– By Apa Lhamo & Tashi Yangzom*
Many of the international students studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University celebrate the Republic Day of India through preparing and sharing examples of their cuisine – serving delicacies from their respective countries to the JNU faculty and students every year. This is also an opportunity for international students to showcase their own culture through their own cuisine, and in the spirit of connoisseurs, Food Fest should remain a non-political cultural activity on the campus.
Quite often for both the participating countries and general crowds it is the rain that dampens the festivity. However, this year we were blessed with a beautiful sunny day, but the Tibetan students (Tibet Forum, JNU) experienced several very distasteful gestures by student representatives of China. First, a relatively big portrait of the Potala Palace along with a picture of a Tibetan girl wearing traditional Tibetan dress, a Chupa, were hung up in the Chinese stall, unequivocally implying “Tibet is part of China,” and the Tibetan Kitchen of the Tibet Forum, JNU, was not recognized. Furthermore, when a group of Tibetan students performed a Tibetan circle dance on the open stage, a person carrying a mini Chinese flag waved it around in the air.
The Tibet Forum, JNU, was set up in March, 2004, and is “a collective of young motivated individuals of Tibetan origin who are or were pursuing studies in the vibrant multi-ethnic environment of Jawaharlal Nehru University.” Currently, about sixty Tibetan students are pursuing degrees ranging from undergraduate to doctorate in disciplines as varied as Foreign Languages, Political Science, International Relations, Geography, History, Literature, Sociology, Life Science, Physics, Biotechnology, Law and Economics. The Forum organizes various activities such as seminars, exhibitions, debates, memorial lectures, book discussions and cultural activities, initiated by Executive Members elected on an annual basis. The Food Festival held every year is an important event for all the Forum members, as everybody is engaged in preparing Tibetan dishes in their respective allotted groups.
The Food Festival is meant to be an apolitical affair on the otherwise politically charged campus, but the Chinese stall–run by the Chinese students and apparently funded by their Embassy in New Delhi–chose to (or were told to) emulate what their highly politicized counterparts are doing at universities in the West. It has become a tactic at many large universities in the West for China to sponsor activities that are so egregiously propagandistic that the actions on the part of the Chinese students undermine the goals and missions of the Western universities themselves. One such example occurred when Chinese students protested against the visit of the Dalai Lama in June 2017, invited by the University of California San Diego as the keynote speaker at their Commencement Ceremony. According to USA Today, UCSD has more than 4,600 Chinese students, making the Chinese students the largest faction from any foreign country.
Another example of this distasteful political intrusion involves the “Confucius Institutes” in the United States. The National Association of Scholars (NAS), notes that today there are 104 Confucius Institutes in the United States. These Confucius Institutes are an explicit propaganda tool of the Chinese State to interject their imperialistic ideology under the guise of cultural exchange. The NAS also observes that , “a total of 15 American colleges or universities … have closed or are in the process of closing their Confucius Institutes,” because of their explicit political agenda and the distasteful and disrespectful actions of their representatives. The administration at Cambridge University, under pressure from China, initially censored over 300 journal articles in August, 2017, but because of this violation of free speech many academics protested and the censorship was eventually lifted. In Australia, several professors were compelled to apologize to China in 2017 for speaking out on China’s “core issues” such as Taiwan, Tibet, and other embarrassments that irked Beijing. Also the backlash by Chinese students against a Tibetan girl being elected as the President of the Student union at University of Toronto came into limelight with a petition which attracted nearly 10,000 signatures questioning her election.
In 2017, the Times News Network covered a story of the Food Fest where they stated that, “the cuisine of Armenia, South Korean, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Tibet, Thailand, Russia, Nepal and Syria pampered the palates of students and staff, with the first stall put up and the best seller of the day being the momo prepared by Tibetan students.” In that year more than twenty countries participated. China took note of the popularity of the Tibet stall, and the next year they had their stall, (advertising as “Real Chinese Food”) adjacent to the Tibet stall. These distasteful instances at the JNU Food Fest may appear as minor to some, but it is important to recognize the underlying political and propagandistic motives of the Chinese in these actions. It is therefore pertinent to take heed to such undertakings before there comes a day in the very near future when Tibet as a country is not allowed to participate even in such a basic grassroots festival, such as our JNU Food Fest, without political repercussions from an embarrassed China.
Apa Lhamo is a PhD Research Candidate at the Centre for European Studies of the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Assistant Director at Empowering the Vision Project, New Delhi.