Since taking Indian nationality six months ago, events organizer Lobsang Wangyal is relaxed when he travels abroad. Time-consuming exit permits and extra scrutiny at airports that Tibetan refugees routinely face are a distant memory.
As he wheels in his bags to catch a flight to Bangkok at the New Delhi airport, he recalls the hassle, the time and the money spent trying to get travel documents and answer embarrassing questions at airports.
“Then from the big queue I will be brought on the side for questioning. It feels very strange, not nice, as if I have done something wrong,” he said.
Wangyal petitioned the court and got an Indian passport after the Delhi High Court directed authorities to give citizenship to Tibetans born in India between 1950 and 1987 as per the law. Those born after 1987 must have an Indian parent.
Following the court ruling, some Tibetans, like Wangyal, are opting for Indian nationality.
Debate among exiles
But this has led to a spirited debate in the approximately 100,000 exile community: Could this weaken the decades-long campaign led by the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, for more autonomy from China?
India has the world’s largest Tibetan community that has lived as stateless refugees for decades. It has helped keep the international spotlight on the Tibetan struggle and built sympathy for their cause in Western countries.
And despite little progress, it remains a top priority for the community that lives in Tibetan settlements scattered across the country.
“Never we leave free Tibet, free Tibet protest in our mind, in our heart. That our land is there,” said Karten Tsering, head of the Residents Association in a Tibetan settlement in New Delhi.
The Dalai Lama has stopped demanding independence and wants “genuine autonomy” for people in Tibet and called for the preservation of Tibetan culture.
In Tibetan colonies in India, where Tibetan heritage is zealously guarded, monks light lamps at Buddhist temples, Tibetans old and young come to turn the prayer wheel, students are taught the Tibetan language in schools and the Dalai Lama is deeply revered by young and old.
An individual choice
But taking Indian nationality means the refugees, who have registration certificates, must move out of Tibetan settlements, according to Indian government regulations. That has raised concerns that this will loosen their links to their identity and heritage.
Tsering said taking an Indian passport is an individual choice, but personally he does not feel the need for Indian citizenship and found it easy to settle in India.
“In India there is not any bar, not any restriction to do anything what we want,” he said.
But as many young Tibetans in India accept that returning to Tibet is becoming a distant dream, there is a growing need to feel more rooted and not to continue living as stateless people. They want access to bank loans, to government jobs, to travel out of the country freely — rights that citizenship brings.
Wangyal, whose parents fled Tibet as teenagers, said taking Indian nationality does not mean he is betraying the Tibetan struggle. He simply accepts the reality that India is the only home he has ever known.
“My heart says very much I am Tibetan, but at the same time my upbringing has so much Indian influence because I was born in India. So Hindi is my second language. I love rice and daal (lentils) so much, as much as I love momos and thukpa, the noodle soup,” he said.
How to get a passport? It is one of the big debates among younger Tibetans, many of whom say they don’t want to continue living in limbo.
Tenzin Paldon, a 23-year-old undergraduate student at Delhi University, longs to get citizenship, although she is not eligible. She wants to give wings to her dreams, to get exposure to the world, maybe to migrate, but without a passport, “we feel stuck,” she said.
India has been good to the Tibetans, she says. But at the same time it is difficult to get opportunities in an already crowded country.
“If I can go to America, I can do work, I can do a job, I can do anything I want, freedom I guess. It will make our life easier,” she said.
But she agonizes over a decision that some think amounts to giving up on the idea of returning to their homeland.
“Going against him is moral issue inside us, not for all the people,” she said. “I don’t know. Inside us we have this issue going … between my brain and my heart.”