Majnu ka Tila is a sprawling gurdwara on the right bank of the Yamuna river in New Delhi. The gurdwara, although structurally imposing and aesthetically impressive, is generally not the reason why people take the Outer Ring Road from swankier parts of the city to the older and much humbler neighbourhood of New Aruna Nagar. New Aruna Nagar – referred to colloquially as Majnu kaTila because of its proximity to the gurdwara – is one of the largest colonies of Tibetan refugees in India after McLeodganj in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. The colony is choc-a-bloc with eateries that sell what are supposed to be the best momos of the city and it is the momos– rather than the nearby gurdwara – which are responsible for people thronging Majnu kaTila’s narrow winding lanes.
A detour from the Outer Ring Road down south from MajnukaTila takes one to Chandni Chowk – a locality uncannily similar to the Tibetan colony in terms of constricted streets and food fanfare, but much grander in setting. Majnu ka Tila incidentally comes under the Chandni Chowk parliamentary constituency. And at a time when everything from the radio to billboards has elections all over them, Chandni Chowk’s streets too are reveling in the frenetic frenzy of the pre-polls month. Lotuses, brooms and hands (the symbols for the main political parties) adorn every possible space from shop shutters to the walls of public toilets.
Majnu ka Tila, however, couldn’t be more different.
The complete absence of any hoardings or posters eulogising political parties or candidates is too conspicuous not to notice. The first genuine tripartite election race in the state in a long time has apparently very few takers in the colony, which has more restaurants than grocery stores. Sonam, 39, owns a small eatery with a catchy name in the colony. When I ask him if he’s going to vote in the upcoming elections, he looks slightly agitated but replies politely in the negative. When questioned further, he says that he was asked to return his voter ID card a few months back. “I couldn’t prove my age as I don’t have a birth certificate”, he continues grimly. The citizenship by birth clause of the Citizenship Act, 1955 only considers Tibetans born between 1950 and 1987 as Indian citizens and hence eligible to vote. Sonam does not have a birth certificate as he claims he was, like most of his generation, not born in a hospital and his parents never bothered to get one made.
He had first got a voter card made a few years back as he was told his existing documents were not enough proof to open a bank account (those were the pre-Aadhaar times). With a little help from a friend called Mashook, a voter ID was arranged for and the bank account opened. That is until the Election Commission decided to become more vigilant and asked him to produce a birth certificate or return his voter identification card. Sonam is not as upset about his inability to participate in the elections as about the sudden seizure of a card, which made his identity – an entity constantly under threat – easier to prove. “It’s not that I don’t want to vote, but I think they are not too sure if we should be allowed to”, offers Sonam.
Mashook, 27, runs a grocery shop that has seen better days in a particularly dingy corner of the colony. His Aligarh-born father had first set up the shop in the 1970s after marrying his mother, who had come to the country as part of the first mass exodus from Tibet in 1959. But his more sizable source of income comes from what he calls his “side business”. His “side business” involves helping the Tibetan refugees in the colony get their voter ID cards (and now Aadhaar Cards too) made. “Most people here do not have the relevant document proofs to get a Voter ID card, and people often need voter IDs to avail various services, so I help them”, informs Mashook.
Like Sonam, there are hundreds of other Tibetans, born and brought up in the colony, who don’t have birth certificates to support their claim. Mashook, for a certain amount of money, which he is not willing to reveal to me, gets the paperwork done on their behalf. Business, however, is slack now after a whole lot of people he had helped to acquire the all-important and multipurpose Voter ID cards were issued a notice by the Election Commission to return them on the account of dubious age proofs. “The rules have become much stricter and people aren’t willing to pay as much anymore especially after the Aadhaar- obtaining which is much easier – has come”, says Mashook.
The New Aruna Nagar Resident Welfare Association office is a one-room affair on the first floor of a run-down building, pretty much in the centre of the colony. When I enter, Karten Tsering, the President of the Association, is patiently going through tenant verification forms. His is an important office in a colony where political leaders and representatives very rarely make an appearance. He acts as a link between the local leaders and the inhabitants of the colony. Tsering is of the opinion that voting is a personal prerogative and most people in the colony don’t vote on their own terms even if they are eligible. It is almost ironic that for an elected representative, Tsering has himself never voted in the state or Central elections. And by his own account, he’s seen more than 10 of them.
Tenzin Lekshay, media coordinator in the Tibetan Bureau Office, however has a slightly different narrative to share. “We are grateful to the government of India for being kind to us and giving us shelter in the most difficult of times. However, we are Tibetans and would like to stay that way”, says Lekshay. He also adds that voting in the Indian elections may amount to the dilution of the great dream – FreeTibet. He is quick to add though that it is finally a matter of individual choice. When I enquire about news reports, which speak of Tibetans wanting to vote so that they have a say in the government’s policy on the larger issue of Free Tibet, he tells me he is not sure about the authenticity of such reports. “See the argument about being taken seriously by political parties and the ruling government only when we become vote banks does not make much sense since we are a small community in terms of numbers”, he says. “And we believe the Indian government will always act in our best interests.”
As I move around the colony and ask people who care to listen about their opinion on being a part of the Indian democratic set-up, most mumble something along the lines of “we are refugees”. Tibetans in India it seems have a precarious balance to maintain all the time – between identity and existence. While they doggedly hold on to that dream of a free homeland, practicalities of survival demand assimilation and more participation in the scheme of things of the adopted home. The Voter ID card and the desire to vote are a part of the same quest.
Just as I leave the New Aruna Nagar Resident Welfare Association office, president KartenTseringtells me that “petty” issues of citizenship and voting in Indian elections will have no bearing on the pursuit of Free Tibet. “Free Tibet”, he says with all earnestness, “is in the heart of every Tibetan”.