Dharamshala — "We are willing to reach out to the Chinese people. Our problem is with the Chinese State, regime, and leadership and not with the 1.3 billion Chinese people," said Dhardon Sharling, Information Secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations of the Central Tibetan Administration.
"I'm seeing a lot of sensibilities and sensitivities surrounding their (China) communications strategy, they are less of ahardlinerand tend to put out more in- depth stories of human interest. But when it comes to Tibet, it's all propaganda, that's for sure. We don't stand to provide a counter narrative to that. When you talk about Tibet or the Central Tibetan Administration, I don't think China should always provide the context. I think we are beyond China, outside that realm, or the ambit. "
Impressionable astuteness coupled with a self-assertive, determined, and dynamic spirit is a fitting description for Secretary for Department of Information and International Relations, Dhardon Sharling. On a bright, sunny Friday afternoon, I met with Miss Sharling at the official Department of Information and International Relations office, to ask her about the Tibetan government in exile, the role of the youth in the larger Tibetan movement, and the communications strategies utilized by them.
Preponderantly, the interview reflected themes of heroines and warriors posing as the role models for the Tibetan community, the day and age of the Internet and technology, the hope and spirit of a nation in struggle, and wholehearted and unquestionable love for His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
With the Tibetan government in exile, and China's utilization of mass media, propaganda etc., how are you challenging that or dealing with that?
China is really high on its communication strategy and they have really beefed up their efforts. I follow them on Twitter and I follow Xinhua on Twitter to know the kind of live feed they do. They're doing really well, I must say. I am a Communications student and from that standpoint, they're doing extremely well. Whatever communication strategy, discursive strategy, or media strategy that we put out, I don't think China provides the context for us because they are not our ultimate audience. So, we don't see ourselves in light of what China does but all we know is that they have really stepped up their efforts. They are investing a lot in media and communication and I think it's a welcome step because the more you expose yourself, the more transparent you tend to become and the more transparent you become, the world gives you a face, and when they give you a face, you become accountable. So, I welcome that move. I'm seeing a lot of sensibilities and sensitivities surrounding their communications strategy, they are less of a hardliner and tend to put out more in- depth stories of human interest. But when it comes to Tibet, it's all propaganda, that's for sure. We don't stand to provide a counter narrative to that. When you talk about Tibet or the Central Tibetan Administration, I don't think China should always provide the context.
I think we are beyond China, outside that realm, or the ambit. If you look at the Department of Information and International Relations and our work environment, it is very modest. We have a 12 by 10-inch TV studio yet we are reaching out to the world. I think the impact is equally great. There is always this parallel narrative when you hear about the Tibet story. There's the Chinese narrative and then there is the Tibetan authentic, our voice, and our narrative. Each of us have found our own audience and I do not think we want to barge into each other. We have our own version of our history, own version of our sense of conviction and belief in what the real story is, and for us to be able to tell the story devoid of a Chinese narrative or version setting the parameters is a strategic move. For us, whatever we do, it is transparent; we don't put millions into publishing our story, and designing it with an intended agenda because it is coming from the heart, it's genuine and that's why there is very little effort in the designing and packaging component, we show it as it is. It is the raw stuff out there, which I think is missing with the way China disseminates information. I don't think we stand in comparison to the massive investments they make but when it comes to Tibet, it's all propaganda, propaganda, and propaganda and hence when people hear the Chinese side to the Tibetan story, they don't believe it blindly. Yesterday, The Herald in London got in touch with us asking our views on China's plan to turn the whole of Tibet into a national park. So the Chinese version was out so The Herald got in touch with us to hear our views. So, that's why the reference and cross checking is always there and that's what we will do but I don't think we will put out anything to counter and negate what China does. I don't think that is our priority.
How have you been working towards achieving changes or development when it comes to communication strategies and integrating more people in the Tibetan movement?
That has always been a challenge because the Tibet story is sixty plus years old. The challenge for us is that since we found an audience back in the 1960s, but that generation is phasing out, so how do we reach out to the millennial's that grew up in an electronics-filled and increasingly online and socially-networked world. A generation that believes in a 140 character feed, a generation that does not read, a generation that is looking for breaking news. This is a tough challenge because like I said, we don't have the money, or the intention, or the human resource to design and package things in a way to make then sellable. We have this one story with which we have been living for the past sixty years so finding new and ever expanding audience for the same old narrative proves to be a challenge. I must say, thanks to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he is the new generations favorite, everyone wants a selfie with him. We live in this day and age where His Holiness is the most revered spiritual figure who not only makes people laugh but is modern day's selfie-god-king.
So, how do we, who always do serious work cater to the selfie generation? That again is a challenge. So we are trying to chart new territories, find new avenues and trying to redefine our own turf and all we know is that information is the new battleground. On the Information battleground I think we can win the battle because our story is more acceptable and gets wider audiences. So we must rebrand ourselves without losing the content, without diminishing our values or our prestige, but reaching out to the new generation of readers/viewers. That's why one of the things we have embarked on is the social media communication, something we started last year. So, if you look up our official Facebook page (Tibet.net), we have close to hundred thousand followers. Tibet TV, the official web TV, it's high on social media especially on Facebook. We started with four hundred followers and we have close to sixty thousand now. But we need to bring it to millions, you know. Also, the kind of news we produce, if it is going to be just news anchors reading from studios and using jargons, we are only going to cater to the age group of sixty plus audience.
So how do you redesign the whole content to suit the whims and fancies of this new generation? This continues to be a challenge for us. I always tell my reporters when they cover a story; always have a front camera and a back camera. Front camera will be looking at the objective representation-how you want to tell the story, while the back camera focuses on the targeted audience in terms of how they would receive it and would want to re-share that story, how will the Twitter, Facebook and Instagram users would not just want a three second video to flash on their timeline but would also want to look at it and view the whole video? This is what the back camera is going to do. When you take or post a picture, how is it going to get maximum reach is what we should be keen in actually achieving. Yes, the challenges that we have to surmount are big because it is an ever-growing generation, ever-changing generation, very malleable. With us, we have this amazing story but how do we get more listeners or more buyers from the market standpoint, will depend on how you design it, package it without losing your content and without losing your prestige, without having to stoop down and sensationalize things as other news channels attempt to do, and without involving scandals, how do you maintain your stance? Changing the manner without losing out on the matter. Social media is the new turf; I just read somewhere that the telephone took hundred years to reach the one billion mark, television took fifty, while Facebook took a mere eight years. This is the future. We also sort of run parallel to all these new digital developments. I always tell people, internet and technology have changed things for us, it'll change the future of the Tibetan freedom struggle so we should harness the potential of the internet and technology so that is what we are trying to build on.
With the Tibetan freedom struggle and people like me at the helm, it is an uphill task but again my boss Dr Sangay has taught me to approach them not as problems but as challenges to surmount or temporary glitches and to make sure that I emerge triumphant.
Talking about the Tibetan movement itself, how do you think the role of the youth is different now than a decade or two decades ago?
Two decades ago I was in school. 1997, I was in the tenth grade. Back then our purview was very limited. We didn't live in the age of the Internet. It was very different. We had a monolithic approach towards life and the world. And we saw China as an enemy. I remember when I was studying in an English medium school in South India, I was in the fifth grade, we had to study a chapter about the Great Wall of China and I bunked classes because I did not want to hear about China or the Great Wall and missed out on earning good grades in the exams. Fast-forward to twenty years: this new generation of Tibetans is learning Chinese, has Chinese friends, wants to travel to China, and is reaching out to Chinese people.
Twenty years ago, I would not see the possibility of something called the Sino-Tibet friendship. I thought the Chinese were enemies. I didn't see them as good people. This younger generation sees the goodness in people and the hope that inspire others. They are tech savvy and everyone's a citizen journalist. Earlier for the Tibetan freedom struggle, you really had to go out and protest, you really had to come to Dharamshala and work. But now in this era of cloud computing where a lot can happen over the clouds than on the ground, this new generation are digital citizens. If you look at all the comments Tibetan social media users post on Facebook, it's eighty per cent work—related to the Tibetan freedom struggle. That's why I see a lot of potential. It's a strong turf, why don't we harness that? Our young generation also has a lot of questions. When I grew up, I didn't have many questions because my exposure was very less, my receiving antenna was very less.
Now this generation receives more than it can disseminate and that's why there are going to be a lot of questions, a lot of critical questions. You cannot take them for granted. You cannot tell them that the sky is green and make them nod their heads. No, they will argue with you. In a way things are looking very bright I must say. Right now I have eight young students who just graduated from college between the ages nineteen and twenty-two who are interning here at DIIR and they are smart, very smart people. It gives me a lot of pride because I know the future is in safe hands. I know they will carry forward the struggle. So, all I am saying is that they are an inquisitive bunch of sharp-witted people using technology and the internet to contribute to the freedom struggle. All we need to do is provide them the avenue, the space, and let them be who they are. You shouldn't tell them what they should be. Two things about education that I want to flag up are; its not about the grades or the degree or big schools but it is about two things-- civic sense and civility. The ultimate motivation of a human being should be to be a good person but also a happy person.
That is thanks to the kind of exposure, and the kind of access they have. They can go to the President Dr Sangay and ask him a question and request a picture with him. When I was their age, we would stand in queue for hours to catch a glimpse of a Member of Parliament visiting our School.. So, it has changed but it has been looking very positive. A lot depends on the environment we give, and the space we provide, our leadership etc. We should champion inclusivity and diversity of opinion. We should have unity but we shouldn't expect uniformity. We should give people the space and let them be who they are; let them wear hip-hop pants but still be a Tibetan at heart. They don't need to wear the traditional attire to assert their identity. So, we should help this younger generation imbibe such values and not impose things on them like I was in my growing years. I went on a self-discovery spree only when I turned thirty-five, between last year and now. I think we need to mentor the younger generation. Today I am able to contribute substantially to the Tibetan cause because of Dr Sangay and his mentorship.
So this is the generation we are dealing with, and we also need to strategically evolve, design, and adapt ourselves to let them be who they are and ultimately always reinforce the sense of conviction in them that they are the future of Tibet, that they hold the mantle of future leadership, encourage any kind of engagement they want to have with the Chinese people or with the Chinese State. I think that should be our approach as agents of change
On speaking with a few Tibetans, especially the contestants from the Miss Tibet pageant, all of them emphasize the lack of a female role model in the Tibetan community, what are your views on this claim?
I agree. When I was growing up I did not have a single Tibetan role model. I think that's why there is more pressure on us to do better, to do well because whenever I do something, me being a second generation Tibetan, I think of the third generation and the fourth generation Tibetans. My niece is the third generation, I am thinking of her future. In school whenever they asked us who are role models were, we would say Mother Teresa, Sonia Gandhi, right now is Barkha Dutt for me. But India had a thousand year old history and that's why they were able to produce role models. Our exile history is just 58 years so it's not unbecoming of us to not produce role models, just that the circumstances are different.
But looking at Tibet's history, there have been female heroines or warriors. I think one of my strongest role models is someone in Tibet, who goes by the name of Tsering Woeser. She is a writer and won the Journalism of Courage Award and has other awards to her credit. Her writings inspire me. There is another woman called Jamyang Kyi, who is a writer, singer cum television presenter. In 2008, during the pan-Tibet protests, she was imprisoned for twenty-two days because of a text she sent to someone in Dharamshala. When she came out of jail, she was not traumatized. It just reasserted her identity and her commitment to be an able Tibetan. She wrote a diary, which we published as a book. It is called the 'Sequence of Torture and the Diary of Interrogations,' it is available at The Women's Association office. These are everyday acts of defiance and courage. Back in the early nineties, there were the Singing Nuns. It was a group of fourteen nuns who were imprisoned for taking part in the 1987-89 protests in Tibet, in Lhasa. They were put in one of the world's most notorious prisons; it's called the Drapchi Prison. Some of them were imprisoned for 15 years or more, they spent their entire youth in the prison, and you know what they did? They sang songs of hope and used metaphors calling the Lotus and Sun as representing His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The songs said even if we are put in the darkest prison, we can see His Holiness because he is the light. When you are in a dark place, the light becomes more important. They smuggled the tapes out into the free world and BBC covered that.
Back in 1995, there was this UN Women's Conference taking place in Beijing. No Tibetan women from India could go because of the visa restrictions but nine Tibetan women from across the globe that have citizenship in other countries like the US and Europe attended. The organizers gave them a scarf as a souvenir, and they stood out in the rain and staged a silent protest. Nine women holding hands, not screaming, not shouting but staging a silent protest braving the rain and this happened right at the conference venue, right at the turf of Beijing. For me Tibetan women generally depict courage, and even to hear stories like that of a woman who crossed the border and trekked through the rough terrains while being 9 months pregnant. She's my role model. There is this ninety-year old woman in Delhi, her name is Rangzen Aama. At every protest or event at Janrar Mantar, she would, without fail, light a hundred lamps. We need to write, profile these role models, write articles and books and make films on them. So we do not have exalted figures as role model as in today's times you have Michelle Obama, Barkha Dutt, or Priyanka Chopra but there are everyday stories, ordinary lives with extraordinary stories. I think we need to identify them and bring them to the foreground and make them icons. That's why the role of the media is so important.
I am a feminist and I wear that tag with honor. Women standing up for each other, I think that is instrumental, crucial, imperative and it's a must have. I feel very very happy when I see women supporting other women. As you see, a real beauty queen is someone who will pass the crown onto the other. Real women rise by lifting the other. This is one of my larger goals in life. This pretty much defines my thinking and I hope it resonates with the younger generation who are our future.
As a second generation Tibetan here, what do you think are the responsibilities for this generation? Can you give me 1-5?
I would firstly say that we are His Holiness the Dalai Lama's people. He defines me as a human being, he is the essence of my being, he is the breath of my life. So, I always think of his three main commitments; his first commitment is the promotion of human values in his role as a human being and I think about how I can contribute to fulfilling his vision. Second, promotion of religious harmony in his role as a spiritual leader, The world is at strife because of religion, it's sad so I wonder how I can contribute to that. Third, as a Tibetan for Him, it is Tibetan culture and environment. Tibetan culture has lots to give to the world. Look at the revival of Nalanda tradition, the new-found interest in secular ethics and incorporating that into School curriculum; it is deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhist culture, which very much came from India. Tibet's water resources protects the lives of over a billion in Asia. It is the water tower of Asia. They say, 'If Tibet dries, Asia dies.' I always look at it in that light, I do not look at it as Tibet versus China skirmishes. I think we live in a borderless world right now. I think more than prayer books, I focus on what His Holiness' mission in life is. Earlier, he was considered to be just the revered guest of India so he was only accessible to the Governors, to the Chief Ministers etc. But now he has caught the imagination of the world and ordinary people alike. When he visited Rajgir in Bihar in April this year, we saw pictures of local laborers in Bihar started taking selfie with him. Recently someone put out a short video, which I promoted on my pubic Facebook page ...saying that the real 'Bahubali' is Him. He is such an illuminating figure. I don't think there can be a bigger blessing than sharing your cultural identity with Him.
For me being a Tibetan in exile is an advantage and a privilege rather than a disadvantage because I will have that extra nerve to go that extra mile. I will not be content with a good personal life, with a good paying job, a husband and children; this kind of life won't satisfy me. Thanks to this mission, I represent a nation's struggle, Our struggle is based on the very concept of principles of non-violence, reconciliation and friendship. It is premised on His Holiness' advice to 'Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.'. We are willing to reach out to the Chinese people. Our problem is with the Chinese State, regime, and leadership and not with the 1.3 billion Chinese people. I have some of my best friends from Mainland China who I studied with and they are wonderful people. I think being a Tibetan, being His Holiness' follower and his people has really transformed my thinking and helped me evolve as a person. My life is very meaningful and finds a lot of purpose. I cannot afford to waste even a minute of my time because I have this big, big mission that is to help or to contribute to the overall accomplishment of His Holiness' three commitments for a better, healthier and happier planet. This is what defines me and if every Tibetan, very slowly, starts thinking of him/her self in that role, that would be ideal. When it comes to Tibetans, people always bring China into the milieu, but don't box us, don't categorize us, and don't shut us in this room called China. We are above it and we are beyond it. We represent the spirit of a nation's struggle, we represent the goodness that people can have, and we represent hope. That is something every Tibetan should identify with, connect emotionally, be able to map their minds around that thinking and then everyday actions that you do, yearly plans that you make, life long goals that you seek will all be meaningful. I really hope that every Tibetan sees the sense and the sensibility in this approach and not just Tibetans actually but every human being, the world will be a much better place and His Holiness' teachings will reverberate throughout. This is the world I dream of and it is possible as the optimist in me see possibility everywhere.