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.
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