A little Indian, a little Tibetan: third-generation Tibetans in India

Members of Tibetan Students Association, Madras (TSAM) protesting on Tibetan Uprising Day (March 10, 2019) on Elliot’s Beach, Besant Nagar, Chennai. PC: TSAM
By Shweta Dabholkar

Chennai: Tenzin Sangyal loves pani puri and eats it at least once a week. Like most students in Chennai, idli and dosa are her staple food. Born and raised in Karnataka’s Mundgod settlement like her parents, she is a third-generation Tibetan. “But I feel a little bit Indian.” 

Sangyal (21) is getting her bachelors degree in retail management and information technology from Madras Christian College (MCC). Despite being born in India, Sangyal cannot vote and does not have a passport. Yet, India is all she knows.

She, like the 94,200 Tibetans living in India, would be eligible for citizenship only if she were to renounce her Tibetan identity. This means she will have to leave the settlement and will no longer be entitled to any benefits of relief and rehabilitation extended to Tibetan refugees.

A foreign feeling

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), India has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, which means it does not have a legally and administratively sound national refugee protection framework. Yet, the Government of India (GOI) gives asylum to refugees from neighbouring states such as Afghanistan, Myanmar and Tibet. While the Tibetans living here are sentimentally referred to as refugees, they are technically foreigners. The UNHCR Field Office in Chennai says it does not register Tibetan refugees and does not have any information on them.

As foreigners, Tibetans cannot own land or property but are free to work anywhere, except for the Indian government. Under the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939 and Foreigners Act, 1946, the government issues stay permits to Tibetans above 16 years called Registration Certificates (RC).  Better known as a ‘green book’, it serves as an identity card establishing their Tibetan citizenship. These are renewable every five years, allowing Tibetans to rent housing, find jobs, have bank accounts and obtain driving licences. 

For those travelling abroad, the GOI issues an Identity Certificate (IC) called a ‘yellow book’ which acts as a passport.

In 2016, the Delhi High Court ruled that Tibetans refugees born in India between January 26 1950, but before July 1 1987, would be considered Indians under the Citizenship Act. If they chose, they could be issued passports and their nationality could not be questioned. The Ministry of External Affairs accepted this ruling and the policy came into effect in 2017.

To be eligible for an Indian passport, Tibetans would have to surrender their yellow books but can retain their green books. The latter is renewed annually and Tibetans above 18 years pay Rs. 58 as voluntary tax to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). This tax funds administrative costs like staff salaries of the CTA, which is yet to be officially recognised by any country.

Source: Central Tibetan Relief Committee (CTRC)

Settling down

In 1959, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama as he fled to India and set up the CTA government-in-exile in Dharamshala. Soon after, several Tibetan settlements sprouted across India. As per the Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy of 2014, today there are 45 settlements spread over 10 states.

Six decades and three generations of Tibetans later, the Indian-ness of these refugees remains debatable. Will India ever become home? Wangmo Dorjee (21), who is from Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, says, “I have experienced a lot of Indian culture growing up with my family who can speak fluent Hindi. We are definitely connected with the culture here, especially when our family clothing business thrives on Indian customers.” At present, she is a student at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai and moved to the city late last year.

Sangyal, who is a member of the Tibetan Students Association, Madras (TSAM) here says “We help students new to Chennai get settled in. Adjusting to the food, language and the weather takes time. We also celebrate our festivals.” The members of TSAM mark important occasions such as the Tibetan Uprising Day (March 10) and the Dalai Lama’s birthday (July 6). Founded in 1993, the non-profit organisation has about 30 members and hosts cultural shows, marches, freshers and graduation parties among other events. 

TSAM members celebrating during a freshers party in 2019. PC: TSAM

Seeking opportunities abroad

The largest Tibetan settlements in India are in Himachal Pradesh (Dharamshala, Dalhousie, and Shimla among others) and Karnataka (Mundgod, Hunsur, Bylakuppe and Kollegal). Besides serving as the headquarters of the CTA, Dharamshala is also where the Dalai Lama currently resides. 

Students pursue their higher education at Tibetan schools and universities managed by the ​​Department of Education, CTA. In 2017, the Dalai Lama Institute for Higher Education was inaugurated in Bengaluru, Karnataka offering a range of undergraduate courses for Tibetan students. Earlier, graduates would join the administration or return to their settlements on completion of their degree. 

Kalsang Sichoe is a second-generation Settlement Officer of Bhandara Norgyeling, Maharashtra’s only  Tibetan settlement. He completed his higher studies in Hyderabad and worked in Himachal Pradesh before moving to Bhandara, about 150 km from Nagpur. “I was born in Tibet and escaped to India with my mother in 1994 when I was five or six years old,” he says. Sichoe speaks and understands Hindi, Marathi and Telugu. He was appointed as the settlement officer of Norgyeling last August. “I wanted to serve the community instead of becoming a bureaucrat in Dharamshala.”

Kalsang Sichoe, Settlement Officer of Bhandara Norgyeling, Maharashtra

Migration from remote settlements like Norgyeling to metro cities is worrying CTA authorities. Unlike Sichoe, many third-generation students opt to live away from their families in settlements on completing their education. The reason many cite is the lack of employment and educational opportunities. Farming, selling sweaters and odd jobs such as working in restaurants are the only sources of income.

Sichoe adds that despite the CTA offering incentives like free housing in the settlements for new incoming Tibetan refugees to India, the number has dwindled. The settlements in central India such as Norgyeling (about 1,400) have a lower population compared to those in southern India averaging around 20,000 Tibetans. 

Norgyeling Bhandara Tibetan settlement in Maharashtra

Indian government authorities claim that in recent years, the number of Tibetan refugees living in India has reduced to 85,000. This is on account of many migrating to the West in search of better livelihood. Sangyal says “I want to move to France, I would love to live in Paris.” For now, she is deciding between Chennai and Bengaluru for her M.Com degree. Dorjee, too, says, “My sisters are all abroad so I’d wanna go there.”

“But the end game is always Tibet”

“Despite all this, I am very much Tibetan as can be. I still have this urge to do something for Tibet or our cause. My identification with Tibet and its culture has not been withered by my decades of upbringing in India,” adds Dorjee. “In the end, my family just wants to go back to Tibet. We know that this is not our country, however long we stay here. But the end game is always Tibet.”

Kunsang Dechen, the branch head of the Tibetan Women’s Association in Maharashtra thinks that younger Tibetans “know about our history and culture, but don’t feel as strongly as we do.” She says her daughter Pema, a third-generation nursing student at Apollo Hospital in Bangalore, wants to go abroad. “She wants me to move to the US and live with her. I’m happy for her, but how can I leave my life here?” 

Dechen and her devoted team of 11 women, led operations to distribute masks, sanitisers and aid to those in need across Tibetan settlements during the second wave of the pandemic. Her son serves in the Special Frontier Force (SFF), the Indian special operations unit comprising mainly Tibetan refugees. She lives with her husband in Norgyeling and comes to Nagpur to sell sweaters at the Tibetan Refugee Sweater Market during winters.

Selling sweaters is one of the main sources of income for Tibetans.

Still, Dechen and her family are one of the lucky ones to be able to live together in India. Due to restrictions at the China-Nepal border, it has become increasingly difficult for Tibetans to secure special entry permits and cross over into India. 

Stateless life in limbo

Sonam Paldon in Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet, before moving to India

Sonam Paldon (22), who is studying for her BA in English language and literature from MCC, was born in Tibet. She was only six years old when she moved to India with her older sister, who works as a chef at a restaurant in Himachal Pradesh. Their parents run a restaurant back in Tibet. Both sisters have not met their parents since 2006. They can only communicate via video calls. “When I see other students with their parents, I remember that I am not in Tibet.”

Getting a visa to visit her parents is difficult via the legal route as authorities at the China-Nepal border are very strict, she says, but refuses to divulge details, fearing consequences for her parents back home. 

Paldon misses the quiet open spaces and sparsely populated farmland back home in her village Chamdo, in Kham, a border region forming one of the three traditional provinces of Tibet. After the Battle of Chamdo in 1950, her village was captured and annexed by China to be merged into Tibet Autonomous Region in 1965.

The landscape of India and Tibet is very different, she adds, citing examples of crowded areas and noisy streets. “The way Indian people stare at us in a strange way, it reminds us that we’re not from this country.”

She says there are many like her. Paldon is the Education Secretary of TSAM and helps organise educational tours for prospective students moving to Chennai. A noodle-lover, she complains, “all we have here is dosa and idli, which I don’t like.” Traditional Tibetan cuisine is hard to come by in Chennai, and the food at a new local eatery that serves it “does not taste good.” 

Like Sangyal and Dorjee, Paldon too hopes to higher education in the UK or Europe. “I want to study psychology, maybe in Bengaluru. I really wish to go abroad but the process is very hard. There are a lot of tests and too much paperwork.” In the absence of a passport, Tibetans who wish to travel out of India face issues getting a visa and other necessary travel documents.

On her parents, she says, “They never insisted on my sister and I growing up with a heavy Tibetan influence. All they want is that I take care of myself, stay safe, grow up well and do something good. Just have a better life than them.”