More than half a century after fleeing their homeland in 1959, Tibetans in exile could be approaching a turning point. In an apparent reversal of his previous stance, the prime minister of the Dharamsala-based Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, announced recently that Tibetans in India could apply for Indian citizenship at will. The decision could open up options for more than 35,000 qualified Tibetan immigrants (of the more than 100,000 Tibetans in India) to change their current status as refugees if New Delhi consents.
Citizenship and the Struggle for Tibetan Freedom
Theoretically, the Tibetans are eligible for Indian citizenship pursuant to Indian law and certain age and family requirements, but very few have sought permanent citizenship due in part to objections from Tibetan authorities. Despite the length of Tibetan exile, older Tibetan immigrants generally believed that either international pressure or direct negotiations with Beijing would eventually allow them to return to an autonomous, if not independent, Tibet. In other words, the settlement in India was never meant to be permanent.
Operating under this belief, the Tibetan government-in-exile openly stated that it would not turn down citizenship applications but maintained that Tibetans in India should preserve their refugee status as a symbol of their national identity and lost homeland, to remind themselves and others of the continued fight for Tibetan independence. Thus, the Central Tibetan Administration was reluctant to issue documents necessary for citizenship applications and adopted a rather restrictive policy for the Tibetans living in India. The practice was also tolerated by New Delhi, which considered the Tibetan exile community to be strong leverage in its relationship with Beijing.Over the years, as both protests and negotiations have failed to achieve the Tibetans' goal with Beijing, the Tibetan exile community's status and lack of legal protections have led many to consider the likelihood of a permanent exile. The concern is particularly prevalent among younger Tibetans, who were born in India and are less affiliated with Tibet than their parents. These same Tibetans are largely deprived of education and security and have been prevented from integrating with Indian society. Thus, Sangay's decision appears to signal that the Tibetan government-in-exile is adopting a more realistic approach to exile.
At the official level, the decision was made so that citizenship and the accompanying enhanced political rights could help preserve the strength of the Tibetan exile community in fighting against Chinese rule. However, as Tibetan authorities foresaw decades ago, the move will face inevitable challenges because it could be seen as undermining Tibetans' commitment to their self-determination movement.
Uncertainties Within the Tibetan Movement
Nine rounds of failed negotiations with China and differences over which tactic to use in dealing with Beijing — the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way" approach or seeking an independent state — have fueled political uncertainties and have highlighted a split among the various Tibetan movements. This division became particularly visible following the Dalai Lama's decision to relinquish his political leadership role in 2011.
A recent report revealed that the Tibetan Youth Congress — the largest and most aggressive international Tibetan nongovernmental organization, known for its ideological departure from the Dalai Lama's Middle Way approach — is preparing for a more unified effort during a conference in September to openly pursue Tibetan independence and ally with other smaller groups. The Dalai Lama apparently condemned the movement and escalated rhetoric aimed at Tibetans, urging them to adhere to his Middle Way and reasserting his authority as the highest-level leader representing the world's six million Tibetans.
An apology made to the Dalai Lama by Tibetan Youth Congress President Tsewang Rigzin shortly thereafter and a statement that it was a mistake to go "against His Holiness' thoughts" seem to be more of a temporary tactic than a shift in strategy. Still, even within the Tibetan Youth Congress, divisions appear to be aggravated. Several representatives who publicly advocated backing off from the pro-independence stance and demanding autonomy instead boycotted an annual meeting of the organization in June. With the Dalai Lama still in charge, such divisions have yet to become a significant challenge to the Tibetan movement. However, the eventual demise of the Dalai Lama and concerns over a power vacuum before the next spiritual leader takes control could lead to further fragmentation alongside declining foreign attention and financial support.
The uncertainties among the pro-Tibetan movements could be exacerbated by concerns about New Delhi's waning enthusiasm in accepting Tibetan refugees, especially after the current Dalai Lama is no longer in power. Although India continued to admit Tibetan refugees after the 1980s, the government has refused to grant further assistance to the exiles. Instead, New Delhi has become increasingly worried that a more fractured and disorganized Tibetan opposition could widen the already large gap between Tibetan settlers and locals. Young Tibetans are not as docile as the Tibetan exiles of a few decades ago, and their rising frustration and more aggressive agenda could be seen as a growing liability, both for domestic considerations and for New Delhi's relationship with Beijing.
Beijing could see the current frustration among Tibetans in exile as a positive thing, since China has long hoped that the movement's strength and international support would dry up, leading to fragmentation and helping Beijing to reassert its authority in the Tibetan Plateau. However, Beijing fears that without coherent leadership from the Dalai Lama, some sects within the Tibetan movement, both domestically and internationally, could become more aggressive or even militant. Such factions could pose security concerns and become increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by outside forces looking to create trouble for China.
The current situation could be a window of opportunity for both Beijing and the Dalai Lama to confine tensions and rifts within the Tibetan exile community, but this window is limited, particularly considering the Dalai Lama's age. It has been strongly anticipated that Beijing could take a more conciliatory approach in Tibet and restart long-delayed political talks with the Dalai Lama, who has a cordial relationship with the father of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The question is whether the Tibetan spiritual leader and the Chinese government can seize this opportunity before tensions become uncontrollable.