Buddha’s warriors: Monks take on the powerful

Standing at the entrance of the watch tower on the southern gate of the Tawang Monastery, Tashi Norbu, dressed in the traditional maroon-hued robe, explains how in the past one monk would stand guard and be on the lookout for Bhutanese or Mongolian forces while another would rest the barrel of the gun through a small opening on the wall, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. While the enemy is no longer foreign forces, the monks of the 336-year old monastery now face adversities of a different kind.
Ever since the events of May 2, the usually peaceful town of Tawang has been gripped by news of violence. Several monks from the historic Tibetan Buddhist monastery, second in size only to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, located in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang town in India’s Northeast have been actively involved in their opposition to plans of building 11 dams in the district (two have been dropped recently). Leading the protest in Tawang have been Buddhist monks who are known more for their peaceful chants than loud protests. Their concerns and opposition to the dams however, have been met with mixed reactions.


A young monk peers out the watchtower.

At the inter-state check gate in Bhalukpong in West Kameng district, a young tax and excise security personnel from Tawang says that monks should stick to monastic activities. A similar view is stated by a prominent businessman in Tawang town as well. Such views are an echo of what many politicians from the region and across the state have said in the past too. Norbu and other monks though, disagree with such a point of view.
“This is not the first time monks have defended the region,” he says, visibly worked up. He says that monks from the monastery were fending off Mongol and Bhutanese forces ever since it was established more than 300 years ago with their guns called menda from their watchtowers called kochung.


Norbu, the passionate one.

Norbu, who is also the president of the Save Mon Region Federation that has been leading protests against dams in the district says hectares of land has already been taken away from villagers for highway construction but people have not been compensated and neither have the roads been built.
“We are not asking for ‘azadi(freedom)’,” he says in reference to calls for independence from India made in some other states before adding that they just want justice.
Recently, accusations were made against the SMRF general secretary, Lobsang Gyatso, that he was being funded by the Chinese. It’s an accusation that has him upset.
“How can I be working for the Chinese when the Chinese have wronged our spiritual leader (Dalai Lama) so much,” he asks.
Lobsang has been in the forefront of the protests since late 2011 and it was his arrest on April 28 on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the monastery that led to protests outside the police station by his supporters who were seeking his release on May 2. On that day, two people were shot dead and several others, including some security personnel were injured. While two inquires are currently underway, the monks are calling for a CBI inquiry instead of state government constituted inquires.


Lobsang Gyatso.

Pema Gyatso, a 35-year old monk, says “we haven’t had proper roads since 1962. We need development and schools not hydropower”.
Lobsang is clear in his stance that the SMRF is not against smaller projects but is opposed to larger dams that will lead to loss of large areas of farming land.
Reportedly, there are over 20 mini and micro dams in the district, most of which are either not functioning or breakdown often. 
The monks appear to be fighting not just power developers or their alleged nexus with politicians but stand against corruption.
Pema says that prime land has been given away to the army and worries about what people will grow if the remaining cultivable land is given away to power developers. In fact, in Tawang town and its peripheral areas large swathes of land are used by the army and SSB. All along the way to Tawang too, various Army battalions have garrisons and camps in plush land. 200km below at Tenga Valley in West Kameng district is almost entirely a military town with few civilian residences.
In Tawang, the monks complain of politicians from every level being hand-in-gloves with power companies for their personal benefit.
Norbu says that politicians are building hotels and homes for themselves while doing little for the people.
Speaking of their decision to openly fight powerful politicians, Lobsang says that as monks they are viewed as messengers of gods and that “if we compromise on the hydropower issue, how can people have faith in the religion we preach”.
But it is Norbu who puts it in the most eloquent manner defending their actions.
Explaining how villagers routinely donate food and other amenities to the monks, Norbu says “humlog basti wala se tax khake tatti karke bethega kya? (Should we just accept food from villagers and shit it out?)”.

Lobsang Gyatso: The man behind the monk in the middle of a dam controversy

For the first eight years of his life, Lobsang Gyatso was a student at a government school in Tawang. The next year, he was more than 3000km away at the Sera Je Monastery in Bylakuppe, Karnataka studying the Buddha’s teachings. On April 28 this year, he found himself in prison.
Located near the Sino-India border, Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Last month, 18 people had died in two separate landslides caused by heavy showers that had been pouring for two weeks.
Just as residents were settling into their daily routine, trouble began brewing after an audio clip surfaced where Gyatso, an ordained monk, is heard telling the abbot of the historical Tawang Monastery to stay out of hydropower issues in the Mon region comprising of Tawang and West Kameng districts, spread over an area of 9,527 square km.
Following a meeting of panchayat leaders from Tawang on April 28, an FIR was filed against Gyatso for allegedly defaming the abbot, Guru Tulku Rinpoche. Gyatso claims in the audio clip that the abbot is from Bhutan and does not understand the sentiments of the region. He was promptly arrested and kept in police custody until May 2 when his followers gathered outside the police station where he was held, demanding his release. What was supposed to be a simple protest turned tragic when police began firing to disperse the crowd. At the end, two men –  one a young monk and the other a newly-wed – had died.
While the details of the events that led to the firing remain murky, as official word from the district has been difficult to acquire owing to communication lapses, the incident has thrust into the limelight the issue of hydropower development in the state and the man who was arrested. Who is Lobsang Gyatso?
The son of an ex-army man from the village of Namet, Gyatso was born in his aunt’s hut in Tawang town, around 7km away. Having spent his early years getting a formal education at the government school in Tawang, he was sent to Bylakuppe near Mysore to the Sera Je Monastery in 1988. He returned to Tawang 15 years later in 2003 and joined the Jamyang Choekhorling Monastery. In 2011, an aircraft tragedy would end up acting as a catalyst for Gyatso to begin his activism.
On April 19 that year, a Pawan Hans-operated Mil Mi-17 helicopter crashed near Tawang, killing 17 of 23 passengers and crew members. According to Gyatso, the state mechanism was unprepared to conduct effective rescue operations.
“I got into an argument with the former chief minister, late Dorjee Khandu, at the time of the rescue operations,” he said over the phone and informed that that’s when he started working on social issues and left the monastery where he serving his second stint as administrative secretary.
“I thought it would be best to leave the gompa (monastery) to focus on social work,” he said.


The son of an ex-army man, the monk has been leading the charge against large dams in the ecologically sensitive area.

Gyatso said that during the Kalachakra ceremony in Bodh Gaya, Bihar in 2012, some fellow monks advised him to divert attention to social issues in the Mon region. Back home, together with some friends and like-minded people, Gyatso formed the Save Mon Committee, which was later renamed as Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF). In April of that year, the committee organised a rally against plans to construct mega hydropower projects in the region.
Currently, there are 37 projects planned for construction in Tawang and West Kameng districts with total installed capacity of 5254.30 mega watts.
Gyatso has been extremely vocal in his opposition to such plans. In fact, it was SMRF which had filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal in 2012 against the Bhilwara Group’s 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu Hydroelectric Project in Zemithang which led to the suspension of its environmental clearance in April this year.
It was argued that the project would disrupt the habitat of the black-necked cranes which flock to the area from November to February. For the Buddhist people of the region, the bird is held in high regard and even considered as an embodiment of the sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso who was born in Tawang in the 17th century.
His supporters claim that the tribunal’s decision and his growing popularity resulted in some politicians from the area viewing him as a threat. Gyatso himself admits to the claim.
“They do view me as a political threat,” he said and that he had even considered contesting the election in 2014 until his friends convinced him otherwise.
Now, he says, he is not interested in politics.
“Elections have become expensive in Tawang. You need at least ten crores to run elections nowadays,” he said and that “it’s better to work for society instead”.
Not everyone is impressed by the monk’s activism, which has drawn mix responses. While some of his followers refer to him with the moniker ‘Anna’ Lama (monk), an homage to activist Anna Hazare, his detractors refer to him as ‘Anda’ (egg) Lama.
Currently out on bail, Gyatso said the May 2 incident has left him saddened. Tsering Tempa was recently married and the other casualty, Nima Wangdi, was a monk.
Eight people were injured during the police firing, one of whom is currently in medical care at Shillong, Meghalaya.
“Police had fired around 200 to 300 rounds indiscriminately,” he said and that he is surprised that the casualty list is not higher.
Considered a “bright student” during his time at school, Gyatso stands firm in his resolve against plans to build dams that can adversely affect the fragile eco-system of the place.
“Politicians do not care what happens to the land of the poor people because they have their own houses at Gurgaon and Noida,” he adds.


A version of this story appeared in The Telegraph: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160505/jsp/northeast/story_83873.jsp#.VysgRYR97IU