BANGALORE, India — When Tenzin Dechen Deshar first heard that Tibetan exiles could apply for Indian passports, she agonized over the choice. A Tibetan born in India, Deshar lived a double life. She went to an Indian boarding school but spent summers in a refugee settlement, trying to learn to read Tibetan. She watched Bollywood movies with her Indian friends but fell asleep listening to her grandmother’s stories about a Himalayan wonderland.
Deshar spent her childhood convinced that she would some day return to the land her family had left behind when Chinese forces seized control of Tibet. Then, in September 2016, the Delhi high court ruled that Tibetans born in India between 1950 and 1987 are eligible to apply for Indian passports.
The new offer of nationality presented a dilemma. Take the passport, some said, and end decades of virtual confinement to a single country. Buy a car, own a house, apply for government jobs. Others argued that giving up your statelessness was akin to betraying the Tibetan cause that three generations have fought for.
“It was not a decision I took lightly,” Deshar said, lunching on dumplings between appointments at a regional passport office in Bangalore in southern India. But the long internal conflict had led her to a realization. “My grandmother’s stories were just that — stories, like fairy tales. I’ve never even seen snow. Or a yak.”
Tibet is a mountainous, nominally semiautonomous region in China. But Tibetans consider themselves ethnically and culturally different from the Chinese.
Deshar’s grandparents were among tens of thousands who fled Tibet in 1959, after Mao Zedong’s Communist Party took control of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, massacring thousands of Tibetans. Though some eventually found homes in the West, the vast majority of Tibetan exiles, 122,000 people, live in neighboring India and have endured nearly six decades of limbo.
For years, the Tibetan movement has hung its hopes on international support for its exiles.
Heart-rending stories of Tibetans walking through icy mountain passes to reach India — their land seized, their monasteries razed, their prayers silenced — buttressed U.S. efforts to isolate China during the Cold War and have continued to rake up support on college campuses and outside Chinese embassies worldwide. “Free Tibet” long ago became a familiar cry.
But without a stateless population to field the sympathies of Western democracies, some fear the Tibetan struggle could crumble.
“What’s happened is that an entire nationality, so to speak, has given up on its nation,” said Giriraj Subramanium, a lawyer in Delhi who has argued more than a dozen Tibetans’ cases for passports in the Delhi high court. “Tibet is over” is a common refrain among his clients, he said.
An Indian government official said there is no count of how many Tibetans have made applications for passports. A spokesman from the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the organization that oversees Tibetan affairs, said only that a small number had applied.
Stateless Tibetans face a number of restrictions when traveling: They have to get exit permits and police verification in India, which often means paying bribes to authorities. At home, not having Indian nationality can complicate getting a mobile SIM card or registering a business.
In 1959, as Chinese troops consolidated power over Lhasa, the Dalai Lama, only 23 at the time, disguised himself as a soldier and fled to India. Eighty thousand Tibetans followed. India allowed him to set up an exile government in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala. In the 1980s, hoping for compromise, the Dalai Lama stopped demanding complete independence and decided instead to settle for a “middle way” seeking “genuine autonomy” for the people of the Tibetan plateau.