Monks boycott Independence Day, question idea of freedom

This August 15, when India was celebrating its 70th Independence Day, Buddhist monks and nuns in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh were questioning the very idea of freedom.

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In the past, the Dungyur Mani Square in Tawang’s old bazaar has acted as a venue for street performances held during the Tawang Festival in the town that is just 37 km from the Sino-India border. On Independence Day, a large contingent of Buddhist monks and nuns along with members of the civilian population came out in protest against the government’s decision to reinstate the superintendent of police, Anto Alphonse, who was suspended following police firing on May 2 in Tawang, which had claimed the lives of two protestors demanding the release of monk-activist Lobsang Gyatso.
Gyatso, a Buddhist monk from the Monpa tribe, has been leading protests against the government’s plans to build large dams in Tawang district. He also serves as the general secretary of the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF), an organisation that has a strong support base of monks and nuns apart from villagers. He had been arrested and kept in police custody from April 28 till May 2 when protestors gathered outside the police station and demanded his release. Soon after, Alphonse and other officials were suspended by the state government due to the mishandling of the protests. However, Alphonse has since been reinstated as an SP by the state government.
On August 15, members of the SMRF and other civil society bodies, including 302 Action Committee, All Tawang Youth Association, All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union, All Tawang District Students Union, held up banners questioning the relevancy of Independence Day celebrations.
Wearing black ribbons around their foreheads, the demonstrators held up placards that said ‘No justice, no rest’.
Gyatso informed that businesses voluntarily kept their shops closed and stayed away from official celebrations in the town.
“We also feel there is no freedom in the state and appeal to the central government to look into the matter seriously and take necessary action before it’s too late,” he said from Tawang.
The SMRF had earlier on August 8 written to the government demanding that Alphonse be suspended since the final report into the May 2 incident has not been released.
While the state government had set up two inquires to investigate the matter, one of which has been submitted, they have not been made public yet.
Gyatso said that about a thousand people had showed up in what was a “symbolic” protest. He also said that “the said members and people of Tawang are going (to) submit a memorandum to the United Nations to save our lives”.
While the protest was held in the bazaar square, the district administration held a prabhat pheri/Jashn-e-Azadi Run (Freedom Run). At the general parade ground, the local legislator Tsering Tashi, said that the incidents of May 2 were unfortunate and that “everyone should resort to dialogue for sorting out differences” and that “efforts should be made to rule out any communication gap”.
He also said that hydropower projects in the district would not be pursued without the consent of the people. He was reiterating what he and Lumla MLA Jambey Tashi had told members of the SMRF during a meeting on August 13. Gyatso, who did not attend that meeting, said the government is making “only empty promises”.
Regardless of the outcome of planned dialogues, one banner hanging from the dungyur mani (a stone structure with prayer wheels inside) captured the essence of the protest by the monks: “When there is no freedom, why celebrate Independence Day.”


This story first appeared in The Citizen.

Arunachal girls stand up to child marriage

Young girls in Arunachal Pradesh’s East Kameng district are slowly beginning to fight the evils of child marriage in the face of familial stigmatization and old patriarchal traditions.
On May 31 this year, 13-year old Jeroni Tawo had dared to walk out on her marriage to a much older man and sought help from the district unit of the Women Welfare Organisation (WWO) to end the union. Now, another minor under similar circumstances has been ‘rescued’.
Last month on July 13, Fekik Bokar had reached out to the district WWO president Veena Waii Sonam and narrated her story.
Fekik is 15-years old and a ninth standard student at the government higher secondary school at the district headquarter of Seppa. Two years ago in 2014, she was married off to Amu Chege (now 41 years old) after the exchange of gifts as is traditional amongst the Nyishi tribe, to which they both belong. Incidentally, Fekik’s eldest sister, Femi, is still married to Chege.
The couple (Chege and Femi) have been married and trying for a child for a number of years without any luck. As is customary, it was agreed that Chege would take in another wife (polygamy is a socially sanctioned practice among some of the tribes in the state although people are beginning to call for its end). Keeping in line with tradition, it was decided that it would be best for him to marry his wife’s sister. And so in 2014 the bride price was paid, which consisted of (among other things) seven mithuns, a bovine found in this region and highly valued almost all over the tribal-majority state.
After Fekik reached out to Sonam last month, she went straight to the district office of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) where the deputy director (in-charge), DK Thungon, called all parties involved.
“I counselled and advised them to resolve the matter themselves by August 1 or face legal consequences,” Thungon informed over the phone speaking from Seppa.
Today a ‘hearing’ was held and the marriage was legally nullified after it was agreed by both families that a mithun and her calf would be returned to Chege, who readily agreed to lower the value of the bride price that he had paid.

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Fekik (seated fourth from left) with the two families and officials from the WWO and East Kameng ICDS cell.

However, since the marriage was held with the consent of the minor girl’s family, they are presently not too keen on taking her back and Fekik has since lived with Sonam at her residence.
Thungon said that “in such cases, the girls are the ones who are left vulnerable” and has asked her school to house her in the hostel.
He has also told Fekik’s family to make sure they do not do such a thing again in future. While Fekik’s future seems to be secure for now, there are many others whose fate is unknown.
Sonam informed that the practice is so prevalent in the district that as soon as Fekik’s case was disposed off, another case has been brought to the attention of the ICDS office. However, she said that campaigns by the WWO have helped spread awareness amongst young girls.
Pooja Sonam Natung, general secretary of the district unit of the WWO, said that last year their organisation had conducted campaigns in most schools across the district which has helped girls find the courage to step forward.
She said that it is “painful to learn that such things are still prevalent” and adds rhetorically “imagine how many cases go unreported”.
However, child marriage is not confined to one district in the state alone. According to the Census 2011, there are 3245 children (1086 males and 2159 females) from the ages of 10 to 14 years who were married at the time of the survey. Additionally, 14422 children (3203 males and 11219 females) from the ages of 15 to 19 were married when the Census was being complied.
Mitali Tingkhatra, chairperson of the Arunachal Pradesh State Commission for Women and Child, said that child marriage is still prevalent although the numbers may not seem too high. She also informed that five cases were reported last year from across the state.

This article first appeared on The Citizen on August 2, 2016. Click here for original story.