Chinese paramilitary police patrol near the iconic Potala Palace in Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP / Johannes Eisele

On February 21, 1952, in what was then East Bengal (renamed East Pakistan in 1956 and Bangladesh in 1971), many students were martyred for voicing their concerns and the protection of mother language, Bengali, under the government of the Dominion of Pakistan. Bengali students sacrificed their lives for language protection and for the sake of future generations in their own homeland.

Five decades later, February 21 was declared International Mother Language Day by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It was a tribute to the language movement started by Bengalis and the ethno-linguistic rights of people around the world.

In Tibet, however, a person called Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced in 2018 to five years in prison for speaking up on the protection of his mother language, which is in fact enshrined in the Constitution of the People’s Republic China

The Chinese government has used many strategies to Sinicize Tibetan people’s identity. During the Cultural Revolution, thousands of sacred texts were burned and reading and learning of the Tibetan language was considered backward. This led to 10 lost years in Tibet as teaching the language was banned.

Finally, schools in Tibet were reopened, but much of the curriculum was on the life of Chairman Mao Zedong and the greatness of Communism. Those years were marked by a deliberate marginalization of Tibetan tradition and culture. 

Teaching of Chinese language was made compulsory in almost every corner of Tibet. The brightest Tibetan students were selected to travel to China. They were chosen for further studies and considered the foundation for Tibetan society. Later they returned to Tibet with limited skills in their mother tongue.

For the past few years, thousands of teachers (Han Chinese or other non-Tibetans) have been sent to teach in Tibetan areas without any knowledge of the Tibetan language and traditions. People who had knowledge of the Tibetan language and traditions were not given any proper teacher’s training. 

The so-called Bilingual Education Policy in Tibet led to introduction of two models, the first focuses on the Tibetan language the second on Chinese language. The Model 1 education system lacked proper facilities, trained teachers and resources. This policy is implemented during the primary grades and after that all subjects are taught in Chinese.

A wave of resentment against this education and language policy has been expressed on the streets by students and in articles written by many Tibetans. 

In Tibet, parents face the dilemma of choosing between the Chinese language and the Tibetan language. While the former provides greater survival opportunities for a child, the latter is about the survival of their identity and preservation of the linguistic culture of Tibet.

For the past 70 years, the Chinese government has employed every possible trickery to destroy the Tibetan language environment and to build a more Sinicized population who are loyal to the Communist Party regime.

Denying Tibetans the use of their mother tongue is against international human rights. As a member of the world community, the Chinese government needs to reconsider its policy on the Tibetan minority and protection of its language. 

Tsering Shakya, in his 1999 book Dragon in the Land of Snows: The History of Tibet Since 1947, clearly captured the situation during the Cultural Revolution. He writes, “On the surface it seemed that Chinese had succeeded in assimilating the Tibetans: All expressions of Tibetan identity and culture was forbidden with the exception of the language, now the only marker of Tibet’s separateness from China.” 

Currently in Tibet, the only marker of Tibetan identity is the Communist Party’s onslaught against the Tibetan language, and as in the case of Tashi Wangchuk, voicing one’s concerns and even celebrating Mother Language Day could land one in prison. 

Karma Tenzin

Karma Tenzin has an MPhil in political science from Madras Christian College in India. He served as a political-science teacher for five years at TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village) Gopalpur and as assistant headmaster for one year. Currently, he is working on education policy at the Tibet Policy Institute. He focuses on minority language rights and bilingual education in Tibet.