3. Works for the just cause of the Tibetan freedom struggle; 4. Pays the tax to CTA as determined; and 5. Fulfills duties during a national emergency.
The Tibetan movement will remain intact. But still the Kashag, instead of looking away from this real issue, should face it and give proper guidance to those who seek Indian passport.
CTA should further make the necessary amendment to the the requirement of RC for those applying for CTA programmes. There is a double standard, that for any ordinary Tibetan applying for a job or benefits, RC is required, yet when one gets to serve in the highest CTA posts such as Sikyong and the Kalons (Ministers) of the Departments, RC is not mandatory. This needs to be rectified, as this is not ok, and it’s undemocratic.
With true citizenship and all its benefits such as a passport, our love, appreciation, and gratitude towards India will increase many times more. I am already indebted for all that India and her people have provided for the Tibetan people. Tibetans have sacrificed their lives for India. And I am ready and willing to do whatever is necessary and possible for this great country.
About the author
Lobsang Wangyal lives in McLeod Ganj, and edits the Tibet Sun website.
More articles by Lobsang Wangyal on Tibet Sun.