Twenty seven-year-old Namgyal Dolkar plans to travel from the Himalayan town of Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile, to her ‘hometown’ of Dehradun in the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand this May.
Dolkar, who became the first Tibetan to acquire Indian citizenship in 2010, will be making this journey to cast her vote in the upcoming Indian parliamentary elections.
She challenged the decision of being denied an Indian passport, in a Delhi court based on Citizenship (Amendment) Act 1986 that makes anyone born in India between January 1950 and July 1987 a natural citizen of India.
“If we are natural citizens, we have the right to vote,” she told Al Jazeera.
India’s Election Commission, for the first time in the last 55 years, in February this year ordered all states to enroll Tibetan exiles born between 1950 and 1987 in their electoral list.
Dolkar views the public statement as a huge step in facilitating Tibetans to exercise their right to vote.
But not many in her community are zealous about the voting opportunity. In Dharamsala, where she works, the response has been rather muted.
With little over 100,000 Tibetans, India is host to the largest Tibetan exile population in the world.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader, fled Tibet trekking thousands of kilometres of treacherous journey across the Himalaya following a failed uprising against China in 1959. Thousands of his supporters have been trickling in due to political repression and lack of opportunity.
Tenzin Dhardon Sharling, the youngest Member of Parliament in Tibet’s government, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), says the topic of voting hasn’t yet come up in the parliament.
While in recent years, Indian citizenship has been a topic of debate, “we never anticipated to vote”, she says.
The CTA’s stance on Indian citizenship has been neutral. It is neither encouraged nor discouraged, but if someone were to seek citizenship, “the government has already said it would provide a recommendation letter”, she tells Al Jazeera.
Few members of parliament do hold dual citizenship, prime minister of Tibetan government, Lobsang Sangye, is an American green card holder.
When you change your nationality, you change your loyalty. You are choosing certain privileges.
Sharling, who confesses she is “not as jubilant about voting” says she might consider citizenship if it would help further the Tibetan movement.
“We are not here to be Indian citizens and enjoy all the rights, but rather to go back,” she told Al Jazeera.
She is afraid that the idea of Tibetans having to choose between Indian political parties might polarise and divide Tibetan settlements here. “It puts us in a spot,” she says.
Tibetan activist Tenzin Tsundue is opposed to the idea of citizenship.
Tsundue, who had scaled 14 floors of a Mumbai hotel in 2002 to protest against Zhu Rongji, the then Chinese prime minister, believes that with citizenship and the right to vote one is abandoning their moral duty towards Tibet.
“When you change your nationality, you change your loyalty. You are choosing certain privileges,” he tells Al Jazeera.
Tibetans in India are officially deemed foreigners and are given a stay permit called a Registration Certificate (RC) which is to be renewed every year or in some cases every five years.
“There is a contradiction between an official announcement and the ground reality,” he says. “If I am a foreigner, how can I vote?” he asks.
He points out that the Diaspora has a functional administration and its own elections with 42 members of parliament. “The elections are lively and dynamic with a huge Tibetan public participation from 30 countries,” he says.
Case for citizenship
Dorjee Tseten, Asia Director, Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), tells Al Jazeera that opinions on Indian citizenship among the youth are mixed. He, however, personally sees the order on voting as a positive step. This, especially in the light of crackdown on Tibetans in recent years in Nepal, India’s northern neighbour.
An Indian passport would greatly reduce glitches in international travel, especially in countries that are allies of China, he says. “One would feel less vulnerable.”
“First there was reluctance about Tibetans abroad. But today we see strong and committed Tibetans all over and the movement has become global,” he says.The community can lobby the Indian government for the cause of Tibet more effectively, he says.
Thupten Kelsang Dakpa, a New Delhi based art curator who grew up in Varanasi, hasn’t enrolled to vote yet, but plans to do so.
Unlike Dharamsala, in Delhi’s Tibetan colony, Majnu ka Tilla, people are much more eager to cast their vote.
“Many want to own property, and this puts them at ease,” Dakpa tells Al Jazeera.
In India’s over 39 Tibetan colonies spread across 17 states, Tibetans are often isolated from local communities.
But Dakpa believes that even if not many Tibetans vote this year, this right will increasingly become relevant in the years to come.
An Indian citizenship insulates the Diaspora from any future changes in India’s policies towards stateless people.
In the West, a dual citizenship comes with substantial merits such as social security and other advantages, while in India, Tibetans are already fairly comfortable.
Even in terms of job opportunities young Tibetans are already working in private companies in India’s major cities.
If at all, Indian citizenship only opens the doors to jobs in the public sector that are not greatly sought after in the first place.
Indian or Tibetan
Though one can argue on the pros and cons of Indian citizenship for Tibetans, Dakpa says the main reason why many may not vote is simply because they don’t identify with India.
“Tibetans are always reminded of their Tibetanness and their status as refugees. Many may not connect enough with India in order to vote,” he says.
According to Dolkar whether one should vote or not is a personal decision. For her, there’s little contradiction between being Tibetan and Indian.
“I love this country, I was born here. I always say India is my motherland and Tibet is my fatherland,” she says.
“I know a lot of Indian friends who are not going to vote or don’t care about what’s happening here”.
While most young Tibetans are grappling with the question of whether to vote or not, Dolkar is being nagged by yet another question – who should she vote for?
“I am still thinking about that one,” she says.