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One Day Conference on “The Dynamics of Identity: Culture, Continuity and Challenges in the Tib

C3S Event Report No: 012/2018 The following is an event report of the One Day Conference on “The Dynamics of Identity: Culture, Continuity and Challenges in the Tibetan Community”. Read and download event concept note and programme at this link: Concept Note and Programme

The Chennai Center for China Studies (C3S), the Tibet Policy Institute (TPI), Dharamshala and the Department of Political Science, Madras Christian College (MCC) organized the second annual C3S-TPI conference on 12th September 2018. The conference was held in Margaret Hall at the Madras Christian College.

The event was attended by academicians, retired military officers, researchers  and members of Young Minds of C3S who joined the discussion on the dynamics of Tibetan Identity. The event was received enthusiastically by close to 150 students of the Madras Christian College.

Inaugural Session

The Welcome Address was delivered by by Dr. K Palani, Head, Department of Political Science, MCC.. Highlighting the importance of such events for students, Dr.Palani emphasized the value of education outside the classroom. He underlined the importance of organizing such events as it builds up the understanding of students on the sensitive issues such as identity. The Principal’s Remarks were delivered by Dr. R.R. Alexander Jesudasan, Principal, MCC.  He took the opportunity to speak about the close association between Tibetan students and the College, which has become a source of pride for MCC. The Principal also commended the spirit of education in MCC, which has oriented students to pursue new and challenging fields of study. He noted the importance of disseminating the understanding of Tibetan identity among Indian students and the value of preserving it in the face of immense change. The Principal also pointed out that the special relationship between MCC and Tibetan students will continue to flourish and will inspire other Indian and Tibetan students to enrich their knowledge.

The Theme address was delivered by Mr. Tenzin Lekshay, Deputy Director, TPI, who expressed his gratitude to his alma mater, Madras Christian College. On India-Tibet relations, Mr. Lekshay pointed out that India and Tibet shared a teacher-student relationship for centuries, which is a source of pride for both the cultures. The two regions should continue to have people-to-people exchanges. Highlighting the importance of greater interaction between the two peoples, Mr. Lekshay was positive that more events and dialogue would facilitate a clear understanding of Tibetan identity.

The Inaugural Address was delivered by Cmdr. R. Seshadri Vasan IN (Retd.), Director, C3S, who pointed out the value of such a dialogue for young students and researchers, with an interest related to issues in Tibet and China. Cmdr. Vasan discussed elements of the Tibetan identity in the context of the Chinese state and expressed the need to preserve the Tibetan identity in the face of challenges. As Indians who have a shared legacy with Tibet, young researchers, interns and students play a pivotal role in furthering public opinion on the subject. He concluded by pointing out that closer interactions with Tibet Policy Institute would improve the understanding of Tibet for Indians and make for meaningful discussions.

He raised the issues of what encompasses identity and in the context of Tibet, in the spirit of maintaining the identity and culture in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), there would be a need to provide insightful feedback on the ground situation that impacts preservation of an ancient culture of great relevance to Buddhism.  He also recounted the advice of HH Dalai Lama to researchers extolling them to pursue truth based research. During the interaction of C3S scholars with HH Dalai Lama in 2017, His Holiness had suggested that the research institutes should also invite Chinese researchers to be able to establish an active dialogue.

Plenary Session 1

The session on the theme – ‘Elements of Identity’ was moderated by Dr.Alagu Perumal, Assistant Professor – International Business, Loyola Institute of Business Administration (LIBA), Chennai; Member, C3S.

The first speaker was Mr. Karma Tenzin, Research Fellow, Tibet Policy Institute, who spoke on the Bilingual Education Policy in Tibet. Mr. Tenzin began by outlining the two approaches by China of bilingual education policy in Tibet – quality and quantity education. The quantity education model was made popular by Deng Xiaoping after the Cultural Revolution but the Education policy in Tibet was of a minority type, which focused on educating students on being part of One China. Mr Tenzin flagged concerns over the decreasing popularity of Tibetan language in publications, schools and newspapers. Through the theoretical perspective of Additive and Subtractive Bilingual Theory, Mr. Tenzin explained how the learning of Chinese language was interfering with the learning of Tibetan language, which is changing the social landscape in Tibet. Mr. Karma Tenzin recommended teaching students more in native language and implementing existing Chinese laws to protect the Tibetan language.

Dr. Lawrence W. Prabhakar, Associate Professor, MCC, was the second speaker who spoke on the subject of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Tibet’s position in the project. He explained Tibet’s location as a fulcrum that allows access to South Asia through Highways and Railways which improves the rapid strike capability of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Dr. Lawrence also traced the linkages developing between the Chengdu Military Region and other regions in Tibet which play into Comprehensive National Power (CNP) – a concept well-developed by China that relies on infrastructure to improve connectivity. The ability to develop strategic infrastructure links in Tibet plays into China’s economic strength as well, explained Dr. Lawrence. He concluded by warning that Tibet’s militarized status in the reorganised military theaters has strategic implications for India’s position on the border.

Mr. Tenzin Dalha, Research Fellow,Tibet Policy Institute, was the third speaker who presented his research on the impact and implications of social media on Tibetan communities. Mr. Dalha presented statistics on the awareness of Chinese censorship among WeChat users and explained that most Tibetans are aware of the restrictions. Mr. Dalha applied the Zuckerman theory to explain the proliferation of the’ 50-cent Army’ and growing prominence of micro-blogging. He also explained the use of VPN’s to protect privacy but warned of China’s human and technological capacity to curb content which would allow for free and frank exchanges amongst the Tibetans around the world.

Plenary Session 2

The second session titled ‘Contouring Identity’ was chaired by Cmde. R.S. Vasan IN (Retd.), Director, C3S.

The first speaker of the panel was Dr.Rinzin Dorji who spoke about the role of Buddhism as soft power in China. Dr.Dorji spoke about the integration of religion into statecraft which explains the organization of Buddhist conferences and forums. These events build China’s image as a custodian of Buddhist tradition and religion. From Sri Lanka to Nepal, engineering projects also promote the Chinese narrative of Buddhism and represents the touchdown of BRI projects in South Asia. Dr. Dorji also pointed out the inconsistency in China’s actions since the party destroyed a Buddhist settlement in Tibet and continues to sinicize the region. However, China’s design for the Panchen Lama and the Tibetan Buddhist community have not convinced Tibetans of China’s legitimacy. Dr. Dorji concluded by stating that China’s intentions for Buddhism in Tibet are driven by a larger agenda in China as evidenced by the Party’s policies.

The second speaker was Ms. Anuja Gurele, Research Officer, C3S, who presented a joint paper co-authored with Ms. Maya K. , Research Officer, C3S, on the role of host countries in preserving the identity of Tibetan communities overseas. The paper began by examining the elements which constitute Tibetan identity. The speaker highlighted the historical and contemporary aspects of Tibetan overseas communities in India, Nepal, Bhutan, U.S.A. and Canada. India provides liberty to the Tibetan overseas community here to practice their culture. Tibetan students in India are also given support via higher educational institutions. In contrast, Nepal receives financial incentives from Beijing when Kathmandu hands over Tibetans attempting to flee China over the border. A similar scenario is seen in Bhutan. 1298 Tibetans live in settlements in Bhutan; however there has been a policy reversal since the 1970s. Bhutan is displacing Tibetans within its borders and enforcing assimilation. Failure of compliance results in the Tibetans being sent back to China. In the West, U.S.A and Canada are signatories to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. However, the U.S terms the Tibetans within its territory as ‘Qualified Displaced People’. Canada permits the teaching of the Tibetan language, provides Tibetan dance classes, and other forms of cultural support. In both U.S.A and Canada, Tibetans are allowed to hold protests. The speaker raised a valid question, of whether the host countries would succumb to pressure from China, given their economic interests, or whether they would sustain their humanitarian obligations to the Tibetan overseas communities.

Panel Discussion

A panel discussion was held on the topic ‘Challenges of preserving the Tibetan identity in the 21st century’, which was chaired by Mr. Tenzin Lekshay, Deputy Director, Tibet Policy Institute and Ms. Raakhee Suryaprakash, Founder- Director, Sunshine Millennium; Associate Member, C3S. The discussion was moderated by Prof. V. Suryanarayan, Former Nelson Mandela Professor for Afro-Asian Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam; Former Director, Centre for South and South East Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai; President, C3S. Professor Suryanarayan gave a detailed account of what it means to have a separate identity which has a multi-layered dimension and can only be nurtured in an enabling ambience provided by the State. He also brought out the challenges for Tibetans and other minorities in maintaining and preserving their identity. Emphasizing the role of identity, Professor Suryanarayan spoke of the need to improve cultural contacts and people to people relations between Indian and Tibetans. He also gave a detailed account of the role of Tibet in China’s geo-strategic designs.

The discussion was initiated by Ms. Raakhee Suryaprakash who spoke about the intersectionality of environment and gender in Tibet, which she described as a bigger problem than the Chinese government is willing to admit. Ignoring this intersection has eroded the ability and autonomy of local herders and Tibetans to protect their natural resources. The effect of forced sterilization programs and family planning exercises have an adverse impact on women and this is compounded by the lack of security for their Tibetan identity. She also brought out the lack of research regarding the role of gender vis a vis the Tibetan identity.

Mr Lekshay followed up the discussion by elaborating on the prospects as well as challenges related to the preservation of Tibetan identity. In doing so, Mr. Lekshay pointed out that the language policies which have been in place for 60 years have not managed to alter the perception of Tibet in the minds of Tibetans. Mr. Lekshay also took on the question of re-incarnation of the Dalai Lama. Mr. Lekshay argued that the China-appointed Panchen Lama is a measure taken up by PRC to alter the religious and spiritual traditions of Tibetans.  Mr. Lekshay inferred that this would not change the way Tibetans look up to HH Dalai Lama. They would continue to look up to him for obtaining future directions and guiding their affairs. This practice is deeply rooted in their culture and will not get perished despite of constant pressure from China.

Each session of the conference was followed by an interactive session with the audience.

The summing up of the conference proceedings was done by Ms. Asma Masood, Research Officer, C3S, who also spoke of the way forward. She recommended diversifying the Tibetans ‘chosen fields of education as a means to promote their culture. The vote of thanks was delivered by Mr. Kirubakar, Chairperson, Association of Political Science.

(Compiled by Rahul Karan Reddy, Research Officer, C3S)

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