The pandemic and the Tibetan students
The racist behaviour towards our ethnicity has increased since the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. We have been treated as if we have brought the virus to this society.
The most recent experience of racism that I experienced was during our trip to Goa in March, right when the lockdown was announced. People called us ‘Corona’ and saying ‘Go away, you, Chinese’ in addition to the rude ways they behaved towards us.
We had many Indian friends from North East in the group, who were also treated no different. We are all born in India and it is like a second home to us, Tibetans.
We are thankful to the country and its people. But this behaviour is not tolerable. The beauty of India has always been in the diversity of its culture and religions that make it so unique.
We are a part of it and we want change in the unhealthy mindset of those who are treating us in racist manner.
THE above vignette from an interview I conducted recently with a Tibetan-Indian college student in Delhi, born in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, tells the unfortunate story of racist profiling that many Tibetan and Indian students from the Northeast are facing now in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic in India. In this article, I will specifically focus on the experiences of Tibetan students and how their cultural rights are being violated because of racist profiling as Northeast Indians or Chinese.
My research seeking to learn about Tibetan student experiences began last year as part of a larger project to study the experiences of different groups of international students studying in India. The Tibetan students are not officially accounted for in the official Indian government statistics as International students studying in India. Their identity somewhere disappears in the government accounts on both domestic and international students. In many college campuses, they are officially treated as any other domestic student, as many of them are first-generation Tibetans born in India.
However, since some of them are born in Tibet and came to India only while in high school or even later after high school for college degrees, they are treated as international students. Hence, Tibetan students have to manage a complex maze of identity challenges within the mainstream Indian higher education system.
Moreover, my research findings reveal that Tibetan students are also facing a very unfortunate issue of racist attacks following the recent global coronavirus pandemic. Tibetan students and the community at large have been facing denial of their cultural rights for a long time, even prior to the pandemic. The Tibetan cultural rights are not just jeopardized by Chinese occupation of Tibet and forceful promotion of mainstream Chinese language and culture through schooling,1 Tibetan cultural rights are being also violated in India because of mainstream Indian ignorance about Tibet and constant racist profiling of Tibetan students as Northeast Indians, who are also denied their cultural and citizenship rights by the mainstream Indian society.
Northeast Indian students have historically faced racist profiling and discrimination within the larger mainstream Indian context. Often they are treated badly with racist slurs, such as ‘Nepali’ or ‘Chinki’, because of their East Asian or Mongoloid features. Many incidents have been reported in the media before. The racist imaginary of mainstream Indian society and poor treatment of Northeast Indians have been documented and also critiqued by a number of academics.2 In recent times, following the pandemic, a number of racist incidents involving Northeast Indians have been reported in the media and comparisons have been made with the spike of racism in the United States following the pandemic.3
However, in this article I will specifically focus on the experiences of the Tibetan students based on my own ethnographic research with the Tibetan student community over the past one year. Drawing on ethnographic evidence and Clammer’s theorising4 of the concept of ‘cultural rights’, this article will also analyse how the Tibetan Youth-led civil society organization, the Tibetan Youth Congress, has been campaigning using the new digital social media to educate people about the cause of Free Tibet and to also fight for their cultural rights faced with racist discrimination in India as Northeast Indians or Chinese.
The Coronavirus pandemic began spreading around the world from Wuhan China around December 2019. In India, the situation was quite normal and number of infected people very low till the beginning of March. Things began changing rapidly with the sudden announcement of a public curfew on 22 March and then the national lockdown from 24 March.
I had to cancel my own interview schedule with students and fieldwork related to my research. Even prior to the curfew and national lockdown, a number of my research participants in Delhi colleges from the Tibetan community began reporting to me over the phone that the Himachal government had ordered all tourists to leave the state and will stop interstate buses to enter Himachal from 23 March. So, they needed to return home as they have also received notices from their hostels to leave with higher educational institutions being made to shut down from 16 March by order from the UGC (University Grants Commission) and MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource Development).
I had no choice but to postpone the interview schedules till the Fall semester. However, I kept regular communication with the students through WhatsApp messages and occasional phone calls to check on their well-being. Through these messages and phone calls, I slowly began to know about the racist profiling that some of these students were also experiencing, along with the Northeast Indian students. As the scare of Coronavirus began spreading even before the lockdown, reports on racist profiling and attacks on Northeast Indians began appearing in the newspapers with MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) advisory asking people to stop discrimination against Northeast Indian people.5
However, if government orders and laws would be so effective, India would have become a perfect democracy by now following the constitutional law, which came into force 70 years ago. Reports on racist attacks against the Northeast Indians kept pouring in through the newspapers. However, the experiences of the Tibetan student community remained invisible, subsumed under the general category of anybody with Mongoloid features as Northeast Indians or Nepali within the Indian context, who often hear racist slurs from mainstream Indians as ‘Chinki’.
Ibegan learning about the racist attacks and discriminatory experiences that the Tibetan students were facing through my personal contacts with these students. However, just as the identity of the Tibetan students are invisible in the Indian government documents, and somewhat blurred in the college records, their experiences of racist discrimination are also invisible in the public discourse and media.
I was not surprised when the secretary of the Tibetan Youth Congress reported to me recently that many Tibetan students across the country have requested TYC to send them ‘Free Tibet’ t-shirts out of frustration faced with racist slurs and discrimination as ‘Chinki’ carriers of the Coronavirus. By wearing these t-shirts, they want to let people know that they are not Northeast Indians or Chinese. They want to educate people about their struggle for freedom from China and the cause of ‘Free Tibet’.
Despite the negative discriminatory experiences, I found a sense of gratitude towards India among the Tibetan students I interviewed, including the current president and secretary of the Tibetan Youth Congress, both of whom are my former students. India for them is not just a refuge, a safe haven compared to Chinese occupied Tibet, they see India and Indians as their primary ally to fight against Chinese government aggression in Tibet. They have also gained inspiration from Gandhi’s nonviolent freedom movement and strategies of nonviolent protests during British rule in India.
In fact, one of the student, Kalden, who recently returned from New York after completing a Fulbright fellowship, told me that because of his features, most of his professors and classmates identified him with East Asian and Chinese students in class. But, he himself befriended Indian students.
Kalden was born in Mundgod, Karwar district, in the state of Karnataka, and did his schooling in Bylakuppe and Bangalore University before receiving a Fulbright scholarship. This student reported that he had experienced racist behaviour in India even before the Coronavirus pandemic. Though he spoke Kannada fluently, as he was born in Karnataka, local people, including auto-rickshaw drivers did not accept him as a local and was always asked where he came from.
Poster of a recent rally in New York and Toronto following the Galwan valley conflict with the Chinese troops
Once while he was standing in a queue inside his college campus, some students got engaged in a scuffle. Though he was not involved, a parent pointed a finger at him, saying: ‘This is not Nagaland. Go back to your state and create trouble!’ Despite this experience, the student explained it away as being due to a lack of multicultural education. He further emphasized that though people often looked down on the study of humanities and ethnic studies, it can help us become better human beings. During an interview, he stated: ‘Society looks down at the humanities studies. But, I think this is why the people (especially those involved in subjects such as engineering and medicine) lack in understanding diverse perspectives and cultural attitudes.’
Another student, Dalha, also expressed a similar sentiment. She stated: ‘As the saying goes, little knowledge is dangerous. We need to educate people to remove misunderstandings and unhealthy rumours; education is a must. Letting others know the other side of the story will surely let them realise the consequences of their racist action. Moreover, the society that ceases to accept differences will never grow. But, the racist behaviour towards our ethnicity has increased since the Corona pandemic. We have been treated as if we have brought the virus to this society.
‘In response to the racist behaviour, we try to educate people and tell them we are part of this great country just as much as they are. Recently, when there was a conflict in the Indo-Chinese border, many Tibetans and Indians from the Northeast were in the front lines to defend the country, just as the Indian army. I have shared the stories on many social media platforms. This is one way I try to educate people.’
Through my phone conversations with former students now heading the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), I came to know that they have doubled-up their efforts in the middle of the pandemic, utilizing digital social media-led campaigns, to educate people and raise more awareness about the cause of ‘Free Tibet’. According to the TYC leadership, this was the only way to stop racist discrimination against Tibetans as carriers of the Coronavirus and to also increase international pressure on the Chinese government for greater accountability regarding the way they managed the Coronavirus pandemic and also the Tibet issue. ‘Make China Accountable 2020’ and ‘Global Movement to Boycott Made in China’ are two major digital social media campaigns launched by TYC in the middle of the lockdown and the pandemic.
Though TYC is utilizing digital social networking sites to spread their campaigns globally, and to educate people about the cause of ‘Free Tibet’ and Chinese government atrocities to suppress their cultural rights and identity, I found a good deal of compassion and sensitivity among the TYC leadership for Chinese people in general. One of the TYC leaders clearly stated during our recent phone conversation: ‘Our nonviolent fight is against the authoritarian Chinese government, not against the Chinese people. In fact, boycotting Chinese goods will probably release many Chinese workers from the factories that are sweatshops, where they are forced to work under the authoritarian government.’
News report of recent Tibetan rally in India following the Galwan valley conflict
Through my interviews and informal interactions with the Tibetan students since last year, I found a distinct difference in perspective among many young Tibetans. I found that those who were born in Tibet and came to India later for studies were more passionate about the ‘Free Tibet’ movement of the Tibetan Youth Congress, while those students born in India had a more conciliatory attitude. For these young Tibetan-Indians, it does not matter anymore if Tibet is part of China. Tibetans are now not just in India, but are spread around the world as diaspora. For these young Tibetans (including the Karnataka, India born Fulbright scholar) more than territorial freedom of Tibet from Chinese occupation, freedom of their mind to preserve Tibetan language, culture and heritage appeared to be more important.
TYC Launch of the Global Movement to Boycott Made in China
A strong sense of injustice appeared to be troubling many of them as they struggle for their cultural rights in Tibet, in India, and other parts of the world, with regards to their own sense of identity and cultural affiliation vis-à-vis how others see them based on their physical appearance. Clammer theorises cultural rights and justice as recognition, protection and respect for cultural diversity as a cornerstone for sustainable development.6 He also emphasized the critical role of the arts and social movements as transformative forces that could help bring about the necessary change to reinstate cultural rights. He writes:
‘The uncovering of the conception of cultural rights proves to be a rich and complex "anthropological" exercise – one that negotiates the global and the local, is concerned with the identification and recovery of forms of local knowledge, which respects the often radically differing epistemologies and aesthetics of different cultural systems, which seeks the preservation and protection of such systems in a dangerously culturally and linguistically homogenised world, which seeks not only to "respect" cultural rights to free expression, but to advance such rights and to establish their equality…
‘Political activism is of course the main means by which people have sought to change society. The pursuit of cultural rights however, also entails cultural activism, which can take many forms.’7
Indeed, the young Tibetan students in the 21st century, and in the middle of a global pandemic, have undertaken digital social networking sites as their platform for political activism to spread awareness about Chinese occupation of Tibet and suppression of cultural rights of Tibetans. By spreading their campaigns through online petitions on Change.org8 and through the digital social networking sites to the Tibetan community around the world, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) is uniting Tibetans and their allies across geographical boundaries from Dharamshala to Delhi, New York to Toronto, and Tokyo and beyond.
International Day of Justice campaign video on TYC social networking site
A digital ethnography of their posts in these social networking sites reveals the strong desire of TYC for justice and cultural rights through recognition, protection and respect for cultural diversity, as Clammer has argued. Each and every post of the Tibetan Youth Congress on social networking sites is written in the Tibetan language and script followed by an English translation. The president of TYC and other youth leaders give speeches in Tibetan, which are then translated into English. They take utmost care through each of these posts to educate people about the Tibetan language, culture, history, religion and the struggles of the Tibetan people to preserve their cultural rights faced with the oppression of communist authoritarian Chinese government.
As an educator, I am passionate about education and social change. The statements from the Tibetan students about the need to educate people about the cause of ‘Free Tibet’, Tibetan culture and society, and all the political activism they are involved in to raise awareness makes me hopeful. Global history provides us with a number of examples to show that such forceful suppression of people’s cultural rights after forceful occupation of their lands, often leads to a strong backlash.
Some countries, such as the United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia are now seeking the path of reconciliation for injustices they have done in the past to the indigenous communities, whose lands the white settlers from Europe occupied. Within the Asian context, we have seen a number of forceful overturning of Imperial power to establish self-rule or ‘swaraj’ by people of the local community. India stands out as one of the forerunners in the ‘swaraj’ movement for territorial freedom and self-rule led by the Indian National Congress under the nonviolent leadership of Gandhi fighting for justice and freedom.
During my research with the students in the Tibetan community, I observed a strong desire among many Tibetan students born in India for recognition, preservation and respect of their cultural rights, rather than a strong desire for ‘Free Tibet’. Though the desire for ‘Free Tibet’ is very strong mostly among students born in Tibet, faced with discrimination as Chinese virus in the middle of the pandemic, TYC has received requests even from many Tibetan students born in India for ‘Free Tibet’ t-shirts now. TYC has also doubled-up their campaign against the Chinese government seeking to capitalize on the current international sentiments against China because of the Coronavirus global pandemic and the emerging cold war between the US and China.
Only time will prove if ‘Free Tibet’ will be ever realized or if the Chinese government will ever walk the path of reconciliation like some western imperial governments through recognition, preservation and respect for cultural diversity in Chinese occupied Tibet. In the meantime, hopefully these on-site and digital campaigns by the Tibetan students will raise some awareness among the mainstream Indian society about the Tibetan community and their struggle for cultural rights against Chinese government oppression.
1. G. Postiglione, ‘Dislocated Education: The Case of Tibet’, Comparative Education Review 53(4), 2009, pp. 483-512. doi:10.1086/603616
2. D. McDuie-Ra, ‘"Is India Racist?’ Murder, Migration and Mary Kom’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 38 (2), 2015, pp 304-19; K. Samson, ‘North-east and Chinky: Countenances of Racism in India’, Journal of Development Practice 3, 2017, pp. 20-28; T. Ngaihte, ‘Nido Taniam and the Fraught Question of Racism in India’, Economic & Political Weekly 49(11), 2014, pp 15-17; J.J.P. Wouters and B.S. Tanka, ‘The "Indian Face", India’s Northeast, and "The Idea of India"’, Asian Anthropology 12(2), 2013, pp. 126-40.
3. N. Kipgen, ‘COVID-19 Pandemic and Racism in the United States and India’, Economic and Political Weekly 55(23), 2020, pp. 22-26.
4. J. Clammer, Cultural Rights and Justice: Sustainable Development, the Arts and the Body. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore, 2019.
5. ‘Coronavirus Outbreak: MHA Advises against Discrimination of Northeast People’, The Hindu, 23 March 2020, https:// www. thehindu.com/news/national/coronavirus-
6. J. Clammer, 2019, op. cit.
7. Ibid., pp. 173-174.