Karnataka 2018
An estimated 11,700 and 3,984 Tibetan refugees respectively live in the settlements in Bylakuppe and Hunsur near Mysuru.

As Karnataka gears up for the upcoming Assembly election, one section of the population which is seemingly untouched by the poll frenzy are the Tibetan refugees in the state.

An estimated 11,700 and 3,984 Tibetan refugees respectively live in the settlements in Bylakuppe and Hunsur near Mysuru. And though many of them have the option to legally exercise their right to vote this year, several have chosen not to.

In 2014, the Election Commission of India (ECI) passed an order directing all states in the country to include children of Tibetan refugees in the electoral list. The order stated that children of Tibetan refugees born in India between 1950 and 1987, as mentioned in the Citizenship Act 1955, could no longer be denied enrollment in the voter list.

The EC's order came a year after the Karnataka High Court, in a significant move, ruled in favour of a Tibetan refugee born in McLeodganj, thus paving the way for Indian citizenship for Tibetans.

For many Tibetan refugees in the state, the 2018 election would be the first time that they could exercise their right to vote.

However, according to a report in The Hindu, in the Periyapatna taluk administration, under which both the settlements fall, no one from the community has enrolled themselves as voters and many have not even taken Indian citizenship.

The issue of Tibetan refugees opting for Indian citizenship has been a very complex and sentimental one. For one, many are hesitant in taking citizenship because they think that it would impact the struggle for a free Tibet.

"If we become Indian citizens, then the freedom struggle which our ancestors have been a part of will go in vain. Preserving our identity as Tibetans is our way of carrying on the struggle," Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) member Dhondup La said.

For others, it is the hope of a future, where they can go back to their motherland, which keeps them from accepting citizenship of another country.

Kunchok, a young part-time member of the TYC, said, "If I take Indian citizenship, my ancestors' sacrifice and struggle against the Chinese will be pointless. I am still hopeful that someday Tibet will be free from the clutches of the Chinese and we refugees will go back to our motherland. But we will be grateful to India and the Indian government for letting us live here for over 60 years."

However, there are also Tibetan refugees who are willing to take Indian citizenship, in order to overcome practical challenges that come with the refugee tag, such as getting a job in the host country. But not everyone is familiar with the procedure. "We would like to apply, but we don't know what documents to produce. We don't know which office we should go to," said Dawa Nawa La, who lives in Bylakuppe and owns a shop near the Namdroling monastery.

The 2017 Assembly election in Himachal Pradesh saw nearly 1,000 Tibetans registering with the EC. This move was however met with apprehension by the community leaders who were worried about the effect it could have on their freedom struggle.

Tibetans who have availed Indian citizenship and have voter rights have also been asked to submit their Identity Certificate and Registration Certificate (RC) given by the Indian Government that entitles them to a variety of refugee privileges.

Meanwhile, the Tibetan government-in-exile has taken a neutral stand on the matter. According to a report by Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, the government-in-exile has "neither right nor does it intend to interfere in a person's fundamental rights."