Rewriting records and retelling history

A massive carnival concluded recently at Gujarat, seemingly to celebrate the ‘ancient’ link between mainland India and the country’s mostly-neglected Northeast region (a term that is more reflective of a region rather than a single cultural unit).

On March 25, on Ram Navami, the annual Madhavpur Mela kicked-off at Madhavpur (Ghed) in Gujarat’s Porbandar district and lasted till March 28. What caught most people’s attention, thanks partly due to the unending tweets by Arunachal West Lok Sabha MP and Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju, was that this year’s fair would ‘re-enact’ the ‘heroic kidnapping’ of princess Rukmini by Lord Krishna. While plays depicting legends and myths are a regular fare at religious carnivals, what made this year different is the ‘revelation’ that princess Rukmini was a member of the Idu-Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh!

The ‘legend’ of Rukmini being a member of the said tribe has been propagated since around the 80s, thanks mostly through schools in the state that later even managed to make its way into the official information brochures of the state government’s tourism department.

While most sources state that Rukmini was the daughter of king Bhishmaka of Vidarbha (in present-day Maharashtra), a myth has persisted in Arunachal Pradesh that she was, in fact, an Idu-Mishmi, probably sporting the traditional bowl haircut that was prevalent amongst community members earlier.

Where did this myth originate? No one within the community is quite sure or willing to go on record. The basis of the myth, however, is the ruins of the Bhismaknagar Fort, located near the Arunachal-Assam inter-state boundary around 25 kilometres from the Lower Dibang Valley district headquarter of Roing.

Falling under the jurisdiction of the Guwahati circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the fort is believed to have been built by the Bhismaka dynasty of the Chutiya (pronounced Sutia) kingdom that had a stronghold in the Sadiya region of present-day Assam and the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh. The kingdom is said to have existed from around the 12th to the 16thcentury.

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PC: Guwahati Circle of Archaeological Survey of India website.

D Dutta, deputy director of the state directorate of research (archaeology), said that the remains of the fort have not been carbon-dated and could date back to the 9th century. Archaeological evidence too, he said, suggests that there is no connection between the style of that found in the Arunachal Pradesh site to that of those in Vidarbha.

“Perhaps there was another king by the name of Bhismaka and perhaps his daughter’s name was also Rukmini,” Dutta said.

Ginko Linggi, president of the Idu-Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society, informed that he and his friends began hearing about the myth when they were in school in the eighties.

Linggi said that there are no records or mentions of such a myth as per the traditional oral history of the indigenous tribal community.

Like many others from and outside the community, Linggi said that proper scientific research is required before any conclusion can be made on the veracity of the myth. One of those was Vijay Swami.

Swami has been a long-time resident in Arunachal Pradesh, having previously worked with the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya for 15 years and is now the executive director of the Roing-based Research Institute of World’s Ancient Traditions, Cultures & Heritage. More importantly, Swami acted as a liaison between the state government and organisers of the Madhavpur Mela and was in attendance at the carnival.

Having reached Guwahati from Gujarat, Swami informed that a team of 22 people, including 15 members of the cultural troupe, five tribal shamans called igu, and two community elders, had attended the event.

While admitting that the myth does not match the archaeological evidence (considering that Lord Krishna was supposed to have ‘left’ Earth somewhere around 3100 before current era (BCE) and that the fort ruins are from a much later period), Swami said that stories of the myth are a recent trend.  Detailed studies, he said, are required and that the fair is an attempt at ‘national integration’.

And therein lays the crux of the matter.

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Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu rocking a pagri (turban) at the fair.

Myth or fact, the idea of ‘re-enacting’ the ‘heroic kidnapping was clearly driven with the motive to promote ‘national integration’ which would help cement Northeast’s ‘ancient link’ with the rest of the country and thereby somehow defy China’s constant claims over much Arunachal Pradesh’s territory.

Arunachal Pradesh chief minister, Pema Khandu, is reported to have said that the fair is a way for people “in far-off frontiers will have a sense of belonging and relate to rest of the states”.

One news report quoted Khandu as such: We watch in news channels today that some other country is claiming some part of Northeast. But nobody can change the history and the ancient history says that Arunachal was not a separate state but entire Northeast was one. For centuries, we have been with India, mainland India. This is our strength.

As the mela concluded, a letter arrived from the ASI stating that the Bhismaknagar Fort is not demarcated and that the ASI does not have a revenue map of the site. The letter, erroneously addressed to the deputy commissioner of Dibang Valley district instead of Lower Dibang Valley which was created in 2001, sought “information regarding the demarcation of boundary, revenue map, and land records”. The letter further noted that it had “on many occasions earlier faced difficulties in taking up developmental works at the monument/sites” and directed the government to schedule a joint-inspection.

As myth and history were being inter-woven in Gujarat, the foundation on which the legend is based on suffers from a lack of attention.

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A day of Dickensian proportions

Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, juxtaposed the contradictory political ambience that engulfed 18th century Europe and opens with the famous lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and far removed from a divided Europe, no other lines could have better encapsulated the mood on Monday at the Arunachal Pradesh capital, Itanagar. And no two acts performed on the same day to mark the same event could have been more contradictory to each other as they were on Monday.

Monday marked a year since Pema Khandu officially took charge of the chief minister’s role. To celebrate his first 365 days in office, an official event was held at the State Banquet Hall at the Niti Vihar area, home to Arunachal Pradesh’s political elite, where a number of welfare schemes were launched for the benefit of citizens in the presence of sharply dressed ministers and bureaucrats.

A few kilometres downhill at the tennis courts premises of the Indira Gandhi Park, where no one seems to have played tennis for the past two decades and is the state’s designated protest site ala Jantar Mantar, another set of people were gathered to mark the same 365 days; albeit with a vastly different agenda.

Last year on August 9 when Kalikho Pul’s body was found hanging from the ceiling fan in one of the rooms of the chief minister’s bungalow-turned-guest house, people were outraged.

After a year of power-struggle and internal bickering, many felt that Pul was dropped like a hot potato by MLAs who had supported him earlier. That anger translated in a violent outburst as some people blamed a section of the MLAs for Pul’s suicide, claiming that they lifted him on a pedestal and pulled the rug from under his feet. The notes that Pul allegedly wrote and left behind- ‘Mere Vichaar’- certainly seem to suggest that he too felt the same way.

After the notes were made public, his family demanded a thorough investigation into the allegations that were levelled against top politicians and judges. A group of citizens even formed the eponymously-inspired ‘Mere Vichaar Andolan Committee’ (MVAC), to seemingly seek justice for Pul and his family. It was members from the MVAC who marked Monday as a ‘Black Day’.

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Dressed less formally than those in the Banquet Hall in blue denims, seated on bright green carpets laid on the floor of the tennis courts under the sweltering sun, the men and women gathered cried foul, condemned the day and sought Khandu’s resignation.

Large banners with letters in white font on black background read: Shame on the name who ruined states fame (sic). There were no portraits save for those of late Pul flanked by the MVAC’s logo on the top left and right corners of the banners, to remind people of the day the country’s youngest chief minister took his oath of office.

On the other hand, at the Banquet Hall, Khandu’s gleaming portraits were plastered all over. From promotional banners to standees to visual slides, this too was an event to remind people of the day the country’s youngest chief minister took his oath of office.

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Pema and Pema. (Courtesy: Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister’s Office)

While bulbs were lit to mark the launch of the UJALA scheme at the air-conditioned Banquet Hall, effigies of Khandu and other senior politicians were set fire to by the motley crew that made up the MVAC.

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Effigies of Khandu and other senior politicians were set fire during the ‘Black Day’ protests. (Courtesy: Damien Lepcha)

Whether these are mere coincidences or part of brilliant mind games is up for debate. The battle though began early Monday as was evident in some of the newspapers of the state. While the state government issued front half-page advertisements announcing the schemes that were launched, the MVAC issued full-page advertisements that carried Pul’s portrait merged against a black background calling 17 July 2016 a ‘Black Day’.

To paraphrase Dickens, for some 17 July 2016 is the spring of hope, for some it is the winter of despair.

Dissecting the Dalai’s visit

On April 5, the fourteenth Dalai Lama will address a large crowd of Buddhists at the Yidiga Choedzin in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang town. While thousands of Buddhist Monpas are eagerly waiting to see their spiritual leader speak, a man considered a living god, not everyone in Arunachal Pradesh is enthusiastic about his visit.

The Dalai Lama first came to the state in 1959 when he escaped from the Potala Palace in Tibet’s capital Lhasa, entering Tawang and passing through several places before eventually setting up camp in Dharmsala where the Tibetan government in-exile operates out of. Since then, he has visited the state seven times. Given the People’s Republic of China’s position on Arunachal Pradesh and it’s equation with the Dalai Lama, it’s hardly surprising that the Chinese government does not take too kindly to his visits to the state.

Ever since his visit was announced, Chinese officials have repeatedly raised objections stating that the state is disputed territory and that the Dalai Lama’s repeated visits further complicate matters. The Chinese officials seem to have found support to their argument from the unlikeliest of sources- a section of people from Arunachal Pradesh.

Since the turn of the last century, the Chinese have maintained that Tibet is part of China and that a large part of present-day Arunachal Pradesh (which it calls South Tibet) was under Lhasa’s control, ergo making over 80,000 square kilometres of the state a part of China. In 1962, border disputes escalated to such heights that the People’s Liberation Army forces marched deep inside Arunachal Pradesh before unilaterally retreating. Since then, border skirmishes and encroachments have been frequently reported and the Chinese continue to maintain that the region is disputed. Although India has also asserted its stand and found support from the people of the state, who happen to be zealously patriotic, some here agree with the Chinese that the Dalai Lama’s visits rough up an already rocky relationship between the two countries.

Dr Nani Bath, a professor at the Rajiv Gandhi University and a prominent political commentator feels that the Dalai Lama’s visits to the state are counter-productive to relations between the two countries and as such his visits should be halted.

“We must be aware of collateral damages arising out of his visits,” he says.

Former secretary of the North East Students Organization, Gumjum Haider, also says that the Dalai Lama is “a reason of irritation between the two nations” and that if “his visit does not yield any development, any benefit to the people” then it should be stopped.

Another voice of opposition to his visits is Arunachal Civil Society chairman Patey Tayum who is even planning to hold an event reasoning why the Dalai Lama should not come here.

Vocal apprehensions to the Dalai Lama’s visits however, have come from non-Buddhists only so far.

Lama Yeshi, a stocky monk at the GRL Monastery in Bomdila (where the Dalai Lama will speak) nonchalantly reacts to questions of such views by saying that “bolne wala bolte rahega (those who have to say will say anything)”. His statement is in line with what one young entrepreneur from Bomdila says is characteristic of Monpas and Buddhists.

“Our people don’t really like making political statements,” he says.

However, there is one Buddhist who breaks the mould.

Lama Lobsang Gyatso, a monk from the area who shot to limelight for his stance against large hydropower projects in the region thinks there are two reasons for inviting the Dalai Lama.

“One, inviting him gives India an opportunity to show its supremacy. Second, to bring peace and tranquillity after last year’s incident,” he says.

On April 28, Gyatso was arrested on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the 336-year old Tawang Monastery, also known as the Galden Namgey Lhatse- celestial paradise in a clear night. A few days later on May 2, Gyatso was to attend court for a bail hearing. His supporters, mostly fellow monks and nuns, had begun gathering outside the police station where he was held. When his bail plea was turned down, the police took him inside the station again, this time from a different entrance. This agitated the protestors, and as per some claims, began pelting stones at the police station. In reaction, the police and men of the Indian Reserve Battalion began firing their guns in an attempt to disperse the crowd which resulted in the death of two young men.

Gyatso says that the Dalai Lama is revered by the people in Tawang and if he appeals for peace, people will listen. As for whether the Dalai Lama should visit or not, he is clear that there is no reason he shouldn’t.

“Our poor and the elderly cannot go out to see him. He should come,” he says.

Religious considerations aside, the Dalai Lama’s visits are more about international diplomacy.

“His visits actually stake claim metaphorically to the land as ours. It’s a refined way of asserting rather than hold placards and shout ourselves hoarse. It’s like saying this is our land, we will do what we want and call who we call,” is one view.

One observer says that “the thing with disputed issues/land/claims/property/ideas is that if one doesn’t reiterate them once in a while, people take that as a sign of the other giving up”.

Even Bath notes that the Dalai Lama “is being used by the government of India against China. As such, its motive is not to let the people see him but to counter dragon’s moves”.

Recently, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union has said that the Chinese have no right in interfering in this matter.

It said that China’s comments on the Dalai Lama’s visit are “nonsensical” and that it should refrain from India’s internal matters. Incidentally, it also said that the stapled visas that are issued to citizens from the state by the Chinese government should be accepted as valid, thereby allowing people to travel to China.

In the past, many sportspersons and bureaucrats were either not given visas by Chinese embassies or issued stapled visas which Indian authorities do not accept.

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The weight of expectations and how Irom Sharmila lost the election 

This past Saturday when news began pouring in that anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila Chanu was staring down a massive defeat in her debut election, shocked reactions from across the country began pouring in. By the time the votes had been counted, the fact that she managed to secure only 90 votes elicited the kind of social media response typical of those unaware of the political scenario of the Northeast. However, hardly anyone in her home state of Manipur was surprised by the outcome.

Last year in August, Sharmila, who had been demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), broke her nearly 16-year long fast to contest the legislative assembly polls after forming the Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). While her decision to quit her fast and enter electoral politics was met with criticism from many quarters, she and her party believed that they could make a mark on the state’s political landscape. Unfortunately, not many voters felt the same way.

While the PRJA had fielded only three candidates, including Sharmila, it did it best to fend off predictions of a massive loss. Its co-convenor, Erendro Leichombam, who contested from the Thangmeiband constituency and managed to secure only 573 votes, had earlier said he was confident that all three of its candidates would “win by a huge margin”. 

While the PRJA and Sharmila’s first tryst with politics was admired by some, most people in Manipur knew that the outcome of the election would play out unfavourably for them.

“That (election result) was not at all shocking for us,” says one rights activist from the capital Imphal, and resonates what many feel led to the debacle of the party that hoped to buck the trend and make AFSPA an election issue when adding that “PRJA is unfortunately very disconnected with the reality of electoral politics”.

The common narrative attempting to explain the massive defeat of the party’s star candidate and a global icon is that elections in Manipur are not fought on the plank of repealing AFSPA or conflict or militarisation. Most people care about employment and “which candidate can help them get jobs and facilities”. 

In a state where the unemployment rate is higher than the national average, this is an important issue in the minds of voters. Nowhere was this more evident than in Thoubal constituency where Sharmila took on the incumbent chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh.

Ibobi Singh is a veteran who had successfully fought from the constituency thrice in the past and ruled the state for 15 years. So sure was he of his victory that never once did he publicly scoff Sharmila’s foray into politics and welcomed her move. His confidence perhaps stemmed from the fact that he has “provided jobs” to almost every family in the constituency during his tenure. 

Some also feel that Singh had successfully managed to steer the conversation towards Manipur’s “territorial integrity” amongst the dominant Meitei population living primarily in the Imphal Valley which frequently faces paralyzing economic blockades whenever there is a show of anger against the government in the surrounding hill districts.   

Perhaps one of the biggest blows that Sharmila was hit with was the anger and disappointment from other anti-AFSPA activists including the mothers who had staged a naked protest in 2004 against the alleged rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles personnel. Many of her long-time supporters felt and advised her against entering politics. Her decision to take a new route caused her to lose the support of an important and influential demographic group. 

Apart from her decision to enter politics, her relationship with Desmond Coutinho has been a bone of contention amongst some of her supporters and other activists. Coutinho’s had an uneasy relationship with Sharmila’s supporters and others in Manipur, to put it lightly.

Reportedly, in 2011 when Coutinho first visited Manipur after staying in touch with Sharmila through letters, he was initially not allowed visit by other activists. And after two days when he was finally allowed to meet her, his reported insistence on sitting with Sharmila at the meira shang (women’s shelter) where the influential Meira Paibis (Women Torchbearers) had gathered, caused much anger. What didn’t help further is that he has been critical of many of those in Manipur who have supported Sharmila’s fight including activists and local journalists. Recently, Sharmila issued a statement apologizing for Coutinho’s use of foul language against some of those who had stood with her during her fast and continue to do so. 

Her private matters aside, Sharmila has since said she will quit politics for good but will continue to fight AFSPA and extend her support to PRJA. She has also said that she looks forward to get married to Coutinho and has plans to go to an ashram for some time before taking the next step. 

Just a day after the results were declared, and as people outside of Manipur continued to express their shock over Sharmila’s defeat, Manipur itself was more preoccupied with talks of government formation. 

By Monday evening, the Congress’ Ibobi Singh had resigned as chief minister to pave way for the BJP’s Nongthombam Biren Singh. Although the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 28 MLAs in the 60-member house, the BJP with its 21 MLAs managed to reach the majority with the support of the National People’s Party and the Naga People’s Front which has four MLAs each, Congress MLA T Shyamkumar, Trinamool Congress’ T Robindro and independent MLA Ashad Uddin.  

Meanwhile, Irom Chanu Sharmila, called by many names including the Iron Lady of Manipur and Mengoubi (the fair one), may ride off into the sunset as a forgotten figure like she did on her cycle during her campaign days.

Media, moral policing and manipulation: Who lost when Metropolis was shut down?

Since 2013, Metropolis Urban Winter Festival held in Guwahati, Assam had managed to bring together artists, musicians and others from the creative fields to showcase their work, exchange ideas and bring ‘urbanity’ to the city. This year was to be no different until the last day when it was hastily shut down by authorities, reportedly following a tweet by a senior minister.

Held from January 6 to 8, the festival’s main venue was Nehru Park. This year’s edition played host to a 72-member delegation from Bhutan, including those from the Thimpu-based Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA). Private partners aside, the festival also had the support of state authorities including Assam Tourism and the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA). And while things ran fairly smoothly for the first two days, the GMDA shut down proceedings on the last day, allegedly because the venue had become a den for illicit activities.

 

POLITICAL GAMES?

A source in the organising committee of the festival said that the GMDA had given them permission for three days but that the same GMDA shut them down on the last day after a tweet from senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma criticising the “atmosphere” at Nehru Park.

On Sunday, Sarma had tweeted, “Why GMDA allowed Nehru Park for so called winter festival? The park belongs to the children. I will not tolerate atmosphere to be vitiated”.

Some say that Sarma’s reaction is fuelled by a “clash between two ideologies”. The festival reportedly enjoys the “blessing” of former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s son and Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi, who in fact expressed his support for the festival on social media.

On January 8, a Facebook post (reportedly from Gogoi’s profile) read, “From day one I have supported the Metropolis festival in Guwahati as a celebration of youth, art and creativity. I would even take the Ex CM Tarun Gogoi to the festival where he would encourage everyone. The youth of Northeast are full of talent and creativity, and their initiatives should be supported and not obstructed.”

Then on Twitter, Gogoi took a dig at the BJP government in Assam when he tweeted, “Assam govt opens wine shops earlier in the day but shuts down youth arts festival for being a nuisance”. Two days later he again took to Facebook stating that the “GMDA should return the booking money that it collected from the Metropolis festival organisers. It is unfair to first give permission and then cancel for no rationale”.

One person who is part of the organizing team said there “may be some misinformation about the involvement of certain people”, hinting at Gogoi while dismissing his level of involvement.

 

MEDIA AND MORAL POLICING?

The people behind the organizing team claim that things escalated after some local news channels and papers blew things out of proportion.

“There is no evidence that liquor was served in the venue or any gambling took place as reported by some channels,” said one person part of the team.

Another member of the team said that the main venue is located near the Cotton College and the DC’s office and that the organisers never served alcohol to attendees.

They also say that some channels claimed that the venue had become a place of “nudity”.

“The trend in the media here is that anyone wearing clothes that show skin is labelled as promoting ‘nudity’,” said one. “This is Talibanization of Assam,” he added.

Another member of the team said that in Assam there are “no news channels and only views channels”. He added that the situation was escalated because most channels are either owned by politicians or enjoy their backing and therefore “look into things with the perspectives of the politicians”.

A journalist who works for a Guwahati-based channel that covered the event defended his channel’s actions.

“Whatever we reported was based on an internal report that the GDMA had compiled,” he said, adding that the channel did not investigate the claims independently.

He did however, say that the organisers had disrespected the Ashok stambh and Jawaharlal Nehru’s statue in the venue by covering their faces.

News channels also alleged that the bone of contention was that a ‘children’s park’ was being misused as patrons were smoking and drinking at the main venue. Not everyone is convinced by this claim.

 

POINT OF VIEW

Child rights activist from Guwahati, Miguel Das Queah, who held a session on corporal punishment in schools during the festival took to Facebook to express his views.

“I met lots of lots of children, along with their parents, who told me that they were absolutely enjoying the festivity. The festival had hundreds of vibrant young students, scholars, artists, musicians, photographers, designers, dancers, social workers, activists, actors, couples; each one celebrating the beautiful occasion of childhood and youth. There were no brawls, no misdemeanour. How can such a beautiful thing vitiate the atmosphere?” he wrote.

A city-based journalist working for a Delhi-based news outlet said that there was some amount of littering in the place but that the venue is far from what can be deemed as a ‘children’s park’ and serves more as a place for young couples to meet.

“There may have been some issues but it could have been handled differently,” the journalist added.

Amidst the din of what amounts to culturally-appropriate behaviour and possible politically-motivated moves, the primary aim of promoting the arts was relegated to the background.

“Nobody reported that we showcased three classics of Assamese cinema or the amazing performances by children,” one of the organisers said.

 A version of this report first appeared in The Citizen

All well in Mawlynnong?

‘Welcome to Mawlynnong (God’s own Garden) Cleanest Village in Asia’ declares a signboard near the gates of the village in Meghalaya.

Dubbed as the ‘cleanest village in Asia’, Mawlynnong is a perfect example of what a self-sustaining community can do for itself. From working together to keep the village clean to helping visitors, this village of 500-odd people should be the model for prime minister Narendra Modi’s plans for a Swachh Bharat. Unfortunately, not all is well in this garden.

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The spotless streets of Mawlynnong.

Back in 2003, the village, located around 90 kilometres from the state capital Shillong and near the Bangladesh border, was ‘declared’ as the cleanest village in Asia. And from the first time one enters the village, it is easy to see why.

Spotless cemented pathways lined with dustbins made from bamboo, there isn’t any sight of garbage to be seen anywhere. Walking around the village, one can see that this cleanliness is not a gimmick as the homes of the Khasi people who live here also abide by this practice. In fact, the reason that the village remains so spotless is because the entire community comes together every evening and morning to clean it up after and before opening its gates to tourists.

It is unclear as to what led to this collective habit of keeping the village clean but most people speculate that an outbreak of cholera some hundred years back is what could have led people to imbibe such cleanliness practices.

Just to be clear though, the village wasn’t accorded its moniker by any world body or international organization. It was, in fact, first referred to as the cleanest village in Asia in an article that appeared in a travel magazine. Since then, the floodgates opened and tourists began pouring in to the village. With the flow of visitors there are other issues that have come up.

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Curious Khasi children from the village.

Henry Kharymbhah, who was on information duty the day we visited, informed that sometimes visitors litter the place but that they do not impose a penalty on them.

“Instead we pick up their litter in front of them to make them realise their mistake,” he said.

Kharymbhah and the villagers are proud of what they have achieved. He said that there are toilets in each of the 90 homes in the village, all of which were built from their own funds.

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Henry Kharymbhah takes a break from his work.

“Now we impose a fee of Rs 50 if someone is caught defecating in the open,” he said.

Clearly the village has benefitted from its fame. Apart from the old houses, there are at least 9 home stays that service visitors and many more are under-construction. However, the dorbar shnong (village council) which monitors the village’s day-to-day operations has been facing other issues.

While the village has been able to sustain itself thanks to the flow of tourists and the business they bring, maintaining the village’s USP costs money. Although bamboo garbage bins can be produced in the village itself, the metal frames that hold them need to be made elsewhere and that costs money. Additionally, villagers like B Khongtiang who was busy making a fishnet for himself and who regularly helps out in the village also need to be paid.

Kharymbhah said that the village council has sought help but so far the Meghalaya government has not extended any financial aid.

He said that the village is able to bear the expenses thanks to money coming in from the tourists but they still need help.

“It’s not that we don’t want aid. We just haven’t been given any,” he said.

The Meghalaya government however denies such claims.

An official from the state tourism department, P Tariang, said that there are already four projects in place and two more planned for implementation in Mawlynnong.

“In fact, Mawlynnong is the only place that is getting maximum benefits as of now,” he said.

Fighting alcohol in Arunachal

Nabam Serbang is on a mission. Earlier this year, the former software engineer travelled across the length and breadth of Arunachal Pradesh’s mountainous terrain to rid the state of alcohol.

Alcohol sale in Arunachal Pradesh is not illegal as it is in Manipur, Nagaland (both in the north-east), Gujarat and more recently, Bihar. In fact, alcohol is easily and freely available in stores that dot the state’s landscape. A running joke being that there are more liquor stores than chemist shops in the state.

But apart from consuming Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), the indigenous tribal populations also brew a variety of rice and maize-based alcohol that are an integral part of many ceremonial practices and festivals. Which is what makes the efforts of Serbang and others a bit of an anomaly.

After working as a software engineer for seven years in Pune, Delhi, Bangalore and California, Serbang returned home in 2014. In his own words, he left his job where he earned over one lakh rupees each month “to contribute to society”.

“I want to improve the quality of education in the state but the environment has to be good,” he says. The 31-year old feels that the “environment” will improve with the introduction of prohibition.

Serbang was in the last stretch of his motorcycle journey and had clocked over 6000-km (over a course of over 50 days) when we met in a small dining room at hotel Dolma Khangsar in Tawang town on May 18. A small white flag with the words ‘Dry State, Quality Education, No Early Marriage’ was neatly laid out on the table as the bespectacled man claimed that alcohol is “destroying our youth”.

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A state free from alcohol, Serbang feels, can end many of the state’s problems.

“Alcohol is more easily available in our state than life-saving medicines,” he explains passionately and adds that liquor stores do not follow the law when they sell alcohol to people under the age of 21.

“There are responsible drinkers but their numbers are less,” he says and that “IMFL and beer are not affecting responsible drinkers because they are aware of their health and economic impacts”, perhaps in an attempt to dispel any notions that he is against alcohol consumption entirely.

Serbang says that his crusade against alcohol stems from his belief that “our society is socially not matured” and that “our present society is not even 100 years old”. However, there may be another reason that drives him to pursue what he is pursuing; something more personal.

Originally from Hojuriangpa village in Sagalee, some 90km from the state capital of Itanagar, Serbang is the eldest son from a brood of 14 surviving siblings. His father, a gaon burah, has three wives (not divorced). Polygamy is still practiced among many tribes of the state and amongst the Nyishi community to which Serbang belongs, it is a common practice. He is the son of his father’s ‘first wife’ and now lives in Naharlagun, 10km from Itanagar, with his father, a few of his siblings and his “second mother” (his father’s second wife).

Serbang’s eldest sister passed away some years back and he looked after her four sons’ education.

“Now her sons are also graduating this year,” he says of his second mother’s children and that he looked after many of his other relatives’ education as well.

His high-paying job may have helped finance his relatives’ education but at one point his own education was under threat.

“My father was an alcoholic and was not able to spend a single penny for my education,” he says. His mother would sell vegetables in Naharlagun to raise money for his education.

“My mother and other family members would constantly quarrel with my father for my educational expenses since he was drinking all the time,” he says. His father has now been sober for more than two years and has become, according to Serbang, “handsome, caring and loved by all”.

He says that alcohol was “conquering” his father and that there are “countless” others like his father who are spending their money on alcohol and “taking money from their wives”.

Having helped his siblings earn their graduation degrees and inspired his father to go sober, Serbang is now focussed on his crusade against alcohol and has opened an NGO, Drug-Free Arunachal. He wants to take his fight to the streets.

“This journey is to engage with other NGOs and get signatures” for his campaign. If he has enough people supporting him, Serbang will seek a referendum on the issue.

Travelling without a tent in his 150-cc Hero Achiever, Serbang says he’s had to rely on the help of people he comes across during his journey. Astonishingly, he travelled without any financial funding.

“I ask for free fuel from the petrol stations explaining them my situation,” he says, adding that he approaches NGOs and public leaders for help if he is ever refused, which has happened on some occasions.

The former software engineer says that he slept where his day ended of his experience of often shacking up at people’s homes.

He is also not too bothered by the loss of tax revenue that the state is bound to experience if prohibition were to be imposed, dismissing it as not being a large enough amount to affect the economy.

But Serbang may have an uphill task ahead of him considering that even in the remotest of villages where pharmacies and gas stations are rare to come by, liquor stores are ubiquitous. And while there isn’t any data available on alcoholism amongst the populace, there is other related information that indicates that there could really be something to be addressed.

According to data from the National Sample Survey, on an average, each Arunachal citizen spent Rs 127.32 each month from July 2011 to June 2012 on alcohol. The national average for the same period was Rs 20.26. In the 2011-12 financial year, the state’s monthly per capita income was Rs 6,007.58 per month, which means that people spent more than two percent of their income on alcohol. This is not taking into account money spent at bars and on locally-made rice beer, the sale of which is unregulated.

For the financial year 2014-15, the state government earned more than Rs 55 crore as tax from alcohol sales. That revenue however, also went into funding the ambitious Chief Minister’s Universal Health Insurance Scheme that provides health coverage of up to Rs two lakh to residents of the state. However, some argue that if people stop consuming alcohol, healthcare expenses will come down anyway.

 

PERSPECTIVES ON PROHIBITION

While Serbang is optimistic about his mission and has been enthused by people’s willingness to help him in his journey, there are mixed reactions to the idea of introducing total prohibition in the state.

Dr Nani Bath, professor at Rajiv Gandhi University at Doimukh, supports the idea and calls Serbang’s effort “a great idea and initiative”.

The prohibition crusader has also found support from the Adi Bane Kebang (ABK), the top community organisation of one of the largest tribes in the state- the Adis.

Every year during the Christmas and New Year season, the ABK asks liquor store owners in Adi-populated areas to shut shop in an attempt to cut down alcohol-induced crimes.

The ABK’s women wing president, Yalem Taga Burang, says that their campaign against alcohol is driven by the need to eradicate the proverbial ‘social evils’.

“The root cause of all crimes is IMFL,” she declares confidently over the phone.

In most tribal societies of the Northeast such as the Adis, women are held in high regard and enjoy a great amount of freedom than in most patriarchal societies. Not surprising therefore, that the women leading the ABK have tasted much ‘success’ in their campaigns against alcohol.

Since 2013, no new licences for bars or liquor stores have been issued in East Siang district, home to a predominantly Adi populace thanks to the ABK’s campaign. As if that were not enough, the women often conduct unannounced ‘raids’ to apprehend people violating their diktats against drinking alcohol in certain places such as on the banks of the Siang river during after hours.

Buoyed by their success, Burang informs that they now want the three districts of Siang, East Siang and Upper Siang where the Adis are in a majority to be declared as “dry districts” on a “trial basis”.

“We have the memorandum ready and are waiting to meet the chief minister to present our proposal,” she says.

However, not everyone is in agreement that a total ban on alcohol is the right way to go.

Joya Tasung Moyong, one of the founders of Women Against Social Evils, says that prohibition can be counterproductive.

“I fear that prohibition will drive youngsters to drugs and so we must try to control consumption and create awareness about the harms of alcohol instead,” she says seated on a comfy cane couch.

Moyong and her colleagues founded WASE after a falling out with the ABK over ‘several issues’ which included, but not confined to, differences over the style of functioning.

“We were quite aggressive in our approach to ensure alcohol is not sold illegally or to minors,” she says, adding that some of the locals have labelled her new group ‘Gulabi Gang’ after the more famous women activists group from Uttar Pradesh.

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Moyong and her colleagues are also against alcohol abuse but she is unsure if prohibition is the answer.

The way that the WASE works is that they conduct awareness campaigns trying to educate people about the harms alcohol can have. When not raising awareness, the women conduct raids.

Moyong says that they have a network of informants in and around 15 villages and localities around Pasighat town in East Siang district who tip them off if unlicensed stores are selling alcohol or if underage children are seen drinking. It’s highly efficient and they even have their own witness protection system in place.

“We never disclose our informers’ identities, even to each other,” she says.

Enthusiastic as she is (Moyong has collected information of people who have died of liver cirrhosis and alcohol-induced accidents from the area in the recent years), she appears to be a realist as well.

While she admits that rehabilitating alcoholics is a difficult task since alcohol is so freely available, she still says that at the end of the day it is awareness and education that will be their biggest tools.

These recent efforts are however, not part of an entirely new movement. Even before Serbang had begun his crusade, villagers in Karko had already prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol.

A sign in the village reads ‘Possession/Consumption of Indian Made Foreign Liquor Is Strictly Prohibited at Karko Village’.

Dry village Karko

Booze-free Karko village?

Efforts are also being made of late to keep a check on the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants in twin capital towns of Itanagar and Naharlagun.

Recently the town’s administration had issued a circular directing bar owners to shut shop by 10 PM with a view to curb illegal sale of liquor and to clamp down on alcohol-related crimes.

Tagru Ponung, who owns and operates a bar in the town and is president of the super inclusively named Arunachal Hotel, Resort, Restaurant and Bar Association, says that the rules have to be updated along with the changing times and that trouble-makers usually stay out of bars anyway.

“Those who create law-and-order problems don’t come to bars. Instead, they hang out in under-construction buildings, drinking low quality booze,” he says.

Aside from the economic benefit the state earns from alcohol sales taxes, Ponung hits home another issue when he says that he employs 20 people in his bar.

“What about their livelihood,” he asks.

Although the ABK women’s wing president admits that family incomes will be affected if prohibition is brought into effect, she retorts that “there are other methods to earn a living”.

Pasang Sona, an MLA from the state, says that introducing prohibition will not help the state.

Sona, who was one among the many legislators who had vocally opposed a motion to impose prohibition in the state Assembly in 2013, has not heard of Serbang’s journey but cites Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur as examples of its failure.

Even Bath, who supports Serbang says that “no state is practically a dry state”. Case in point are the states of Nagaland and Manipur where although prohibition is in place, alcohol is freely available.

 

NEIGHBOURHOOD VIEWS

Ramanand Wangkheirakpam from Manipur (where prohibition has been in place since 1991), incidentally was at the same hotel in Tawang in May,  and warns against introducing prohibition.

Drawing from his home state’s experience with the law, Wangkheirakpam says that it has led to adulteration of alcohol which lowers its quality. He also talks about the cultural significance of alcohol stating that “every society has always made its own brew which captures the essence of that society”.

For the record though, Serbang isn’t opposed to locally made brew such as the famous apong, which can be made from rice or millet. His fight is only against IMFL and beer.

Last year, the Mizoram government lifted total prohibition on IMFL and beer after two decades. Now, people above the age of 21 are issued ‘liquor cards’ with which they can purchase six bottles of the oxymoronically termed Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and ten bottles of wine and beer every month. The liquor cards cost Rs 300 each.

One government official from Mizoram, not wishing to be named, says that total prohibition can never be successful.

He says that alcohol was sourced from outside the state when prohibition was in place but that there were many complaints of people falling ill due to adulteration.

While the churches in Mizoram continue to oppose the lifting of the total prohibition, the people are clearly elated with the decision.

Since total prohibition was lifted, 57 licenses have been issued for liquor stores in the state and 46 are currently in operation. In one year alone, by last count, 80,000 people had been issued liquor cards. Mizoram’s population according to the last Census is a little above ten lakh, meaning that nearly 8 percent of the people have liquor cards.

In Nagaland, where the churches play an important role in people’s lives, prohibition is still in place, at least on paper.

While the Nagaland Liquor Total Prohibition (NLTP) Act that has been in place since 1989 prohibits its sale, alcohol is easily available across the state for a slight premium. In the capital, Kohima, one can see rows of shops where the only products on sale appear to be bottled water which are neatly stacked and lined up on shelves. A little probing can get you anything from a bottle of Johnnie Walker to a can of beer.

Since the church is opposed to lifting the NLTP Act, very few voices come out in opposition to prohibition. That however, is changing.

Daniel Swu from Nagaland says that the law is not relevant anymore since alcohol can be purchased “everywhere”. He also says that the ban is impacting the state exchequer since it cannot tax something that technically isn’t being sold.

A scan of the newspapers from Nagaland also reveals a growing discontentment with the Act and the state government too seems to be honed into these voices as it had considered reviewing the law recently.

The church though, is firm in its position of opposition of any proposals to lift the Act.

Dr Zelhou Keyho, secretary of the Nagaland Baptist Church Council, says that the church “looks forward for a healthy discussion” on the issue but that they are opposed to the idea of lifting the ban.

Keyho says that the Act has failed because it is not implemented properly, even though it is “an excellent act”.

Admitting that the church needs to “do more” to encourage people to adhere to the ban, he says that it is the state government that should implement the Act more stringently.

“Church does not have the power to implement the Act,” he says.

Speaking from the NBCC headquarters in Kohima, the reverend says that “responsible behaviour does not need to be defined by law alone” and that people need to act responsibly themselves.

The church in Nagaland also appears to be adamant in its stance as it is not open to the idea of regulating legal sale of locally-brewed beer, known as zutho and thutse.

“The ban has to be total as evil comes out of zutho as well. We cannot say that only liquor from outside is bad,” he argues and clarifies that even traditionally brewed alcohol should be judged on the merits of its benefit to society.

One of the strongest arguments made by those opposed to the ban, such as Daniel Swu, is that the sale of liquor can bring in revenue for the state government. Currently, bootlegged alcohol is smuggled into Nagaland from neighbouring states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. The church however, takes a moral high ground on this argument, with Keyho stating that there are better ways to earn revenue.

Will the church in Nagaland be open to the idea of partial lifting as was done in Mizoram?

Keyho’s is of the opinion that people of Nagaland are “not ready” for a similar move.

“What is good for Mizoram may not be good for Nagaland and vice versa,” he says. On the other side, Swu questions why Nagaland cannot implement a partial act if Mizoram can.

While in Nagaland this debate has been brewing for almost three decades, in Arunachal it is just starting.

Over the years, as people began converting to Christianity, many claim to have quit alcohol since it is frowned upon by the church.

Tai Ete, an evangelist with the Revival Church here, says that that the churches “do not appreciate alcoholism” and that they instruct congregation members against alcohol consumption whether foreign or home-grown.

While the churches have never publicly sought to ban the sale of alcohol in the state, they also do not permit anyone involved in the sale of liquor to hold any positions in the church administration.

 

FAITH AND ALCOHOL

Ete also claims that 90 percent of the members of the Revival denomination in Arunachal Pradesh are teetotallers and that “perhaps 10 percent are drinking secretly”.

Appreciative of Serbang’s effort, Ete calls it “encouraging” and that “we must work together to help society”.

It isn’t just the Church that discourages alcohol consumption though.

Bengia Augung, president of the Donyi Polo Faith & Cultural Society, an organisation protecting and promoting the indigenous Donyi-Polo faith of five major tribes of the state, also advocates prohibition.

“Alcohol is harmful and it should be phased out,” he says but clarifies that he is referring to IMFL. Since locally-brewed apong and its varieties are an integral part of tribal festivals and rituals, Augung says that its use should be permitted on those days alone.

Although Serbang is a Christian himself, he says he is not driven by any religious motives.

Dismissing any attempt to link his fight with his faith, Serbang says he is a “nominal” Christian (meaning that he is not an active church goer) and that he has “no affinity with any religious organization”.

On that cold night in Tawang, just before he gets up from his chair to return to his shelter for the night, I give in to the temptation of asking him if he has ever taken a swig of alcohol even once in his life.

“Never.”

Versions of this story appeared in The Dawnlit Post and The Citizen.

 

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.

Awaiting closure and reports’ disclosure in Tawang

Seated on a bed that doubles up as a sofa in the visitors’ room of the Tawang Monastery, Leki Wangchuk speaks calmly, belying any pain he feels remembering his now deceased brother, Tsering Tempa, who was shot dead by security forces more than a month ago.

Two months ago on May 2, residents of the predominantly quiet Buddhist town of Tawang in Aruanchal Pradesh in India’s Northeast woke up tense. Four days earlier on April 28, Lobsang Gyatso, a Buddhist monk and vocal opponent of the government’s plans to build large dams in the district was arrested on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the 336-year old Tawang Monastery, also known as the Galden Namgey Lhatse- celestial paradise in a clear night. That day, the skies were clear but a cloud of tragedy was lurking on the horizon.

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Leki Wangchuk (background) looks on as Lobsang Gyatso narrates the events of May 2.

PRELUDE

Gyatso has been leading protests against plans to build 13 dams in Tawang district, using the platform of the Save Mon Region Federation, an organisation that has a strong support base of monks and nuns apart from villagers

He is also the general secretary of the organisation and an ordained monk who studied at the Sera Je Monastery in Bylakuppe near Mysore in Karnataka in southern India. A few years after his return, Gyatso began raising concerns about the environmental impacts of the many hydropower projects planned for Tawang district.

As India looks ahead to become a global force, harnessing the country’s water resources figure highly in the government’s plans especially as it looks to compete against its neighbour China with which it already shares a rocky relationship. What’s more, India has plans to build over 160 hydropower projects in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, a state that China already lays claim to as its own, with the Tawang region being particularly contentious.

On April 26, Gyatso was arrested for leading villagers from Gongkhar, the site for the 6 megawatt Mukto Shakangchu project, opposing the reconstruction of a spillway which they claimed had broken because of substandard work. He was arrested based on a complaint filed by the security officer of a local legislator for disruption of peace. He was later let out on bail the same day.

However, he was arrested again on April 28 for allegedly insulting the abbot of the Tawang Monastery by questioning his nationality and telling him to stay out of matters relating to the hydropower issue. The basis for the arrest was an audio clip that Gyatso and his supporters say was recorded in 2012 when his anti-large dam protests began but was used by his detractors as fodder for their attack on him.

Gyatso says that the powerful politicians of the area acted vindictively because the Save Mon Region Federation had managed to win a favourable verdict from India’s National Green Tribunal when it suspended the environmental clearance given earlier to the 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu hydropower project in the district.

After he was arrested, for what his some feel was trumped up charges, his supporters waited four days until demanding his release from the police station that has two small cells.

A TRAGEDY UNFOLDS

On that morning, Gyatso was to attend court for a bail hearing. His supporters, mostly fellow monks and nuns, had begun gathering outside the police station where he was held. When his bail plea was turned down, the police took him inside the station again, this time from a different entrance. This agitated the protestors, and as per some claims, began pelting stones at the police station. In reaction, the police and men of the Indian Reserve Battalion began firing their guns in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

Apart from some police and security personnel sustaining minor injuries during the firing, at least six civilians were seriously injured and two people were killed. One a former monk the other still donning in his monk robes.

31-year old Tsering Tempa, who had recently got married after giving up his monk vows a few years back, was shot in the head. Nyima Wangdi was still a young monk of 21 years when he was killed in the police firing.

Portraits of Nyima Wangdi (left) and Tsering Tempa stand high on a shelf in Lobsang Gyatso’s house

Portraits of Nyima Wangdi (left) and Tsering Tempa stand high on a shelf in Lobsang Gyatso’s house.

While the state government had set up two inquires to investigate the matter, the exact events of the day remain murky. Varying accounts from different people blame the protestors for turning violent while Gyatso and others smell a larger political conspiracy to derail the anti-dam movement in the district.

Investigations and inquires on the matter are underway but amongst the protestors and monks, the mood is not one of positivity.

DOUBTING THOMASES

Several organisations such as the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union have called for a CBI inquiry into the matter instead of state-government constituted committees. In fact, the influential students’ body has said it will file a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a central inquiry. This distrust of state government constituted inquiries stems from the fact that they have never been able to truly provide closure to victims in the past. What could further fuel this feeling is the revelation that apart from the Tawang district superintendent of police Anto Alphonse and officer-in-charge of the Tawang police station Lham Dhondup, none of the other higher-ranked officials have been suspended even though an official statement from the government had claimed otherwise.

Broken windows of the police station where authorities claim protestors pelted stones

Broken windows of the police station where authorities claim protestors pelted stones.

Soon after the incident on May 4, an official statement from the office of the deputy chief minister of the state, Kameng Dolo, said that Tawang deputy commissioner Duly Kamduk and Dhondup were suspended, along with Alphonse. In reality though, only Alphonse and Dhondup are serving a suspension while Kamduk has been transferred to Itanagar and deputy superintendent of police Pem Norbu Thongdok has been transferred to Namsai.

While complaints had been filed against the protestors for attacking the police station, an FIR against the police for the murder of the two young men was only filed after the issue was raised with the present deputy commissioner and superintendent of police by visiting human rights activists on May 19, a full 17 days after the incident.

It was only on June 13 that five police constables and one sub-inspector were suspended for the police’s failure to “follow all the standard operating procedures for using firearms in dispersal of the unlawful mob”, again as per an official statement.

Another revelation that can heighten suspicion about the impartiality of the state-government formed committees is the fact that a report of the incident written by Alphonse has not been made public.

CONCEALMENT? 

Sources have confirmed that a report on the day’s incident written by Alphonse was submitted on May 6, the contents of which remain a mystery. In fact, it is unclear as to whether the former SP had submitted the report before or after his sacking. While the police and administration have provided a section of the media with copies of the police complaints and FIRs related to the matter, the report by Alphonse is currently under lock-and-key at the deputy commissioner’s office in Tawang.

Aside from the government’s refusal to disclose complete details, what is adding to the confusion is rumours of the police itself damaging some of the vehicles in the police station premises to falsify the nature of the protest on that fateful day.

Hearsay aside, a number of officials and civilians from Tawang town have spoken about the police and security personnel’s inadequate training and preparedness to deal with such scenarios.

Several eyewitness accounts claim that tear gas was fired initially but the shells allegedly fell beyond the proximity of the protestors. At least one shell reportedly fell in front of a nearby shop while another found its way to a farmland.

There are also shocking claims that have been made (in private) by officials from the district administration themselves narrating how some security men behaved in a reckless and callous manner, even to the point of training their guns at some junior officials who tried to restrain them from shooting at the public.

The four-week deadline of the inquiry committees to submit their reports are long up and are yet to be made public.

In fact, the report compiled by the district administration was already submitted to the state chief secretary on May 19 but details have not been disclosed yet. There is no official word yet as to when the report from the other committee will be submitted.

Until such a time, Tempa’s young widow Sonam in Jangda village and Wangdi’s family in Bongleng will have to wait for some form of closure.

(This article was first published in The Citizen on July 10, 2016. )