Tradition, gender equality, politics: A cacophony of voices from Nagaland

Two deaths, arson, bandhs and disruption of communication lines: these are some of the impacts of the current chaos that has gripped Nagaland for over a week now.

Protests in Nagaland were triggered after the state government announced polls for Urban Local Bodies (ULB) in December last year with a provision to reserve 33 percent of seats for women.

Various Nagaland-based groups, including ‘apex’ bodies of the tribes called the Hohos, have opposed the government’s move to reserve seats for women, calling it an infringement upon Naga traditions and customs as protected under Article 371A of the Constitution.

On the other side are the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) and Joint Action Committee for Women’s Reservation (JACWR) which have pursued the need for laws to establish greater women’s participation in electoral politics in the state. For the record, Nagaland has never had a women MLA since it became a full-fledged state in December 1963 and has had one woman Lok Sabha MP, Rano Shaiza, back in the seventies.

The situation took a turn for the worst when on February 1 two men died in police firing in Nagaland’s commercial capital Dimapur following protests over the state government’s decision to go ahead with the polls in 12 of the 32 ULBs despite assurance given to the protesting groups, that had come under the banner of the Joint Coordination Committee, earlier on January 30 that polls would be postponed. The two men later had died after allegedly being shot at a protest the night before when people marched towards Chief Minister TR Zeliang’s private residence in Dimapur.

It should be noted that on the day of the agreement being signed, a PIL was filed in the Gauhati High Court against “extra-constitutional bodies opposed to the election”. The court had ordered the state government to go ahead with the polls.

Matters did not stop there, however, as groups of people set fire to the Kohima Municipal Council building on February 2. For the past week, life has been going at a slow pace following bandhs in large parts of the state demanding the resignation of Zeliang and his cabinet. Government vehicles are not allowed to ply and government offices have remained shut but businesses are slowly beginning to open up as people try to get on with their normal routines. The latest update following a meeting on Tuesday is that Zeliang alone should resign within 72 hours starting February 8. Within this pool of protests and debates, several narratives have been thrown up.

Protesting groups claim that they are not against the participation of women in electoral politics and that they are free to do so. In fact, even though no woman has ever been elected to the sixty-member Legislative Assembly, they have unsuccessfully contested in the past. Even in the now cancelled ULB polls, there were women candidates in the fray.

Those for the reservation have continually argued that in Naga tribal societies where men make all the decisions, it is necessary that women should be provided an equitable footing to take part in the electoral process and not merely be reduced to voters but representatives as well.

Newspapers in Nagaland these days are filled with opinions and editorial pieces that seek to address the issue. While there are the opposing groups who say that the reservation is ultra-constitutional and infringes upon the rights of Naga tribes, on the other hand are those who argue that such opposition is driven by male insecurity and chauvinism.

The fact that people have not once elected a woman to the Assembly, some feel, speaks volumes about Nagaland’s covert gender biases.

While it is often argued that it is to protect the “religious or social practices of the Nagas” and “Naga customary law and procedure” as enshrined in Article 371(A) that are the primary motives for leading the opposition to women’s reservation, an unspoken motive is also the fear that it would lead to opening of floodgates to bring more changes to the Article that ‘protects’ Nagaland.

The fourth provision in Article 371A(1)(a) in the Constitution states that “no Act of Parliament in respect of ownership and transfer of land and its resources, shall apply to the State of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides”. It is this provision that those seeking reservation for women feel that has most men in Nagaland afraid.

Since women in Nagaland cannot inherit ancestral property- abiding by tribal customs- the argument is that men are afraid that any law that is a contradiction to the Article can also trigger calls for further changes in the provision, including inheritance laws. On the other side, some fear that even larger changes could be brought to the part that gives Nagas complete ownership of their land

On the other side, some fear that even larger changes could be brought to the part that gives Nagas complete ownership of their land and resources. This argument must be seen in the backdrop of the fact that parts of Nagaland have large reserves of untapped crude oil which are being currently explored. The provision in the Article ensures that how resources in the state are used lies in the hands of the state and not the Centre. 

A similar provision also exists in Article 371G which states that Mizoram’s laws relating to ownership and transfer of land will be in accordance with tribal customary laws but does not speak of the state’s resources. 

In fact, in Arunachal Pradesh too a similar provision also exists in Article 371G which states that Mizoram’s laws relating to ownership and transfer of land will be in accordance with tribal customary laws but does not speak of the state’s resources.

In fact, in Arunachal Pradesh too, there have been calls of late to bring in a similar provision such as that in Nagaland which ‘protect’ the state’s resources for its tribal population.

On top of these narratives is also one that explores the political angle behind the controversy.

On Tuesday, the chief minister is said to have told reporters that the fact that protests have continued despite the government having declared elections held in some towns as null and void mean that some organisations are being misused for political purposes. He continues to refuse to step down.

In 2014, former chief minister Neiphiu Rio won the lone Lok Sabha seat on the Naga People’s Party ticket. However, after being denied a cabinet berth in the Centre, it was reported that he wanted to return as chief minister that led to fissures in the party that he previously presided over. Then, last year he was suspended from his own party.

The NPF’s youth wing earlier also accused Rio of masterminding the current chaos which he claimed as “totally false” allegations.

Rio openly came out in criticism against the government’s handling of the issue, stating that Naga society is not against reservations for women but that people are unhappy over the manner in which the move seeks to override Article 371A by invoking Article 243T that provides for women’s reservations.

This is of course, not the first time that the there have been oppositions to reservations for women in polls.  Protests against reservation have been in place since 2006 when the Nagaland Municipal (First Amendment) Act was enacted. A decade later, differing views continue to divide a state.

A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen.

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

Hotels and Arunachal politics: An indelible connection

Hotel Donyi Polo Ashok was established in the Arunachal Pradesh capital Itanagar sometime in the 80s. Spread across a large plush area with green lawns, the hotel’s architectural design harks back to the bungalows reminiscent of the days of the Raj. Located on a hill and away from busy streets of the city, the hotel has an easy feel to it.

A few kilometres away, smack in the middle of the city and adjacent to the highway is Hotel Pybss. Built fairly recently, the hotel is a nod to modern architecture, reflected in its blue-tinted windows, discotheque and dim-lit bar.

What, pray tell, do these hotels have anything to do with the current political scenario being played out here? A lot.

Hotel Donyi Polo Ashok: A hotbed of political brainstorming.

Late Thursday night, media houses in the state received a shocking email from the general secretary of the ruling People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA), Kaling Jerang. Attached to the mail were documents ordering the suspension of seven MLAs from the party, including chief minister Pema Khandu! Although rumours were abound that some MLAs were seeking a change of leadership, until last night it looked as though the state would go relatively quietly into the new year. That was not to be.
2016 saw three chief ministers in the state after a year of political instability.
In July, Pema Khandu became chief minister, replacing Nabam Tuki who had himself replaced late Kalikho Pul after a Supreme Court verdict reinstated the Congress government in the state. Pul and his 29 MLAs had earlier left the Congress and joined the PPA during his four-and-half month tenure.
Then in September, Khandu took 43 of the 44 Congress MLAs (all except Congress loyalist Tuki) back to the PPA, which is party to the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA).

Just when Khandu was getting into the groove of things- meeting union ministers, making key decisions- PPA president Kahfa Bengia decided to issue an order suspending Khandu, Jambey Tashi, Pasang D Sona, deputy chief minister Chowna Mein, Chow Tewa Mein, Zingnu Namchoom and mines and minerals minister Kamlung Mossang. The reason for their expulsion, Bengia said, was indulging in ‘anti-party activities’, although it was not specified what those activities were.

The suspension order said that the seven MLAs were being “placed under suspension temporarily from the primary membership of the PPA with immediate effects pending drawl of disciplinary proceeding”.
On Friday morning, citizens woke up to another political drama waiting to be unfolded. And as expected the centre of action were the two hotels mentioned earlier.
Arunachal Pradesh is home to many things. From lush green hills to wild and untamed rivers, there is much that the state has to offer to both visitors and residents. But what always draws the mainstream media’s attention is the constant power tussle that has become a hallmark of the political landscape here. However, because the power play almost always involves MLAs switching loyalties, strategies and decisions are taken not in war rooms of any political party’s offices but in the conference rooms of big hotels in Itanagar.
Today was no different.
Parked outside and inside the premises of Hotel Donyi Polo Ashok were government vehicles as gun-toting uniformed security personnel stood guard at the gates, ensuring that only ‘supporters’ of Khandu’s camp were allowed to enter.
Across town, a similar scene was seen at the parking lot of Hotel Pybss, albeit at a slightly smaller scale where the ‘other PPA MLAs’ were camping.

Hotel Pybss: No one is quite sure how to pronounce its name.

Backed by the PPA president, those camped in Hotel Pybss are projecting Takam Pario as their chief ministerial candidate. Here too, the gates of the hotel were locked and entry was strictly monitored by guards.
While sources from both camps claim to have the numbers, it was only Khandu’s camp that officially came out and boasted of having the requisite numbers required to run the government.
Government spokesperson Bamang Felix told reporters that Khandu has the support of 49 MLAs that include 12 from the BJP and two Independents. Senior BJP MLA Tamiyo Taga also said that the BJP will only back Khandu as the chief minister and that no other candidate is acceptable.
Taga, who is also a minister in the cabinet, said that the BJP state unit will recommend a merger of Khandu and his supporters to the saffron party and that it is already “under process”. Felix, however, said that no such move is in the offing.
As of this evening, both camps were still holed up in their respective hotels. Incidentally, Hotel Pybss is run by Pario’s family while Hotel Donyi Polo Ashok is jointly operated by the state government and India Tourism Development Corporation.
If Khandu really does have the numbers to continue as chief minister, he might as well get used to the ambience at the hotel which may soon be turned into the official residence of the chief minister.

Shillong Sojourn

Unlike so many of my friends and acquaintances, I have no deep-rooted connection with Shillong. I didn’t study here for my school nor did I spend any time in my college years. Yet somehow, the city beckons me and I feel a sense of homeliness whenever I am here.

Legend has it that when the British first arrived here, its hills reminded them of Scotland and so it became to be that it was (and is still) called ‘Scotland of the East’. Regardless of how the moniker came to be, Shillong is a beautiful place.

The present day capital of the state of Meghalaya, Shillong served as the capital of undivided Assam under the Raj and continued to be so until 21 January 1972, when Assam moved its capital to Dispur.

Up until the early 2000s, Shillong was the educational hub of the Northeast of India. While newer schools across the region have eaten into this reputation, with schools and colleges like St Anthony’s, St Edmund’s and Assam Rifles Public School, Shillong continues to be a hot favourite among many parents and guardians.

I, myself have a number of friends who finished their formal education in the hallowed halls of some of the aforementioned institutes. And although I have no personal connection to Shillong, the city with its narrow lanes, black and yellow Maruti 800 taxis and kwai ladies, feels like home.

don-bosco-square-in-laitmukhrah

Don Bosco Square in Laitmukhrah.

Located at an altitude of 1,520 metres, Shillong enjoys a pleasant weather throughout much of the year but gets quite chilly during the winter months. Home to the Khasi people, the lingua franca of the Meghalaya capital is the Khasi language but English and Hindi are understood and spoken as well, aside from Garo, Jaintia and Assamese.

A popular destination amongst tourists from West Bengal, Assam and other north-eastern states, Shillong offers many options to visitors wishing to stick to the typical tourist trail. From Ward Lake to the Shillong Peak and the numerous waterfalls that pepper the city, there certainly isn’t any shortage of ‘tourist spots’ to visit. And while one must take in these places, the soul of Shillong really lies in its streets.

Walking around its narrow streets, it becomes evident that Shillong has major traffic issues. Small roads and too many cars mean that the streets are often packed to the hilt. Driving in Shillong itself is an art; one that the local taxi drivers have mastered well.

The main city is spread around an area of 10 square kilometres so obviously walking all the time is not an easy task. Taxis, either Maruti 800s or Altos, are a useful mode of travel within the city.

the-famous-black-and-yellow-taxis-of-shillong

The black and yellow taxis of Shillong.

Driving on half-clutch is pretty much standard fare and do not be surprised or scared if in the middle of your commute the taxi driver turns off the engine. Driving in neutral when going downhill to save fuel is practice as old as the city itself.

All over, whether in busy market places or the narrow back alleys of the city, one can see Khasi women wearing the traditional jainsem or dhara selling kwai– areca nut.

The Khasis, like the Garos and Jaintias of Meghalaya, are a matrilineal society and hence trace their lineage through the mother’s side of the family. Little surprise then that the women play an active role in the daily lives of the people.

Peeling away the skin of the kwai with their small and handy knives, the women (called kong which is Khasi for elder sister) may not appear to have all the worldly desires that engulf our lives but seem happier and content than most of us caught up in the web of ours.

Of course, where there is kwai there’s also chuna or slake lime which marks its presence all over the city’s walls.

a-chuna-smeared-pillar-in-shillong

A chuna smeared pillar.

Kwai is eaten pretty much the same way that paan is in that the nut is chunkier than the supari and does not contain any tobacco or other flavourings. The way to eat kwai is to simply wrap it in a betel leaf that has been smeared with chuna. What one will notice however, is that not all of the chuna is contained on the leaf alone as any excess slake lime is smeared on the closest wall. Therefore, the walls that line the streets often have white markings on them. They are not by design.

Kongs and kwai aside, Shillong is quite a busy city with the main shopping centres located in Police Bazaar, Bara Bazaar and Laitumukhrah. Shops in these markets sell everything from branded apparel to ‘Bangkok goods’ to everything in between. And while new cafes and restaurants offer a wide variety of cuisine, no trip to Shillong can ever be complete without tasting the local Khasi dishes.

a-kong-seeling-kwai-is-taken-by-surprise

A kong selling kwai is taken by surprise.

Small eateries, colloquially referred to as jadoh stalls, are dotted all over the city. Jadoh is a rice and meat dish that can most closely be compared to the pulao. However, make no mistake, jadoh is very clearly an authentic Khasi dish often paired with dohjem (pork belly cooked with sesame seeds). If you are lucky you can also sample the dohshine, a blood sausage that is guaranteed to make a convert out of any apprehensive traveller.

Of course, while food is an integral part of any city and its culture, Shillong is much more than that. It takes a visit for its magic to charm you. Twenty years since I first started to visit the city, Shillong continues to charm me.

A version of this story first appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Himalayan Pulse.

 

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.

the-spotless-streets-of-mawlynnong

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.

curious-khasi-children-from-the-village

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.

henry-kharymbhah-takes-a-break-from-his-work

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.

Durga Puja and Arunachal 

It’s 4.30 PM. The sun is still lingering over the horizon. It’s not quite warm and the sky is overcast causing a certain moistness in the air. At the gates of the Hanuman temple at Ganga Market in Arunachal Pradesh’s capital are scattered shoes, sandals and slippers as devotees and the not-so-devoted make their way inside to get a glimpse of the statues of Durga killing Mahishasura and other deities aside from paying obeisance. 

Devotees at the temple.

Popular discourse on Durga Puja and its associated celebrations are usually centred around Kolkata and Bengali-populated areas such as Delhi’s CR Park. However, unbeknownst to many people in the rest of the country, Durga Puja celebrations are quite the thing in much of Arunachal Pradesh, especially in the state capital which is home to a large Bengali population. Little wonder then that bright-lit pandals are ubiquitous here. 

Inside the Hanuman temple, built in 2001, a temporary altar houses the statue of Durga killing Mahishasura. 

Three men in white dhotis and vests begin to play a familiar tune on their heavy drums while a fourth man keeps the beat with a handheld percussion instrument. The hall almost vibrates with the collective sounds of the instruments and the occasional ting of the bell. 

Three men and their drums.

In one corner, Nirmala Roy from Cooch Behar, West Bengal uses her fingers to pour ghee into diyas to be lit and placed in and around the temple. She says that the temple requires 108 of them. 

Nirmala Roy at work.

Most devotees come and go, offering nominal sums of money as donations while many others offer their prayers from a distance. Looking around the temple (and outside it), it becomes evident that Durga Puja is not just a festival for people of a certain ethnicity or religion as the number of indigenous tribal families appear to number equally to that of the Hindu Bengalis. And regardless of their faith, no one forgets to grab a bowl of the free khichdi on the way out. 

Outside the temple, there appears to be another festival in play. Or rather a mela of sorts. 

Stalls selling sweets and snacks ranging from laddoos and pakoras to heartier dishes like chicken rolls and chicken biryani, everything is fair game. There is even a stall by a popular pizza chain! 
Aayiye, aayiye (come, come),” shout men and women manning the many stalls encouraging people to try their wares. In one of the stalls in the corner, Dilip Kumar twirls jaleebis into a wok full of hot oil for sale. 
He is originally from Muzaffarpur, Bihar and sells chana on most other days. 

Dilip Kumar doing his thing.

At the end of the row is a stall selling toys, manned by a few children. Overseeing the whole affair is Hakim Choudhury. 

Sporting a silvery beard and wearing an Islamic skull cap, Choudhury tells me that business wasn’t great the previous night since it had rained. I learn that he’s from Karimganj, Assam and came to Itanagar 35 years back. 
“There were only seven shops here at that time,” he says, contrasting the present scenario. 
Choudhury says he hasn’t had time to go to the temple yet but will go once the crowd subsides since he has to attend to customers. 

Hakim Choudhury came to Arunachal 35 years ago.

“Does your faith allow you to enter the pandal,” I ask. 

“Why not? What’s the difference between bhagwan and Allah after all,” he asks rhetorically. 
“We just call him by different names.”

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”.

IMG_20160518_205504_HDR

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. )