On March 28, 1959, three days before reaching sanctuary in northern India, the Dalai Lama’s escape party crosses Karpo Pass on horseback.

In 1959 the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet to settle in India, where then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru provided him and his followers assistance. Since then, over 150,000 Tibetans have followed in their leader’s footsteps, settling into camps across the country—the biggest democracy in the world. These settlements, like the Tibetan people’s stay in India, were not supposed to last.

In a recent article for The Asian Age, journalist Maura Moynihan writes about the structural crisis now unfolding in the Tibetan-exile world.

The old settlements are disintegrating, filled with poor, often broken families who are frustrated with policies that consign them to isolation and exclusion by prolonging their unsettled legal status.

As China increases military pressure along the India-China border and accelerates conflict in the Himalayan belt, Tibetan refugees are more vulnerable, less welcome and politically radioactive. In an era where there is less room and tolerance for refugees in all of South Asia, approximately 150,000 Tibetans in exile cannot remain stateless refugees much longer. At 54 years, Tibet is second to the Palestinians as the world’s longest unresolved refugee crisis. At this late date, Tibetans in exile want and need citizenship.”

Currently under Indian law, Tibetans are granted RCs, registration cards that categorize them as foreigners—not refugees. This precarious identification affords Tibetans in exile neither refugee status, which would grant them rights under international treaty law, nor legal government representation. As non-citizens, Tibetans cannot own property or register their own businesses.

Not seeking citizenship has, for the most part, been regarded by older Tibetan exiles as necessary for the survival of Tibetan culture and the eventual passage of exiles back into Tibet. This is known as the policy of non-assimilation, and while it may have made sense 50 years ago, it now requires revisiting. If Tibetans are rendered helpless as refugees, what help can they be to Tibetans still in Tibet? “At this late date,” Moynihan argues, “Tibetans with citizenship can do more for the Tibetan cause than impoverished and powerless foreigners.”

Though the case for Indian Citizenship shares many of the same goals as the non-assimilation camp, it will certainly be met with much resistance within the Tibetan exile government. Its head, Lobsang Sangay, maintains that Tibetans must remain refugees in order to serve the Tibetan cause, echoing the position of the previous head, Ven. Samdhong Rinpoche, a renowned scholar and devout monk who was often criticized for his conservative policies.

Conservatism and orthodoxy have long plagued Tibetan governance. Following the death of the 13th Dalai Lama in the 1930s, conservative forces took power, leading the nation into a long period of stagnation in which social inequality increased. Modernization efforts were abandoned. Ironically enough, this period in which aristocrats exercised inordinate power aligns with that oft-romanticized vision of Tibet, a time when orthodox Buddhist ritual was likely the last solace available to the vast majority of Tibetans. By the time it became clear that the Chinese threat required a concerted response it was too late to modernize the military.

Let’s hope that Tibetan politics sheds the long reign of conservatism, which made Tibet so vulnerable to invasion in the first place. It’s refreshing to see new, radical ideas like that of Indian citizenship come onto the scene. The Dalai Lama may have retired and the new government head might don a suit instead of robes, but real change is going to spring from novel ideas like this one.

 A more in-depth version of Moynihan’s recent article appeared in Tibetan Political Review, here.


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