Despite voting rights, Tibetans may keep away from polling booths

DH file photo for representation.

The upcoming Assembly elections will be the first elections in Karnataka where Tibetans, who are living essentially in enforced exile, can exercise their franchise. However, the fear of losing their Tibetan identity may mean that most of them would skip voting.

The Supreme Court in its 2014 verdict has said that Tibetans, who settled in India between 1950 and 1987, and their descendants, can vote.

The verdict, however, has seemingly not made much of a difference in Karnataka since most Tibetans have chosen to stay away from polling booths.

Two of the largest Tibetan settlements in India, Bylakuppe (new and old village) and Mundgod in Karnataka, along with Hunsur and Kollegal, add up to 36,000 Tibetans.

With many being apprehensive about leaving their settlements in exchange for voting rights and Indian citizenship, a majority of Tibetans will choose not to vote, said Jigme Tsultrim, head of the Mundgod settlement. “Here, as far as I know, there is not a single Tibetan who has the Indian citizenship and a voter ID. If anyone has the citizenship, the rules are that they have to give up benefits of being a refugee from the Central Tibetan Administration or Tibetan government in exile,” he said.

Tibetans have built functional communities predicated on their unique culture in the settlements, since their arrival in the late 1950’s.

According to Tsering Youdon, MP, Tibetan government in exile, and one of old generation who have lived in India for over half a century with nothing more than Registration Certificates (RC) and identity cards, Tibetan youth can definitely benefit from becoming Indian citizens, including getting admission in government institutes or applying for government jobs.

There is a lack of awareness about the court verdict and their right to vote among many Tibetans in the state, said Bhuchung Kata, president, Student for Free Tibet, Bengaluru Chapter.

He believes that if most Tibetans apply for Indian citizenship and participate in elections, there will be repercussions for the Tibetan freedom struggle.

“If we get too comfortable here, then where will the urge to participate in the freedom struggle arise?”

Jampa Chonzom, a Tibetan businesswoman in Bengaluru, disagrees with the argument that participating in elections or being an Indian citizen will divert Tibetans from their freedom struggle or affect their Tibetan identity. ‘’How can one take away my Tibetan identity just by being an Indian citizen?”

Chonzom claimed that she was one of those few individuals who applied for citizenship and was rejected by a Passport office in Koramangala after the officials were informed about their Tibetan refugee origin. “We need an easier, smoother route to obtain citizenship.”

Choephel Thupten, the chief representative of Southern Tibetan Settlements, said the Central Tibetan Administration’s stand has been neutral for Tibetans opting for Indian citizenship and voting in the upcoming elections. 

“We don’t encourage or discourage Tibetans to participate in the Indian politics. Our policy aligns with MEA. It’s an individual decision.”

The community, still fighting with the belief of attaining freedom for their homeland, are suspicious of the few individuals who do actually vote in the elections. “Voting in Indian elections is frowned upon by many within the community. Even Indians feel that it is an abnormal privilege extended to us,” said Tenzin Phurbu, an IT professional.

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Despite voting rights, Tibetans may keep away from polling booths

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