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.
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, 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.
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?)”.