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Tibetans in India’s Refugee Framework

Author: Pratham Maheshwari

Editor: Antara Basu

In 1959, the Dalai Lama and his followers fled Tibet following an invasion by China and were welcomed by the then-Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Since then, many Tibetans have come to India attaining a count of 150,000 in 2011. However, a recent survey conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in India, in association with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) found that only 72,312 Tibetans reside in India as of April 2022. Hence, it is imperative to perceive such a slump in Tibetans residing in India in the context of India’s current refugee policy as the Tibetan community has been residing in India for over six decades.


As per Everett Lee’s Push-Pull theory, India was considered the most favourable country for Tibetans to migrate to because of several ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. The Chinese invasion of Tibet can be considered the most compelling and impactful push factor whilst proximity and better educational and economic opportunities can be considered the pertinent pull factors. However, Jawaharlal Nehru’s concern and India’s sympathy towards Tibetans were also pivotal driving factors. While sympathy arose from the ties to Buddhism, Jawaharlal Nehru’s interest was a result of the criticism of his China policy in the 1950s based on his inactivity in the Tibet issue. Jawaharlal Nehru's administration had been severely criticized for their 'softer' stance as an aspect of India's Foreign Policy, especially when United Nations Security Council's (UNSC) Permanent Membership was conceded to China on the basis of International Morality.


As a result of these ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, and after the Dalai Lama was granted asylum in 1959 and Tibetans became an integral component of India's Domestic and Foreign Policy during the 1960s. According to the Dalai Lama, Tibetans are considered one of the most successful refugee communities. The ‘success’ of Tibetans in India could be attributed to various reasons. According to Girija Saklaini, an Indian Sociologist, there are sociological and political reasons behind the success. Political reasons are largely the result of the Central Government’s enormous assistance through its dedicated policies and schemes such as a public statement by Jawaharlal Nehru regarding India’s policy being governed by the state’s deep sympathy for the people of Tibet and providing settlements by requesting several State Governments for land allocation for the same. Sociological reasons consist of the successful implementation of a systematic and efficient framework of leadership and power distribution of Tibetans in India. Moreover, traces of success are also visible in the economic self-sufficiency and cultural and socio-political distinction of Tibetans from that of the host country as planned by the Indian government. For instance, the allotted settlements of Tibetans are managed by the MHA and Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) to preserve their culture and develop a sense of community living.


However, the declining number of Tibetans in India in recent times is concerning. Considering Everett Lee’s Push-Pull theory, numerous pull and push factors can be considered as the influencing drivers behind this decline. Largely, pull factors consist of better economic opportunities and migration policies outside of India. Further, growing international awareness and recognition of Tibetan culture incentivises Tibetans to emigrate from India. Push factors can be considered as growing unemployment and India’s growing indecisiveness towards the Tibetan cause. But a substantial set of issues stem from the official recognition of Tibetans on paper as ‘foreigners’ instead of ‘refugees’ because of India’s refugee policy.


India is neither a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol nor does it have a National Refugee Protection Framework which prevents itself from recognizing Tibetans as ‘refugees’. However, it recognizes the UNHCR’s mandate and grants asylum to a relatively large number of refugees and is a signatory to various United Nations and World Conventions on Human Rights, refugee issues, and other relevant matters. Moreover, it has also voted affirmatively for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The status of Tibetans as ‘foreigners’ is determined as per Article 2 of the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939 along with the Passports Act, 1967, Foreigner’s Act of 1946, and Foreigners Order, 1948 considering the same definition. These legal provisions restrict refugees’ mobility, property, employment rights, and ability to ‘refoul’ or return in contrast to the Refugee Convention, which bars such actions.


However, considering the restrictions, the Indian government has sanctioned the Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy, 2014 which offers various provisions such as land leases, employment, and trade opportunities to those Tibetans possessing Registration Certificates. However, a major limitation is the lack of awareness among Tibetans. Moreover, certain provisions which apply to Indian citizens are also extended to Tibetans. For instance, the Right to Equality and the Right to Life and Liberty as defined in sections 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India respectively.


The current generation of Tibetans aspires to a better standard of living as opposed to the previous generation of Tibetans, whose primary concern was safety and security from the Chinese Invasion of Tibet. Resultantly, Tibetans moved to the USA, Canada, France, and other countries from India. Moreover, identity is an imperative concern for them. Tibetans today remain true to their cause of ‘Free Tibet, and want to preserve their culture while still harbouring an attachment toward India because of their historical relationship. While they always have the option of applying for Indian citizenship, they seldom do because it is believed that they would lose sight of their struggle and have to forgo the benefits offered by the CTA such as employment, education benefits, etc. (according to the Indian Government’s laws for Indian born Tibetans seeking Indian Citizenship). The Indian government must focus on addressing the pull and push factors but most importantly, address the identity crisis of Tibetans through the means of legal provisions to maintain their historic and harmonious relations with Tibetans living in India.



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