In Karnataka, Tibetans can vote but won’t

Misinformation, or hope for a free Tibet, keeps them away from first shot at polls.

April 26, 2018 09:34 pm | Updated 09:36 pm IST - Bylakuppe

Karnataka : Bengaluru : 26/04/20018 : Monks pray at Padmasambhava Buddist Vihara.  Pic to go with Karnataka Election Page for K C Deepika's story on Tibetan settlements in  Bylakuppe  near Kushalanagar. (Picture taken on 15/03/2018)  Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy

Karnataka : Bengaluru : 26/04/20018 : Monks pray at Padmasambhava Buddist Vihara. Pic to go with Karnataka Election Page for K C Deepika's story on Tibetan settlements in Bylakuppe near Kushalanagar. (Picture taken on 15/03/2018) Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy

Inside the sprawling Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe, life goes on as usual, almost untouched by the poll fever that has the rest of Karnataka in its grips.

The last State Assembly elections in Karnataka were held in 2013, a year before the Election Commission (EC) made way for children of Tibetan refugees to be included in the electoral rolls. A large number of Tibetans in exile in the three settlements at Bylakuppe and Hunsur in Karnataka would have had their first shot at exercising their right to vote in the 2018 State Assembly elections. But the Periyapatna taluk administration, under which fall the two (old and new) Tibetan settlements in Bylakuppe, and the Gurupura settlement in Hunsur, said they had “not been approached by anyone from the community to be enrolled as voters”.

“Until now, people of Tibetan origin born in India have not approached us for voter IDs. This is also because they have not taken citizenship, as a result of which there is no question of voting rights. Because of this, their identity status is still that of refugees,” said a senior official from the Periyapatna taluk administration.

According to official estimates, there are 11,037 Tibetans in the old settlement in Bylakuppe, 4,357 in the new one, and 2,206 in Gurupura, totalling up to over 17,500 persons. This number excludes monks. The Bylakuppe settlement, officials said, is the biggest in India. The Central Tibetan Administration lists five settlements in south India in all: the two in Bylakuppe, the one in Hunsur, and one each in Kollegal and Mundgod, with populations of 4,171 and 13,400 respectively.

Doubts prevail

There are some key reasons why Tibetans in exile have not sought citizenship.

At the Bylakuppe settlement, Dhondup (63) and Sonam Dorji (80), both members of the Tibetan Youth Congress in India, came to India in 1959 following arduous journeys from Tibet.

“The Indian government said we cannot have two documents at the same time. We have registration certificates (RCs) that are renewed every five years. If we want to take Indian citizenship, passport or voter IDs now, we will have to leave the settlement and the benefits of being here,” said Mr. Dhondup.

He, like many Tibetans in exile, is unaware that the clause of having to leave their settlements if they opt for Indian citizenship had been set aside by the Delhi High Court.

The settlement has everything residents need: a bank, shops for rent, schools offering free education to their children, monasteries, a civil court, a hospital, even an old age home and a waste segregation plant.

Confusion reigns, too. In a shop selling clothes and precious stones, Lhakpa Chukyi (61) said three generations of her family were in India, but none had an Indian identity card. Her companion Tsering Lhamo (55), said, “We would like to apply, but then we don’t know how. Some say get birth certificate. How to find these documents? There are too many problems.”

Longing for freedom

Moreover, Mr. Dorji, among the first settlers in Bylakuppe, says, “If we become Indian citizens, it will impact the Tibetan freedom struggle. There is still hope for the struggle among a majority of the Tibetan people.”

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