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The Stateless Status Of Tibetans In India: A Pressing Issue Towards Integration

The Tibetan diaspora is a significant community residing in India, comprising refugees who fled their homeland following the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Despite their decades-long presence, Tibetans in India continue to face a unique and challenging situation - that of statelessness. The Tibetan diaspora traces its origins back to 1959 when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans sought refuge in India. Since then, India has been their home away from home, providing shelter and support to an estimated 100,000 Tibetans. However, India does not grant citizenship to Tibetan refugees, leaving them in a stateless limbo.

India is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. Nor has it adopted national legislation for the protection of refugees. Without a refugee designation, Tibetans in India are considered to be foreigners under domestic law, regardless of how long they have resided in India. At the same time, few Tibetans have been able to acquire Indian citizenship and most remain ineligible for naturalization.

Tibetan refugees, as foreigners, are subject to a host of limitations affecting their ability to travel freely, either domestically or internationally, to own property in their own names, to qualify for government jobs or seats in educational institutions, and to vote in Indian elections. As foreigners, Tibetan refugees' ability to demonstrate and express themselves politically is also restricted, particularly when Chinese dignitaries are visiting India. From time to time, India has also expelled Tibetans from its territory, in violation of its international legal obligation of non-refoulement.[1]

Day to day challenges
Being stateless poses numerous challenges for Tibetans in India. Firstly, statelessness restricts their access to fundamental rights, including the right to vote, own property, obtain government jobs, and receive public benefits. This lack of legal recognition hinders their ability to fully integrate into Indian society and leads to a perpetual sense of insecurity and vulnerability.

Education is another area where stateless Tibetans face obstacles. While India allows Tibetans to establish their own schools, the lack of recognized qualifications and limited access to higher education opportunities often limit their career prospects. Despite these challenges, Tibetans have established numerous educational institutions, such as the Central Tibetan Schools Administration, providing quality education to thousands of Tibetan children.

Employment is yet another area where statelessness impacts Tibetans. Limited work opportunities and restrictions on formal employment often force Tibetans into low-paying jobs in the informal sector. The absence of legal protection also makes them susceptible to exploitation and discrimination.

Healthcare is a critical concern for stateless Tibetans. While some healthcare facilities are available through Tibetan settlements and non-profit organizations, access to quality healthcare remains a challenge. The lack of official identification documents complicates matters, as it hinders their eligibility for government-sponsored healthcare programs.

Role of the Indian state

India, as a host nation, has demonstrated a significant level of hospitality and support to Tibetans over the years. However, concerns regarding diplomatic relations with China and the potential impact on the Tibet issue have posed challenges to granting formal citizenship.

As foreigners, refugees are subject to a variety of laws relating to foreigners such as the Registration Act, 1939, the Foreigners Act, 1946, the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Passports Act, 1967. These Acts collectively regulate the entry, stay, movement and exit of foreigners in India. Besides, a number of Orders have also been passed under the Foreigners Act, 1946 and considered together, vest a high degree of control in the State over the foreigners and this makes foreigners as well as refugees 'susceptible to arbitrary and preventive detention.'

In recent years, the issue of trans-border migration, especially from Bangladesh has often been in the news for the supposedly large number of Bangladeshi migrant movements to India, including clandestine migrants.

The category of 'illegal migrant' has entered legal discourse, but it is interesting to note the contradictory trends in the context of illegal migration to Assam and the debates on illegal migration from Bangladesh. In the case of Assam, the federal government passed the Illegal Migrants (Determination of Tribunal Act) (IMDT Act) 1983, to deal with the issue of migration to Assam from Bangladesh.

It is important to note here that by this Act, the burden of proof was placed on the person making the allegation (individual or the police) that a person was an illegal alien. Thus, while the Foreigners Act (1946) was in force in the rest of India, the IMDT Act which remained only in Assam became highly controversial. The IMDT Act was finally struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005. In 2003, some changes to the Foreigners Act, 1946 were proposed.

One of the proposed changes was to repeal the 1983 Illegal Migrants Act. Among the amendments that were actually passed included strengthening the punishments for illegal migrants in India. These have implications for refugees as well, since deportation of refugees without any due process for status determination procedures becomes possible, as also the penalisation of illegal entry of refugees into India.[2]

The real problem-Lack of citizenship rights
Tibetans have been seeking asylum in India since the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese occupation. The Tibetan spiritual leader has since lived mostly in Dharamsala in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, where his supporters run a small government in exile and advocate for autonomy for Tibet by peaceful means.

More than 100,000 Tibetans live in 39 formal settlements and dozens of informal communities across India. They generally arrive via Nepal, after a perilous trek across the Himalayas. The Indian government has funded schools to provide free education for Tibetans, and reserved seats in medical and engineering colleges. Those eligible can get voter identification cards.

But Tibetans do not have citizenship rights, which limit their access to government jobs and freedom of movement within and outside India. They cannot own land or property. In some states, they cannot get driving licenses or bank loans. Those without identity documents are at risk of harassment, arrests and deportation to China. "The status of statelessness is demoralizing and frustrating.

There's a lot of emotional turmoil," said Tenzin Tselha, an activist with Students for a Free Tibet, whose father served in the Indian Army. "Sometimes I eat rice and daal (lentils) more than thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup), but I never feel Indian; I am Tibetan. It drains my energy, this struggle to always prove who I am and where I am from," she said.[3]

Sharing his pain to Tibet Rights Collective (TRC), Jampa said that he gets jitters while answering that he is a Tibetan refugee living in India. He says that they might say "Oh then, do you come from Tibet?" "No, not really. I was born in India but my parents fled Tibet when they were in their teens." "Oh, then are you an Indian citizen?" "Not really, I am stateless." "Oh�" Tibet is a prime example of this 21st-century phenomenon of statelessness in a world of nation-states. Jampa says that he had so many conversations like this that occasionally his mind has an auto-pilot nature to it when fending these questions.

Sometimes it seems almost like a script out of a boring sitcom of a scene where the strange but charismatic (incredibly specific, I know) young stranger greets the main family and is questioned about his ancestry, says Jampa. Jampa says that fending these questions off is not what he fears, "I fear the fact that I will be reminded once again that I have no solid answer to the question of Where do you come from?"

What is someone's national identity? And how can one feel it so strongly yet have no proof to show for it. Is it just a common land, a common government, a common birth that hands you your identity? Is it an invisible collar that is tied the moment you are born? What is it and where does it come from? Someone calls themselves American, Indian, Chinese.

Jampa says that if he calls himself a Tibetan, a question arises that Tibet is no more regarded as a country. Americans have America, Britishers have their UK, so do Indians, their India but what do the Tibetans have? We have nothing but empty talks and legends of a prosperous and free past, says Jampa. "I feel sad, dejected, and hopeless. I grieve though I don't show. I cry but rarely through my eyes. I break down but only in my heart.

I know, at least, that I have a right over these emotions. I own these emotions and they rise through me. So then can my grief attest to my Identity? This grief. This unending illness. This ever prescient spectre of hopelessness and disappointment. This is my pain, a pain entirely mine over my fellow suffering Tibetans," said Jampa.[4]

International reaction to the issue
International organizations and human rights bodies have also voiced their concerns regarding the stateless status of Tibetans in India. They emphasize the need for India to fulfil its obligations under international law, particularly the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which calls for the provision of legal protection and assistance to refugees.

Efforts to raise awareness about the stateless status of Tibetans and advocate for their rights have gained momentum globally. Tibetan organizations, activists, and supporters engage in advocacy, lobbying, and campaigns to shed light on their plight and seek international support for their cause. These efforts aim to pressure the Indian government and the international community to address the issue and find a sustainable solution.

The stateless status of Tibetans in India is a complex and pressing issue that demands attention. As they continue to contribute culturally, socially, and economically to Indian society, it is imperative to recognize their rights and provide them with a legal status that ensures their security and well-being. Granting long-term residency permits or exploring other avenues of legal recognition would go a long way in addressing their struggles and allowing them to thrive in their adopted homeland.

It is crucial for India, the international community, and advocates for human rights to work together towards finding a just and lasting solution for the stateless Tibetans in India. In conclusion, supporting the citizenship rights of Tibetans in India is crucial for promoting their well-being and ensuring their dignified existence. By providing a clear pathway to citizenship, India can strengthen its commitment to human rights, refugee protection, and its historical ties with Tibet.

This can be achieved through legislative reforms, diplomatic efforts, and collaborative initiatives that address the specific needs and aspirations of the Tibetan community. By embracing a compassionate approach and recognizing the contributions of Tibetans, India can foster a sense of belonging and enable them to fully participate in society, while upholding the principles of justice and equality for all.

  1. 'Legal Overview of the Status of Tibetans in India', Tibetan Legal Association, May 2022,
  2. 'Tibetans in Bylakuppe: Political and Legal Status and Settlement Experiences', Tunga Tarodi,
  3. 'Sixty years after fleeing Tibet, refugees in India get passports, not property', Reuters, June 2017,
  4. 'A Tibetan exile's account of being stateless in the world of nation-states', The Print, July 2022
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