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An election in exile: Making the Tibetan vote count

  • On 7 February 2014, that the Election Commission of India (ECI) issued a directive to enrol Tibetans born in India after 26 January 1950 and before 1 July 1987 in the national electoral rolls
  • As the Tibetan diaspora in India struggles to assert its identity, its voice, though faint, is a reminder of a minority that has remained largely invisible

Lobsang Wangyal with his voter ID on the streets of McLeodganj. Photo:  Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Lobsang Wangyal with his voter ID on the streets of McLeodganj. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

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The Tibetan in Mumbai

likes to flip through the MID-DAY,

loves FM, but doesn’t expect

a Tibetan song.

There are few who can capture in wry verse the piercing duality of a life of prolonged exile like activist and poet Tenzin Tsundue. In these lines from his poem The Tibetan In Mumbai, he describes the gradual acceptance of an interloping culture, and the longing for a home many Tibetans have never seen. Tsundue may have localized this sentiment to refugees in India’s financial capital, but it rings true for Tibetans in settlements across the country.

Duality has been a leitmotif in the Tibetan struggle, in India’s policy towards Tibet, and the status of over 85,000 Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, when he escaped from Tibet in the wake of the Chinese army’s invasion of their homeland. According to the last Tibetan Demographic Survey (TDS), released in 2009 by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), there are 127,935 Tibetans in exile. And 94,203 of them are in India.

The hill town of McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh, nearly 2,000km from the setting of Tsundue’s poem, is the seat of the democratically elected Tibetan government in exile, known as the CTA, and the place where the Dalai Lama lives.

When we visit in mid-April, election season has gripped the region, since Kangra district, of which McLeodganj is a part, is going to polls on 19 May. Flyers flutter on utility poles, with pictures of politicians from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress—smiling shots of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Rahul Gandhi contend for both public space and support.

But the narrow market street of McLeodganj seems oddly insulated. The only things that flutter here are stringed prayer flags against the mighty Dhauladhar range, trinkets hanging from roadside stalls, or an errant plastic packet caught on a streetlight. Contending for patrons are Punjabi and Tibetan restaurants, and stores selling Kashmiri shawls and Tibetan chubas (long sheepskin coats).

In an adjacent lane is Om Hotel, an inconspicuous grey structure overlooking the mountains. Photojournalist and events producer Lobsang Wangyal, 49, sits at a table outside the café, peering at his laptop. Born in Odisha to parents who were among the first groups to flee Tibet in 1959, he moved to McLeodganj after college to pursue a career in journalism. He now runs the website Tibet Sun and is the director of the Miss Tibet pageant.

Wangyal has long curly hair, falling to the middle of his back, blowing dramatically in the April breeze. He’s wearing jeans, and a shirt so vibrant that it makes the view of the multicoloured homes on the green hillside seem like a dull competitor. But more striking is the way he embodies Tsundue’s verse—he switches with great ease from a juice order in Tibetan to giving us a history lesson on Tibet in English and then sharing in an amalgamation of Hindi and English (Hinglish) his distaste for the lack of civic sense in McLeodganj and how it is a reflection of the larger scheme of things in India. “Bolta hai (they say) we are the fastest-growing economy! Doesn’t make sense when people on the street at night say wahan pe andhera hai, wahan pe peshaab kar lo (it’s dark there, so we can urinate on the road),” says Wangyal.

Down the road is Tenzin Chodup, 44, who runs Rewa Cafe. His conversation with me about the local paani-bijli (water-electricity) problems is interrupted without warning, with him screaming orders into the kitchen in Tibetan and interacting politely with Caucasian patrons in English. Chodup was born in Arunachal Pradesh, and, when his parents separated, he moved with his mother to McLeodganj in 1982—she would sell chang (rice beer) at 2.50 a bottle to the local Gaddi community and Tibetans who were settled there. He joined the paramilitary Special Frontier Force in 1992 at age 17, retiring from service in 2003.

Political parties may not have plastered posters across this street, often called “little Lhasa”, but some of its residents, including Wangyal and Chodup, have embraced the political reality of the Indian general elections. Both of them not only flip through local newspapers and curse in various languages—they are among the few Tibetans who now possess Indian voter IDs and will cast their vote in the general election.

It was on 7 February 2014 that the Election Commission of India (ECI) issued a directive to enrol Tibetans born in India after 26 January 1950 and before 1 July 1987 in the national electoral rolls. This came after the judgements of the Delhi and Karnataka high courts in 2010 and 2013, respectively, reaffirming Section 3(1)(a) of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1955, which states that those born in India in the period specified in the Act “shall be citizens by birth”. The two cases were filed by activist and CTA member Namgyal Dolkar and monk Tenzin Cheophag Ling Rinpoche to avail the right to hold Indian passports, when their applications were rejected by the authorities.

“Ever since the clarification about the enrolment of Tibetan refugees has come from the ECI, we have been proactively motivating Tibetan refugees to get themselves enrolled in the electoral roll,” says Sandeep Kumar, deputy commissioner and district electoral officer, Kangra. “All Tibetan children who have attained the age of 18 years on 1 January 2019 are being enrolled as common citizens.”

Down south too, are prospective voters of Tibetan origin who hail from Karnataka’s Bylakuppe in Mysuru district, the other large Tibetan settlement in the country. Thirty-two-year-old T.D. (who did not want to reveal her name), a media professional, spent part of her childhood in the “old camp” in Bylakuppe, which went to polls on 18 April. She lived there with her mother, who was born to Tibetan parents in India in 1960, her father, who was only 3 when his family carried him over the Himalayas in 1959, and her two younger siblings. At the age of 7, she was sent to boarding school in Ooty.

As she speaks to me over the phone from Bengaluru, where she now lives, works and will cast her vote, she acknowledges the irony: “You know you have Independence Day and Republic Day, and in school you mark those occasions. I would celebrate Indian Independence Day and sing the national anthem,” she says. “When I was a teenager and became more aware, the irony really struck me. Because here I am, a political refugee. Tibet is an occupied country and I’m celebrating independence.”

Tenzin Chodup sits outside his café with his voter ID and Tibetan flag. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Tenzin Chodup sits outside his café with his voter ID and Tibetan flag. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint


It was during the reign of King Trisong Detsen, which began in 755 AD, that Buddhism became the official religion of the Tibetan people. Detsen, it is said, invited famous Buddhist teachers Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava, an Indian master of tantra also known as Guru Rinpoche, to Tibet.

In contrast to the concrete spiritual relations, India’s political history with Tibet has been built on a sort of ambivalence. “On August 15, 1947, India became an independent nation and inherited the political influence and privileges that the British had gained in Tibet,” writes Tsering Shakya in his book The Dragons In The Land of Snows (1999). In March 1947, the Indian Council of World Affairs, with support from Congress leaders, had convened the Inter-Asian Relations Conference, which, Shakya writes, was hailed by Jawaharlal Nehru as “a landmark in the history of Asia”.

“Initially Tibet was represented as an independent nation. A map displayed at the conference showed Tibet as separate from China and the Tibetan delegation unveiled for the first time the newly invented national flag. These symbols of Tibet’s new-found international status were rejected by the Chinese delegation, which protested to the Indian organizers,” Shakya adds in the book. Eventually, Tibetans were allowed to participate in the conference but the offending symbols were removed.

When the People’s Republic of China was established under chairman Mao in 1949, they made it abundantly clear that they would soon deploy the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to secure what they called “the liberation of Tibet”. A year later, 40,000 PLA troops marched into Tibet. On 23 May 1951, Tibet’s delegation in Beijing was forced to sign the Seventeen-Point Agreement, which ostensibly affirmed Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Once in exile, the Dalai Lama publicly repudiated the “agreement” in mid-1959, announcing that he had agreed under duress.

Shakya reveals that when Nehru travelled to Mussoorie to visit the Dalai Lama, he was certain that India would not sacrifice its relations with China for Tibet. “The whole world cannot bring freedom to Tibet unless the whole fabric of the Chinese state is destroyed.... Only a world war, an atomic war can perhaps be the precursor of such a possibility,” he is quoted as having told the Tibetan spiritual leader.

Still, Tibetans were welcomed in the country in 1959 and areofficially classified as “foreigners” under the Foreigners Act of 1946 and the Registration of Foreigners Rules of 1992.

Tibetan stalls in the McLeodganj market. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Tibetan stalls in the McLeodganj market. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint


Outside the central library in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, we meet a politically aware group of Tibet-born students. Despite not having the right to vote, they share strong views on India’s current China policy. “Even if we are given voting rights, one particular thing that might be considered by us is the government’s relationship with China. According to that, Tibetans may vote for whoever has a more assertive policy,” says a PhD scholar who wished to remain anonymous. She came to India in 1995 at the age of 6, leaving her family behind in Tibet. As she sips on cold lassi on a sticky summer evening, she continues: “In that regard, I think people’s perception of Modi has changed slightly after the cancellation of the Thank You India events in New Delhi.” This series of commemoration events was designed to express the gratitude of the Dalai Lama and his followers towards India for its role in sheltering them for 60 years.

Her statements can be seen in light of India’s wavering position on Tibet. In 2003, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government signed a joint declaration with China, recognizing that the Chinese-named Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China”. In contrast, the current BJP-led government has sent mixed signals. CTA head Lobsang Sangay was present at Modi’s swearing-in ceremony as prime minister on 26 May 2014. Two years ago, the Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh (most of its territory is claimed by China), escorted by Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju. This move was hailed as a diplomatic blow to China. It was after this that the 73-day stand-off between the Indian Army and the PLA on the Doklam plateau took place, eventually leading to what the Union government termed an “expeditious disengagement” by both countries.

However, more recently, in a move that was upsetting to a large part of the Tibetan community in India, the Modi government snubbed “Thank You India”. A directive from India’s cabinet secretary, on the advice of the foreign secretary, urged officials not to accept their invitations. The flagship event, originally supposed to be held in Delhi on 31 March and 1 April, 2018, took place in Dharamsala. Reports say the circular suggested it would be advisable to stay away from the events because they would be held during a “very sensitive time in the context of India’s relations with China”.

The Union ministry of external affairs did not respond to a request for a comment on this.

Tibetan voters line up to vote in Bhagsu village near McLeodganj in May 2014. Photo: Lobsang Wangyal
Tibetan voters line up to vote in Bhagsu village near McLeodganj in May 2014. Photo: Lobsang Wangyal


A defining paradox also exists within Tibetan efforts to reclaim their homeland. In 2008, the Dalai Lama and the CTA adopted the “middle-way approach”, effectively abandoning the dream of an independent Tibet in favour of seeking “genuine autonomy for all Tibetans living in the three traditional provinces of Tibet within the framework of the People’s Republic of China”. CTA literature defines this as “a non-partisan and moderate position that safeguards the vital interests of all concerned parties”.

More militant factions within the Tibetan diaspora have long criticized this decision. Tsundue himself revealed in an interview to The New York Times in 2015 that pressures against his protests challenging the Chinese government in India, during state visits from the Chinese premier, have come from the Tibetan establishment in Dharamsala, “which discounts Tibetans demanding independence as ‘anti-Dalai Lama’.”

But as protests for a free Tibet continue worldwide—in the form of marches, processions and self-immolations—a uniting fear that grips the Tibetan community, including those who may disagree with his approach, is the prospect of the Dalai Lama’s passing. Along with the CTA, he continues to be the symbol of hope and belief that the return home is a real possibility.

“There have been large-scale migrations like this, but what sets the Tibetan community apart from any other community is the government—the CTA. There is an actual democratically elected government, not just at the top, but there are elections within the settlements for local assemblies,” Sonika Gupta, associate professor in Chinese studies and global politics in the department of humanities and social sciences, at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, says over the phone.

She adds, “The entire structure has been democratized. And Tibetans all over the world vote in the elections to the Tibetan parliament. So, it is a genuinely representative system. This is unparalleled.”

But like other refugee communities in exile across the world, the lives of Tibetans in India are defined by a ponderous amount of paperwork. They have two sets of primary identity documents—the registration certificate (RC) issued by the Union government—establishing legal residence in India—and the green book issued by the CTA. The latter “establishes membership and enables political belonging in the exile community and stitches exiled Tibetans of all hues into the larger articulation of ‘citizens’ of the CTA”, Gupta writes in her paper Enduring Liminality: Voting Rights And Tibetan Exiles In India, published in the journal Asian Ethnicity earlier this year. But “the experience of making and renewing the RC is a constant reminder of non-belonging, even for those Tibetans who have not known any home other than India since their birth.”

It is in this context that the Tibetan community struggles with the embrace or rejection of voting rights in India. “When we run a freedom struggle like this, the exile situation which reminds us of the necessity of freedom is very important,” says Tsundue. “So we remain connected to the dream. That’s why we should remain refugees or foreigners in India and continue to work for the freedom of Tibet,” he adds.

Not many from the community registered to vote after the Kangra superintendent of police, in February 2018, in compliance with a Union government directive, asked those who had enrolled to surrender their RCs. Some even returned their voter IDs, since it meant instead giving up a document significant to their identity in exile, which affords them privileges such as health and education. The few who do take up voting rights, however, do so for various reasons—to have a say in the government of a country they live in, and to make bureaucratic and documentation procedures easier.

T.D. from Bylakuppe acknowledges her privilege in being able to surrender her RC in order to procure a passport and voter ID. “I had to sign a document saying I give up any and all benefits given to me for being part of the Tibetan community,” she says. “This means I can no longer live in Bylakuppe, which for me is fine because I am married and live in Bengaluru. But if you’re a monk who lives in a monastery, or even my mother, how would she do this? Where would they go?”

Sonam Norbu Dagpo, secretary, department of information and international relations, CTA, acknowledges the discrepancy too. “You can’t have both—become an Indian citizen and also be a Tibetan refugee.” He adds: “The issue is Tibetans are being encouraged by people to register and vote. Other than that, they don’t have any other rights or privileges, of being Indian citizens.” The voter ID alone doesn’t change the fact that they do not have the right to own land, secure bank loans, apply for government jobs, or obtain licences to engage in business activities.

Activist and poet Tenzin Tsundue. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Activist and poet Tenzin Tsundue. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint


Back at Om Hotel, Wangyal is proof of this liminality. He recalls rejoicing when he heard about his ability to apply for a voter ID because, among other reasons, he believed it would make the process of getting an Indian passport easier.

For international travel, Tibetans refugees are given an identity certificate, a yellow-coloured booklet, which has been known to cause problems in the past. Getting a visa entails a tedious process of return and exit visas, and the discrimination doesn’t end there. “Once you reach your destination’s immigration, there are so many people from around the world in the queue. When your turn comes, the officer looks at it—it is a yellow book, an identity certificate, not a passport,” says Wangyal, who filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Delhi high court in 2016 after he was refused a passport. “The immigration officer calls a senior official, who, in front of hundreds of people, takes me to a room. It’s really uncomfortable!”

However, this has not deterred him from being politically active and voting in every election he could since 2014, ensuringthat he retains his “Tibetanness”. “Punjabis or Tamilians, if you ask where they are from, they will say I’m Punjabi or Tamilian. Likewise, I’m Tibetan. I speak Tibetan and have my own culture. Having an Indian passport or voter ID doesn’t change that.” He follows Indian politics closely, and can tell you Rahul Gandhi is fighting from Wayanad, Amit Shah is contesting from Gandhinagar, even venturing to add, “which was L.K. Advani’s thing, and he was kicked out”. He points to the complicated implementation of the goods and services tax, which directly affects him as a businessman, and laments the “feeling of intolerance in India” and across the world. “I’m a Buddhist, I want to be a Buddhist. You are Hindu, Muslim, Christian—please enjoy that. And let me enjoy my life. Now there is a black cloud covering everyone, I can see that and I feel that. What a shame,” he says.

The right to vote has had different implications for Chodup. “Before 2014, the people who supplied water would never listen to us, even if we folded our hands,” he says. “Once I got the right to vote, this has become easier. I also called the councillor to solve the problem of streetlights during the tourist season, and said, ‘Get it done quickly, otherwise don’t come to us asking for votes!’,” he adds.

Chodup believes the right has given him a more assertive voice. He assesses media outlets and understands the bias and propaganda he believes many of them peddle. “The opinion polls in the news are an attempt to dupe the public. They say the BJP will win all the four seats in Himachal Pradesh. I don’t believe that,” he says.

His expectations from the coming government are tied into the narrative that the Modi-led BJP government has been pushing, most recently with the Pulwama situation. Chodup says he is made to pay a fine of $300 (around 21,000) if there is a delay of up to 90 days in the renewal of his RC. “Yeh jo sarkar hai hamesha fauji ka gun gaate rehte hain (this government always sings praises of the military),” says Chodup. He laments that he cannot afford to pay this amount despite having served in the SFF as part of Operation Vijay and in the Siachen glacier. Chodup hopes that the government that comes to power relaxes these fines.

Women in the town have different concerns. Dorjee Chodon, 52, who runs Norling Restaurant, says: “We are working ladies. And sometimes we have to go home late at night. And everywhere, they should at least put streetlights, that is very important.” In the BJP-led state of Himachal Pradesh, Chodon believes the Congress has been seen as supportive to the Tibetan community. “If there is a demonstration or anything, they would participate. But now I think the BJP will improve, because many Tibetan people have voter IDs,” she adds.

While the undertones of Wangyal, Chodup and Chodon’s opinions make their political choices clear, restaurant owner Karma, 52, from the Tibetan settlement in Majnu ka Tilla in Delhi, puts his faith in Narendra Modi even though he remembers a Congress government helping with the development of the settlement—for, instance, laying an underground pipeline for water and transformers for electricity. “Tibetans don’t deride any party. But here I believe Modi is the kind of leader India needs,” he says. “We would have lost parts of the country to China but Modi handled it.”


During the 2017 Himachal Pradesh assembly elections, reports estimated that there were over 1,450 voters of Tibetan descent in the Kangra district. As registrations for the general election closed on 19 April, authorities at certain registration centres suggest that there would be fewer voters from the community this year. In the Forsythganj centre in Dharamsala, the block level officer (BLO) says the number has gone down from 400 before the circular to surrender RCs was issued, to a mere 82. For the Bylakuppe and Gurupura settlements in Mysuru district, election officials say no Tibetan registered to vote this year. And only five registered in the settlement colony in the Mungdod taluka in Uttara Kannada district, which goes to polls on 23 April.

Then there are those like Tsundue, who voluntarily reject citizenship and the right to vote. But he too has expectations from the Union government. Tsundue hopes India will take a more concrete stand on China and Tibet. “The Tibetan rehabilitation policy should be implemented in all these places where the refugees are. At the moment, we find some resistance in some parts of certain states in India,” he says.

He hopes that India takes a more critical view of the One China policy, recognizes the Bureau of The Dalai Lama in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi, as the embassy of the Tibetan government in exile, and declares that Tibet was once an independent nation and not part of China, as he says it was once done when British India signed the bilateral Simla Accord with Tibet in 1914.

Tsundue adds: “(In the Simla Accord) the Tawang district was made a part of British India, which then becomes India’s historical evidence, legal evidence, and documentation to say Arunachal Pradesh is a part of India. So India should say Tibet was free and independent, we signed this document with Tibet.”


As the Tibetan diaspora in India struggles to assert its identity, the voice of the community, though faint, is a reminder of a minority that has remained largely invisible. I am more of an Indian/Except for my Chinky Tibetan face/“Nepali?” “Thai?” “Japanese?”/“Chinese?” “Naga?” “Manipuri?”/but never the question—“Tibetan?” writes Tsundue in his poem My Tibetanness.

But perhaps the most striking of dualities through all this is the Tibetan community’s exercise of a constitutional right in India that will deliver essentials like electricity, water and security, as they simultaneously yearn to one day return to a homeland that continues to struggle for autonomy.

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