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