BANGALORE, India — When Tenzin Dechen Deshar first heard that Tibetan exiles could apply for Indian passports, she agonized over the choice.
A Tibetan born in India, Deshar lived a double life. She went to an Indian boarding school but spent summers in a refugee settlement, trying to learn to read Tibetan. She watched Bollywood movies with her Indian friends but fell asleep listening to her grandmother’s stories about a Himalayan wonderland.
Deshar spent her childhood convinced that she would someday see the land her family had left behind when Chinese forces seized control of Tibet. Then, in September 2016, the Delhi High Court ruled that Tibetans born in India between 1950 and 1987 are eligible to apply for Indian passports.
The new offer of nationality presented a dilemma. Take the passport, some said, and end decades of virtual confinement to a single country. Buy a car, own a house, apply for government jobs. Others argued that giving up your statelessness was akin to betraying the Tibetan cause that three generations have fought for.
“It was not a decision I took lightly,” Deshar said, lunching on dumplings between appointments at a regional passport office in Bangalore in southern India. But the long internal conflict had led her to a realization. “My grandmother’s stories were just that — stories, like fairy tales. I’ve never even seen snow. Or a yak.”
Tibet is a mountainous, nominally semiautonomous region in China. But Tibetans consider themselves ethnically and culturally different from the Chinese.
Deshar’s grandparents were among tens of thousands who fled Tibet in 1959, after Mao Zedong’s Communist Party took control of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, massacring thousands of Tibetans. Though some eventually found homes in the West, the vast majority of Tibetan exiles, 122,000 people, live in neighboring India and have endured nearly six decades of limbo.
For years, the Tibetan movement has hung its hopes on international support for its exiles.
Heart-rending stories of Tibetans walking through icy mountain passes to reach India — their land seized, their monasteries razed, their prayers silenced — buttressed U.S. efforts to isolate China during the Cold War and have continued to rake up support on college campuses and outside Chinese embassies worldwide. “Free Tibet” long ago became a familiar cry.
But without a stateless population to field the sympathies of Western democracies, some fear that the Tibetan struggle could crumble.
“What’s happened is that an entire nationality, so to speak, has given up on its nation,” said Giriraj Subramanium, a lawyer in Delhi who has argued more than a dozen Tibetans’ cases for passports in the Delhi High Court. “Tibet is over” is a common refrain among his clients, he said.
An Indian government official said there is no count of how many Tibetans have made applications for passports. A spokesman from the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the exile organization that oversees Tibetan affairs, said only that a small number had applied.
Stateless Tibetans face a number of restrictions when traveling: They have to get exit permits and police verification in India, which often means paying bribes to authorities. At home, not having Indian nationality can complicate getting a mobile SIM card or registering a business.
In 1959, as Chinese troops consolidated power over Lhasa, the Dalai Lama, only 23 at the time, disguised himself as a soldier and fled to India. Eighty thousand Tibetans followed. India allowed him to set up an exile government in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala. In the 1980s, hoping for compromise, the Dalai Lama stopped demanding complete independence and decided instead to settle for a “middle way” seeking “genuine autonomy” for the people of the Tibetan plateau.
Many Tibetans, however, did not give up hope.
Karten Tsering, president of the residents welfare association in a Tibetan colony in New Delhi, explains Chinese control of the Tibet region in Buddhist terms: as part of the ever-changing nature of the universe. “Nations rise up and down — that is happening everywhere. Britain ruled India for 200 years. China was once under the rule of Tibetans,” he said, referring to the 7th-century Tibetan empire. “In our time, we’ve been born on the loser side.”
Deshar rolled her eyes at the mention of the Tibetan empire. “Does anyone think China’s going to be like, ‘Come back’? Is that realistic, really? We have to stop living in a limbo,” she said.
China’s economic strength means even the Dalai Lama’s dialed-down demands for autonomy are a distant dream. For Beijing, the strategic importance of the Tibet region eliminates any question of conceding power; a sizable proportion of China’s water reserves are on the Tibetan plateau and the region includes a long land border with India, a neighbor with which China regularly spars.
Any concessions to Tibetans could draw the ire of hard-liners within China’s ruling Communist Party and rouse nationalist fervor in Inner Mongolia and other regions.
Matthew Akester, an independent Tibet researcher, said the Central Tibetan Administration’s political strategy had failed to achieve its objectives.
“People see the Dalai Lama getting the Nobel Peace Prize, being selected for the cover of Time magazine, delivering speeches to packed audiences in Western countries,” he said. “But in terms of real politics, these things are not actually meaningful. For many years, the strategy has been, ‘If we are attractive and popular enough with Western countries, they will put pressure on China.’ That hasn’t worked.”
The CTA claims to represent all Tibetans but has little contact with the vast majority in Chinese territory. Though there is opposition to China from within Tibet (for instance, the 2008 protests ahead of the Beijing Olympics), it is the exiles who have played a central role in achieving sustained international support for the Tibetan movement.
“The CTA and even the Dalai Lama to a certain extent — their relevance will only remain if there are a large number of Tibetan exiles in India,” said Subramanium, the lawyer representing a number of Tibetans in court. After last year’s Delhi High Court ruling, the Indian government, which is closely allied with the CTA, introduced a number of bureaucratic hurdles for Tibetan applicants, such as having to leave their settlements and forfeit refugee documents.
Tibetans who spoke to The Washington Post said they had heard messages from the CTA on the radio urging Indian-born exiles not to apply for passports. Most of the discouragement, they said, has happened through word-of-mouth campaigns. A Tibetan-language circular from the CTA also urges passport applicants to “take a long-term view rather than considering short-term advantages.” Outwardly, however, the CTA has said that Tibetans are free to choose Indian nationality.
“There have been murmurs in the Tibetan community that we shouldn’t do this, that this is wrong,” Deshar said. “But if I think about it, what am I really giving up? I’m not insecure about my Tibetan identity. I don’t feel the need to preserve statelessness to preserve who I am.”
Taking Indian nationality need not mean the end of the Tibetan struggle, said Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University.
As Indian citizens, Tibetans could form a strong lobby within India’s political system. “There is this Tibetan idea that politics is all about public relations,” he said. “It could be replaced by the idea that politics is about skill and strategy and building coalitions and understanding opponents.”
Few exiled Tibetans have been able to return to China. Becoming Indian may symbolically represent giving up hope for eventual repatriation, but in some cases it could increase Tibetans’ chances of getting visas to travel to China.
Many Tibetans remain uncertain about the nationality question. “People don’t really want to engage with the question of whether politics should be pragmatic or ideal. . . . For decades, they’ve left these kinds of decisions to lamas and political leaders,” Barnett said. “With young people, that kind of attitude still remains. It is not born out of ignorance or irresponsibility, but a fear of upsetting the system.”
Others, like Lobsang Wangyal, editor of the news website Tibet Sun and founder of the Miss Tibet pageant, whose landmark case won Tibetans the right to Indian passports, are thrilled. “I thought, wow, now I’m an Indian,” he said.
But many others, like Tashi Topden, a musician born in India and raised in a Tibetan settlement in New Delhi, said they would not apply on principle. “My heart is Tibetan,” he said.“I want to remain Tibetan.”