A little more than six decades ago, Tibetan Democracy Day was marked with the inauguration of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala on September 2. On Saturday, under the photo of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibetan refugees across the world in their traditional dress, chupa, will celebrate the 63rd anniversary of Tibetan Democracy Day.
The day, widely known within the community as Mangsto Duchen (‘Mangsto’: democracy; ‘Duchen’: occasion) marks the inception of the Tibetan democratic system in exile. At the heart of the Tibetan democratic system, which governs over 1 lakh refugees across the world, stands the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala.
Many decades later, however, the CTA is not officially recognised by any country.
How the Tibetan democratic system developed
On September 2, 1960, a year after thousands of Tibetans had been forced to flee their home, the first elected representatives of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile took their oaths in Bodh Gaya to inaugurate the Tibetan democratic system.
In 1963, the Dalai Lama enacted the Tibetan constitution based on the ideals of democracy and universal values, following which the first women representatives were elected. In 1975, Kashag, the apex body of CTA, declared September 2 as the founding day of Tibetan democracy.
In 1991, the Charter of the Tibetans in exile was adopted, and in the following year, the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission was established, introducing the exile community to the three pillars of democracy.
A major shift in the political and cultural landscape of the Tibetan people was marked when the Dalai Lama announced that he would assume a position of semi-retirement. He then called for the first direct election of Kalön Tripa, the executive head of the CTA.
A decade later in 2011, in a first, His Holiness handed over all his political and executive power to the Sikyong, also known as the President of CTA.
How the CTA, the Tibetan government-in-exile, works
The CTA, which is based in Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, has a branch office in every Tibetan settlement spread across India and abroad. Under its incumbent President, Penpa Tsering, CTA runs seven departments: Religion and Culture, Home, Finance, Education, Security, Information and International Relations, and Health. The President is directly elected every five years.
The Tibetan Parliament-in-exile, the highest legislative body of the CTA, comprises 45 members: 10 representatives from each of the traditional provinces of Tibet, U-Tsang, Dhotoe, and Dhomey; two from each of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism; two representing each of the Tibetan communities in North America and Europe; and one each from Australasia and Asia (excluding India, Nepal and Bhutan).
Every Tibetan above 18 with their Green Book, the main document of identity, is allowed to register in the voter’s list.
India’s official policy towards the CTA
India considers the Dalai Lama as a revered religious leader and an honoured guest, but it does not encourage political activities by Tibetans. It “does not recognise any separate government of Tibet functioning in India,” Tenzin Lekshay, the official spokesperson of the CTA, told The Indian Express last year. “In spite of this, we have been maintaining contacts and relationship with many countries over the years.”
Tibetan refugees across the world recognise the CTA as their legitimate government. In his first press conference on June 20, 1959, the Dalai Lama had declared, “Wherever I am, accompanied by my government, the Tibetan people recognise us as the Government of Tibet.”
Lekshay recalled that “Former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965 told the CTA that India is considering the case of recognition of CTA and that they would be in a position to answer in the following four or five months.” “We are expecting certain developments soon and when they happen, then we will recognise your government-in-exile,” Shastri said, according to Lekshay.
Given Beijing’s strong sensitivities, India has sometimes been accused of having an ambiguous policy on Tibet. While India follows the “One China” policy, it does not feel the need to reiterate it frequently.
Then CTA President Lobsang Sangay was among the invitees at the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, and the Dalai Lama was hosted in Rashtrapati Bhavan by President Pranab Mukherjee two years later. The Dalai Lama has also been allowed to visit Tawang, one of the main sites of contention in the Sino-Indian border dispute. In 2017, amid ongoing tensions in Doklam, Lobsang Sangay visited Pangong lake in Ladakh.
However in 2018, The Indian Express reported that the Indian government had sent out a note asking “senior leaders” and “government functionaries” of the Centre and states to stay away from events planned for March-end and early April of that year by the “Tibetan leadership in India” to mark the start of 60 years in exile of the Dalai Lama. The government noted that this was a “very sensitive time” for bilateral relations with China.
CTA’s relationship with other countries
According to Lekshay, “The US is the only government in the world which is politically upfront in supporting the Tibetan issue, whether it be a bi-partisan support for Tibet; Policies on Tibet (Tibet Policy Act 2002, and Tibet Policy and Support Act 2020), and an appointment of special coordinator on Tibet.”
The spokesperson added: “I will leave it to Indians to decide on whether the time has arrived for the Indian government to recognise the Central Tibetan Administration as the Tibetan government-in-exile. Regardless of recognition or not, we are deeply grateful to the Indian government and public for their continued support for over 60 years.”
This is an edited version of an article first published in 2022.
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