Himachal Pradesh election 2017: Tibetan community divided on whether to exercise franchise
The decision to grant voting rights to people from Tibet born in India, has divided the community ahead of the Himachal Pradesh election to be held next week.
As political parties of all shades pursue the 50,25,541 legitimate voters for electing 68 representatives to the Himachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly, some 14,000-odd votes hold special significance, not for their numbers but for defining the future status of about 1,20000 Tibetans, living in India, as refugees. But the decision to grant voting rights to people of Tibetan origin born in India, “taken after long-drawn detailed procedures that took 3 to 4 years,” according to Pushpendra Rajput, Chief Electoral Officer, Himachal Pradesh, has divided the community. A 2013 court order granted Indian citizenship to Tibetan refugees born in India after 26 January 1950 and before 1 July 1987.
To the contesting parties, their vote doesn't hold “ much significance” because of the minuscule number involved. But within the community, the issue is hotly debated. For the 2014 general elections too, Rajput informs, provision for voting rights was available to the community, but only a few came forward to avail it.
Tibetans born in India were legally recognised as foreigners and needed a permit renewed every year till a few years back, now, in most cases the RC (registration certificate-as Tibetan refugee) is renewed every five years. Under refugee status, they are not allowed to own land, outside the allotted area of Tibetan settlements, were deprived of professional job opportunities, and faced problems in getting foreign visas. A few have even faced imprisonment for participating in anti-China protests. Adopting Indian citizenship would make life convenient, but most office-bearers of the Tibetan government in exile, based out of Dharamshala, leave it to the “personal choices” of people.
Most choose not to opt for Indian citizenship for reasons political as well as cultural. “The idea behind coming here, in exile, is to go back to our country of origin. By adopting Indian citizenship, I will lose out on the struggle and on my responsibility as a third-generation exiled person to work towards reclaiming our country,” says Tenzing Khepahk, 38, a wildlife photographer and filmmaker, who worked with filmmaker Mike Pandey for 12 years.
Not all look at the issue in political and cultural terms alone, the matrix involves economic interests too.
Tsering Wangchuk, known for the popular Friend’s Shop, in Bir Tibetan Settlement, gets agitated at the very mention of voting rights. Forefathers of many like Tsering were given close to 1,000 acres of land for settlement in 1964. There are two more Tibetan settlements in the area, Nangthen and Bege. Milling tourists to the Bir and Billing paragliding area have brought prosperity to the region, complicating the simple issues of identity.
“They don't have a PAN card, they don't pay taxes on the businesses they run; hotels, restaurants, shops. There are reserved seats for them in medical colleges. After studying here at subsidised rates, they migrate to foreign countries. They get a lot of help from international agencies, which they never admit to. They live here but think of themselves as somewhat superior. Why would they take Indian citizenship?” says an agitated taxi service owner, on condition on anonymity.
A few times, the police has been called in the area by the locals complaining of encroachment of land by the Tibetan community. Though things have always been sorted out amicably, resentment persists, “They add so many storeys, build houses and shops and monasteries. For locals even building a toilet requires so many permissions and paper work from SADA ( Special Area Development Authority) that monitors the paragliding area. That's why they prefer the RC,” adds a paragliding trainer.
“When Indians take up American or British citizenship, they don't cease to be Indian. The same applies to us,” says Tsering Dolma, 48, caretaker of Dorzong Monastic Institute, Palampur. Yet, she hasn't registered to be a voter. “I know change of citizenship won’t take away my Tibetan identity, we can be more unified living in Tibetan settlements for our cause. The RC is a reminder of our cause. “
Dhondhup Chokey, 28, who lives in the Majnu Ka Tila Tibetan settlement in Delhi says,” If I take Indian citizenship, I lose on all the benefits I get as a refugee. At best, Indian citizenship can get me visas to a few countries and a better paying guest accommodation. I would rather retain my identity,” she says. Her friends too debate about the lack of job opportunities with refugee status, but they would not like to lose their RC.
“Of the 50 people who got the right to vote from Bir area in 2014, only 4 to 5 voted,” comments Sonam Palmo, who migrated to India in 1950 and would rather carry her Tibetan identity till her death.
“Leaving this struggle at this juncture, when China is facing so many pro-democracy underground movements, when so many young Chinese are looking for their roots in Tibetan Buddhism, will be a bad decision on our part, I'm optimistic of getting Tibet back and I will stick to it,” Tenzing Khepahk voices the hope of thousands of Tibetans who, despite having given a choice, would rather maintain their in-exile status, hoping to return home one day.
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