It’s 4 pm. Karten Tsering is sitting in his first floor RWA office watching CCTV images on a large LCD screen. Adorning the wall behind his upholstered chair is a large picture of the young Dalai Lama. There is a huge wooden chair propped on a cabinet which, Tsering tells you, was used by the Dalai Lama when he first visited this Tibetan colony 31 years back.
There are almirahs filled with files-the records of each of 365 households in the Tibetan refugee colony near north Delhi’s Majnu Ka Tila.
Now known as New Aruna Nagar, the colony is quite a touristy place steeped in Tibetan culture. Its streets boast of trendy cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, guest houses, bookshops selling Tibetan literature and music. Every shop has a picture of the Dalai Lama.
While it seems like a usual day in this little Tibet, Tsering, like his fellow Tibetans, is faced with vexed questions about citizenship, identity and voting rights.
The questions arose when the Election Commission had last month issued a directive that all Tibetans born in India between 1950 and 1987 would be eligible to vote in the coming Lok Sabha elections for the first time.
The EC decision came in the wake of a Karnataka High Court order, paving the way for citizenship to children of Tibetan refugees born in India between 1950 and 1987.
But not everybody in the colony is sure about the new-found rights. The issue of accepting foreign nationality had been a subject of fierce debate within the community for a long time. Last year, the Tibetan government-in-exile, which otherwise favoured the status of stateless refugees, changed its stand. Tibetans were free to take Indian citizenship if they wanted, it said.
“As of now, very few people have applied for the voter identity card. But being stateless means our children face a hopeless future. Barring a few, who are doing well in the private sector, most of our young men end up selling sweaters and T-shirts on the pavement. But I cannot force anyone to accept voting rights. Everyone has to take his own decision on whether to become an Indian citizen and get a voter I-card. I have lived the life of a refugee but I do not want that to happen to my two sons,” says Karten Tsering, president of the New Aruna Nagar Colony Resident Welfare Association.
Delhi has about 8,000 Tibetans, of which 4,000 live in this colony. “If all of us take voter cards, we can become a vote bank, which would mean a more fruitful relationship with our MP and MLA,” says Zedon, 64, president of the regional Tibetan Women’s Association, cryptically.
Presently, most Tibetans in the colony have what they call the ‘green book’ and the ‘yellow book’ — the yellow book is an identity certificate given by the Indian government ‘in lieu of a national passport’; the green book is an identity document issued by the Tibetan government-in-exile.
“I am happy being a Tibetan-in-exile, I do not want any rights, except the rights of a refugee. I want to be the citizen of free Tibet,” says Lobsang Wangyal, 41, who has come to visit a friend.
Phurbu Tsering, 31, who runs a general store, has a slightly different view. “We should accept voting rights because we have not enjoyed all the rights we should have as refugees in India, though I feel it might my dilute my identity as a Tibetan and more importantly affect our struggle for independence.” Phurbu, though, is sure about who he wants to vote for. “I will vote for the Aam Aadmi Party; they have this desire to make a difference.”
Tanzin Tashi, 26, who runs a travel company, is clear about his nationality. “I applied for an election I-card. I am not sure if I will get it in time to vote. I was born and brought up in Delhi, and I am a Delhiite,” he says. Who is he going to vote for? What matters most is that am able to vote, not whom I vote for,” he says. Tashi studied in a Tibetan school in Dehradun.
Not far from Tashi’s office is Dolma House, one of the oldest restaurants in the colony and famous for its Thukpa (noodles in soup).
Manager Tenzin Tsering, 23, is busy introducing Tibetan dishes to some European tourists. Tsering gets emotional as you ask questions about her identity. “I was born in India, I want to live and die in India.” But would she consider settling in Tibet if it became independent one day? “I would certainly like to visit it, but I am not sure if I would like to settle there,” she says.
As we talk, the owner of Dolma House, Lobsang Dorji, 33, who was born and brought up here, butts in.
“All Tibetans living in India are very much Indians, and they should avail of every right given by the Indian government. Youngsters need to break from the past and think of the future. The future is bleak if you live as refugees. I do not think becoming Indian mean you are no longer a Tibetan. You can be both Indian and Tibetan,” he says.