India pitches its Tibetan and Mandarin radio programmes but has a long way to go

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits an army hospital in the Himalayan region of Ladakh on July 3, 2020.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits an army hospital in the Himalayan region of Ladakh on July 3, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS/INDIA'S PRESS INFORMATION BUREAU

NEW DELHI - Soon after the deadly clash between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh on June 15, a tweet from Prasar Bharati (PB), India's public service broadcaster, received wide attention. It urged people to turn to its Tibetan and Mandarin services on All India Radio (AIR) for "authentic news and programmes" and listed various ways they could tune in, including via their YouTube channels and short wave radio frequencies.

Governments across the world have used broadcasting services as a tool of public diplomacy. The Indian government has done so too through its broadcasts in English and as many as 15 foreign languages, including Tibetan and Mandarin, on AIR.

It is an asset that the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now turned to with renewed vigour. Programming in these two languages in recent weeks has been supplemented with additional news content reinforcing New Delhi's position on the border dispute and ongoing tension with China.

For instance, a news post on the Tibetan language service's portal - a modest blog hosted on Blogger - on June 18 accused China of violating the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which makes up the de-facto border between India and China and claimed the death of 43 Chinese soldiers. A commentary dated July 2 on the same site spoke of growing global criticism of China following the passage of the new controversial security law for Hong Kong.

Posts on the Mandarin portal of AIR have similarly accused China of violating de-escalation plans that were agreed upon, as well as attempting to change the current situation along the LAC.

The PB chose not to respond to queries from The Straits Times on its foreign language broadcasts but Indian media, quoting unnamed government officials, have since the clash reported on plans to augment services in the Tibetan language. New content would focus on "India's democratic and cultural traditions, its connections with Buddhism, influence of India on Tibet and the status of Tibetans in India", said The Economic Times.

The AIR's external services began as early as 1939, with its service in Pashto for listeners in what was then British India's North West Frontier. The service was aimed at countering radio programmes then from Nazi Germany, directed towards Afghanistan, Iran and Arab countries.

There is little knowledge of how many listeners in Tibet tune in to AIR's services today as short wave frequencies are often blocked and Internet platforms firewalled.

Indians, however, continue to access television programmes from China Global Television Network, an international English-language news channel owned by the Chinese government, as well as radio broadcasts in several Indian languages, including Hindi, Tamil and Bengali, from the state-owned China Radio International.

 
 

The renewed focus on AIR's foreign language services has come following years of neglect that has stymied these services and made them less appealing to listeners. Reasons include limited funding, poor quality of programmes, lack of staff and slow adoption of new technologies. Its services today are available only for a few hours every day on short wave radio and the Internet; its Tibetan and Mandarin services, for instance, are broadcast daily only for 75 minutes and 90 minutes respectively.

AIR's Tibetan service was popular in the 1960s and 1970s among Tibetans living in India but most today have switched to other Tibetan language services from providers such as Voice of Tibet, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. "I haven't heard AIR Tibetan service since I was seven, the year I went to Mussoorie for schooling," Mr Lobsang Wangyal, 50, a senior Tibetan journalist based in McLeod Ganj in the state of Himachal Pradesh, told The Straits Times.

 
 

"It used to be very popular with my parents' generation," added Ms Tenzin Peldon, the editor of Voice of Tibet, a Norway-based radio service. She told The Straits Times AIR will have to increase the duration of its programming, adopt social media channels more vigorously and focus more on features documenting Tibetan culture and Buddhism instead of just generic news items to stay relevant with listeners.

"It is important for AIR to revamp its Tibetan radio service because a large chunk of the exiled Tibetan population lives in India," said Ms Peldon. It is estimated that around 100,000 Tibetans live in India. "Its programmes are of relevance not just for Tibetans but also other communities in India, such as the Sikkimese and Monpas, who share their culture and religion with Tibetans," added Ms Peldon.