Sikyong 2021: An Election in Exile

Triund is a small hill station in the Kangra district in the state of Himachal Pradesh, India. (Picture by Sarthak Mishra)

Sarthak Mishra

Samridhi Poddar

This month, we want to talk about a very crucial aspect of life here, near Dharamshala at the lower hills of the western Himalayas— Sikyong, 2021.

Back in January, 2021, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (“TGiE”), known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), had a busy start to the New Year as it prepared to host the first round of the two-phase election to elect the next President of the TGiE.

In Exile from the Land of Snows

In 1949, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the People’s Republic of China entered Tibet and declared the ‘peaceful liberation of Tibet’. After the PLA suppressed the Tibetan national rebellion in Lhasa ten years later, the Dalai Lama and 80,000 Tibetans fled to India, Nepal, and Bhutan to seek refuge.

circa 1950: Chinese troops march over the highlands towards the Tibetian frontier after their invasion of Tibet. (Photo by Hulton Archive)

The Tibetan diaspora now numbers about 128,000 people, with the majority of them (70 percent) living in India. The Dalai Lama re-established the Tibetan Government in the hill town of McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh in 1960, and the exiled Tibetan administration set itself the dual goal of rehabilitating Tibetan refugees and restoring Tibet’s independence. Since 1960, a number of reforms have been introduced in order to restructure the government in accordance with democratic values. The new administration consists of a legislature (Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies), executive (Kashag), judiciary (Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission), constitution (Charter of Tibetans-in-Exile), and seven governmental agencies, following reforms in 1990.

The Exiled Community as a Neo-Democratic Structure

The TGiE is more politically organized and developed than a multicultural community, despite being less functionally operational than a territorial nation-state. Not only has the exiled community transplanted, institutionalized, and democratized its government institutions, but it has also formed a state-like polity in exile. The provision of health services and an education system for Tibetans residing in India and Nepal, a voluntary taxation system for the entire diaspora, the issuance of Tibetan ‘passports,’ the establishment of quasi-embassies in a number of states, and the holding of democratic parliamentary elections are all examples of state-like functions. The fact that TGiE represents over 128,000 Tibetans in exile, regards itself as the de-jure representative of Tibetans in Tibet, and is gradually recognized by the international community suggests that this political administration possesses a significant amount of authority and legitimacy. 

The 2021 Elections

The president and 45 representatives of the TGiE were elected in the 2021 April elections. According to the CTA’s Election Commission, nearly 80,000 Tibetans residing outside Tibet registered to vote, with 56,000 in India and 24,000 in other countries. 

Sikyong 2021 posters near Dharamshala, India. (Photo by Sarthak Mishra)

The Central Tibetan Administration remains and operates under the Tibetan government’s constitution, known as the “Charter of the Tibetans in Exile.” The Dalai Lama formed the Constitution Redrafting Committee in 1991 to draft the Charter for Tibetans in Exile. On June 28, 1991, the Dalai Lama gave his approval.

Fundamental changes occurred in 2001, when the Charter was amended to enable Tibetans in exile to directly elect the Kalon Tripa. The Dalai Lama devolved his political leadership on March 14, 2011, and the Charter was amended once more. Kalon Tripa, also known as Sikyong or President of the Central Tibetan Administration, was given the reins of power.

The Uniqueness of Tibetan Democratic Practices

To return to the philosophy of democracy, we are actually in a “third wave of democratisation,” , in which 140 of the world’s nearly 200 countries hold multiparty elections and democracy’s ideological popularity has never been higher. Although there has been a contagion of democratic ideals, much of this change has been superficial, and democracy is constantly under threat from inside and outside. As a result, it is critical to examine what appears to be a young and reasonably prosperous democracy that is forging its own course.

However, since TGiE is still unrecognized internationally and lacks jurisdiction over territories both in Tibet and in exile, it faces major challenges in fulfilling the traditional remit of statehood. It has little legal authority, limited economic decision-making authority, no police or military, and no legal capacity to protect its ‘citizens.’ As a result, TGiE remains a combination of the aspects of statehood and statelessness while maintaining a tension between the two.

Conclusion

Tibetan democracy leads us to question key debates on democracy and its cultural implications. This case raises questions about the role of external actors in the emergence of democracy, as well as the relationship between democracy and legitimacy. Since this is a democracy operating in a territory-less and stateless polity, the relationships between political representation, territory, democracy, and statehood must be reconsidered. As a result, Tibetan democracy validates calls to broaden analytical and theoretical gaze beyond the territorial sovereign state, and to seriously engage with the extension of conventional democratic practice beyond national boundaries and alternate territorial ways of thinking regarding political cultures. Focusing on Tibetan democracy in exile can provide a range of important interjections into wider debates about the existence and functioning of democracy, as well as serve to highlight gaps in the literature.


Sarthak Mishra is a law student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune.

Samridhi Poddar is a law graduate from Government Law College, Mumbai.


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