Tibetans have made India their home since 1959 when they crossed the Himalayas along with their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
Fleeing the Chinese invasion of their homeland, the Tibetans have become an ubiquitous part of Indian life. It is hard to miss their influence in our cities and the Dalai Lama has become inseparably associated with how most Indians view Buddhism.
However, by granting refugee status to the Tibetan people in 1959 meant that India stood up to the communist Chinese. Our protection of the Dalai Lama has become a bone of contention between the two nations. Especially when it comes to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese call "South Tibet". The dispute stems from a tripartite agreement between what was then British India, Tibet and China regarding the boundary in that region.
The Chinese view the boundary as a colonial agreement that was forced upon a weak China and therefore refuse to honour it. They further maintain that Tibet was never truly sovereign and therefore not competent to enter into the agreement. India views the boundary as a settled question and abides by the terms of the treaty.
As the lawful successor state of British India, India succeeded numerous boundary treaties negotiated by the British Crown. Most of Uttarakhand was won via these treaties These disputes led India and China to fight a war in 1961 which ended in a stalemate on the territorial question. However, India continues to host the Dalai Lama and receive Tibetan refugees.
The Dalai Lama is currently visiting Arunachal Pradesh on a visit. As usual, the Chinese are protesting vehemently. This however, is a good time to also discuss the status of Tibetan refugees in India, who live in a legal limbo. India does not have a well-defined refugee policy nor is it party to the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons or Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
India's Tibetan population therefore exist as foreigners, who have all be granted Residence Permits by local authorities when they arrive. When they have to travel, they have to obtain identity certificates from the Ministry of External Affairs on the recommendation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They then need to apply for an exit permit to leave the country and before they do, they also need to make sure they have a re-entry permit so they can come back.
This is called a NORI or a "No Objection to Return to India" stamp. These identity certificates are not passports or travel documents: Since India is not a party to the convention, these documents cannot count as refugee travel documents. Lastly, these identity papers are not accepted by all countries. In 2016, Sweden stopped accepting the identity certificate as valid travel document.
Further, since Tibet is not recognised as a state and Tibetan refugees are not Indian citizens or Chinese citizens, no country exercises clear diplomatic protection over them. For example, tomorrow if an Indian Tibetan refugee is travelling abroad and was to be deported, based on their certificate of identity, authorities in a country friendly to China, could potentially deport them to China. Which would be a horrible fate for someone who has fled Chinese persecution.
It's high time India rationalised its refugee policy and created a formal framework instead of ad hoc mechanisms. That may still be a long way away, but in the short run, since there is an all-party consensus that having Tibetan refugees in India is a good thing, it might make sense to at least provide for a legislative framework for their stay in India.
While granting Tibetans Indian nationality may be counter-productive given their fight for Independence from Chinese rule and Indian foreign policy interests, formally exercising protection could be a bold foreign policy move.
Indian law can be amended to give Tibetan refugees a form of nationality that is short of Indian citizenship, such as the status of a protected persons. This status can be granted after negotiation with the Dalai Lama. After that, the refugees can be issued Indian travel documents and can enjoy diplomatic protection while overseas.
India formally exercising a protection over Tibetans will send a clear signal to Beijing that it will not bow down to its bullying over what is clearly an internal matter for India. Who we host within our home is of no concert to anyone else.