The Indian election reaches the de facto capital of Tibetans-in-exile on Wednesday as members of the community in Dharamsala are given the right to vote for the first time. But the decision to grant voting rights to all people of Tibetan origin born in India between 1950 and 1987 has divided the exile community. While some have welcomed the move and registered to vote, many see it as a blow to more than 50 years of struggle that could diminish their chance of returning to their homeland. Tenzin Tsundue, an exiled Tibetan poet and activist, said: “We are not immigrants, but political refugees waiting to return home. We cannot settle in exile; our rights are in Tibet, not in India. Indian citizenship may be personally beneficial, but it will leave us divided, culturally diluted and finally get us killed by complacency.” Narendar Chauhan, chief electoral officer for Himachal Pradesh, which includes Dharamsala and votes on Wednesday, said that just over 1,200 people of Tibetan origin had registered to vote, though the number in the state who applied to vote but failed to meet the conditions was three times that. Around 48,000 out of an estimated 120,000 – one-third resident in Himachal Pradesh – were made eligible to vote by the rule change.
Tibet’s spiritual leader-in-exile, the 14th Dalai Lama. Photograph: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images
For the past 55 years, Tibetans born in India were legally recognised as foreigners and needed a permit renewed every year, or in some cases every five years. They were not allowed to own land, deprived of professional job opportunities and some even faced imprisonment for participating in anti-China protests.
The community of exiles began when India offered a haven to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, after he and thousands of his followers fled after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. In recent years, there has been a growing debate within the community about whether or not Tibetans born in India should accept Indian citizenship, something to which they are entitled by birth.