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Tibetan Participation in India’s Elections: Past, Present, and Future

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Tibetan Participation in India’s Elections: Past, Present, and Future

Historically, Tibetans have been reluctant to claim Indian citizenship (and their right to vote) over fears of losing their distinct identity. That is changing.

Tibetan Participation in India’s Elections: Past, Present, and Future

Monks and Tibetan people listen to his Holiness the 14 Dalai Lama teaching in his residence in Dharamsala, India, Jun. 6, 2017.

Credit: Depositphotos

India, the world’s largest democracy, recently concluded its general elections, forming a new government once again led by the victorious Bharatiya Janata Party. Amid this democratic exercise, a significant development has emerged involving the Tibetan population that has sought asylum in India since the occupation of their homeland by China. 

In the latest general elections, a notable number of Tibetans participated in the seventh phase of voting in Himachal Pradesh on June 1, 2024. In this election, for the first time, a Tibetan settlement officer formally presented a list of pressing issues to the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, who visited Dharamshala to appeal to the exiled Tibetans to exercise their right to vote in India. 

Furthermore, the two main national political parties of India, the BJP and the Indian National Congress (INC), had town hall meetings with Tibetans in Dharamsala in the lead up to the elections.

Historically, Tibetans have participated in Indian general elections primarily in the border regions adjacent to Tibet, including Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and West Bengal. However, recent years have witnessed a rise in Tibetan voter participation across India. This increase can be attributed to a landmark decision and subsequent directives issued by the Election Commission of India. In 2014, the Election Commission’s chief instructed all Indian states to include Tibetans and their descendants born in India in the electoral rolls. This directive aligned with the 2013 court order that granted Indian citizenship to Tibetan refugees born in India between January 26, 1950, and July 1, 1987.

However, in implementing the 2014 directive, the government of India effectively decoupled the right to vote from citizenship for Tibetans residing in India. The government mandated that Tibetans must legally apply for citizenship rather than claim it as a birthright. This policy highlights the complexity of the relationship between citizenship and voting rights for Tibetans in India.

Elections and Tibet

Since the establishment of the Tibetan government-in-exile (officially known as the Central Tibetan Administration) in Dharamshala on April 29, 1959 Tibetans have developed their own system of governance outside of their homeland. Following the 2001 reforms, Tibetans began directly electing their political leader, the Kalon Tripa (later known as Sikyong), thereby exercising their right to vote in exile. 

Since then, Tibetans have held elections for their government-in-exile, achieving the unique accomplishment of having Tibetan voters from over 20 different countries participate in these elections. This form of democratic exercise is fundamentally distinct from the political system in occupied Tibet, which is currently governed by the Chinese Communist Party.

This history demonstrates that Tibetans in the diaspora, particularly those residing in India, are well-acquainted with the electoral process and are not novices when it comes to participating in elections.

Despite their experience, there is concern within the Tibetan community regarding participation in India’s voting exercises. Fears about losing their identity and culture are paramount among Tibetans, particularly since voting rights are largely tied to obtaining Indian citizenship, which would necessitate forfeiting their Residential Certificate (RC). The RC is a legal document provided to Tibetans by the government of India. Once Tibetans procure citizenship and a voter card, the RC becomes null and void and must be returned to the government.

Nevertheless, there has been a clear increase in the number of Tibetans participating in Indian general elections from 2014 to 2019 and the current 2024 elections. There are two major reasons for this trend.

First, Tibetans migrating to other countries have begun acquiring citizenship in those nations (which, unlike India, do not provide an RC). Previously, there was a taboo against Tibetans in India procuring Indian citizenship, even if legally applicable. However, this has changed as Tibetans see their family members gaining more legal access, including political rights, in other countries they reside in by acquiring citizenship. 

One Tibetan voter remarked to Phayul Media: “When prices of essentials increase and policy changes occur in India, we Tibetans living in India are also impacted. Hence, it is our right as well as duty to elect the right individual who will bring change and alleviate the problems we face.”

Second, although India has provided Tibetans with several rights to sustain and rehabilitate themselves, there are limitations. These include restrictions on buying property and the ease of traveling abroad, especially using the Identity Certificate provided by the government of India to Tibetans in India for travel abroad (which even Indian immigration officers often do not recognize). Traveling to Nepal, the home of another large Tibetan community, by flight is only possible for Tibetans with citizenship or a voter card; even travel by bus and other means becomes problematic with security checks where they do not accept Identity Certificate.

A Tibetan who participated in the recently concluded general election stated, “I have relatives in Nepal and meeting them becomes a problem if I do not have proper travel documentation. This is where the voter card becomes crucial, as Nepal recognizes it, unlike our Identity Certificate, making travel hassle-free.” 

These issues have become more pressing as Tibetans have moved from merely sustaining themselves to prospering, necessitating the ability to travel abroad and buy property.

Significance of Tibetan Participation in India’s General Elections

Since being forced into exile in 1949, Tibetans have moved to different regions of the world and made significant contributions to their respective nations. Many have even started taking active political and administrative roles. Notable examples include Bhutila Karpoche, a member of the provincial parliament of Ontario (Canada); Aftab Karma Singh Pureval, the current mayor of Cincinnati (U.S.); and Namgyal Gangshontsang, the mayor of Oetwil am See (Switzerland), to name a few.

Furthermore, even if Tibetans are not able to be directly elected and involved in decision-making, their votes in countries like the United States have enabled them to effectively lobby legislatures to pass concrete bills and acts that support Tibet and the Tibetan people. Most recently, the Europe for Tibet campaign – led by various offices for Tibet, Tibet support groups, friends of Tibet, and Tibetans – in line with the ongoing European Union (EU) Parliament elections has been able to lobby and garner the support of more than 100 contesting candidates for Tibet.

Many Tibetans and observers believe that it is high time for Tibetans in India to legally claim their vote and push for their political, social, cultural, and educational rights. Although they do not possess the right to hold dual citizenship in India, they can participate in both the Tibetan government-in-exile (TGiE) elections and the Indian general elections. By making good use of this opportunity, Tibetans can lobby for their rights in India.

Conversely, India might contemplate instituting provisions for representing individuals of Tibetan origin within the Indian Parliament, drawing inspiration from the historical allocation of two reserved seats for the Anglo-Indian community. Considering the long-standing presence and contributions of Tibetans in India both before and after its independence, such a measure would be appropriate and just.


Since the COVID-19 pandemic and the Galwan Valley clash between India and China, fewer Tibetans have been able to escape occupied Tibet and come to India, where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile are based. Migration is a phenomenon that has impacted everyone and, supplemented by legal and other constraints, Tibetans in India are also migrating to many developed countries. However, there has been an increase in Tibetans obtaining legal documents in India, including citizenship, and they have gradually become more vocal about their rights and duties. It is likely that Tibetan participation in subsequent general elections will continue to increase.

The Dalai Lama, whom many wish to see conferred the Bharat Ratna, and other Tibetans who have received Padma Shri and other awards, including for gallantry in defending the nation, have been integral to India’s growth since its independence in 1947. Tibetans who have settled in India and many born here represent a national asset with their unique culture, heritage, and identity that must be preserved and allowed to flourish. These elements are vital for India to realize its vision of a “Viksit Bharat” (Developed India) by 2047 and to showcase to the world the principle of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (The World Is One Family).