One year on, closure on Tawang’s tragedy remains 

A year since the death of two men in the police firing in Tawang, a complete disclosure of events remains elusive. 

On May 2, 2016, protestors seeking the release of Lobsang Gyatso, a Buddhist monk and vocal opponent of large dams in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang district, had gathered outside the police station where he was being held on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the 336-year old Tawang Monastery. 

A memorial that was built at the gates of the Tawang Monastery to remember the two killed in the police firing.

After learning that Gyatso’s bail appeal was turned down, the crowd got engaged in a scuffle broke with police and security personnel. During the scuffle, security forces fired shots which injured several people and claimed the lives of Nyima Wangdi (a young monk) and Tsering Tempa. 

The events of that day had left everyone shocked. Tawang, after all, is known more as a peaceful town and such a thing was rather unexpected. Following the deaths, the government did its best to pacify the situation by awarding ex-gratia payments to the family of the deceased and giving jobs to next of kin. It also paid for the medical expenses of the injured (although some feel that the amount paid does not cover all costs). One person, Tenzin Wangdi, who miraculously survived after a bullet was lodged in his head is reportedly suffering from trauma and has trouble sleeping. 

Recently, the Supreme Court sought responses from the Centre and the state government on a plea seeking an independent probe. While the state government had set up two inquiries to investigate the matter, only the report by the Jang ADC has been submitted while the state-level report that was to be prepared by current PWD commissioner, Hage Khoda, has not been submitted. 

After the incident, the government suspended Tawang district superintendent of police, Anto Alphonse (who has since been reinstated), and officer-in-charge of the Tawang police station, Lham Dhondup. 

Currently, seven security personnel are serving suspension including three Indian Reserve Battalion men and four from the Arunachal Pradesh Police. Sources also say that the West Kameng deputy superintendent of police is conducting the investigation. 

The ADC’s report has several varying accounts of the day as recorded by eyewitnesses and police. 

The report cites the police report which states that “after proper warnings, use of force was done by restrained firing. The firing was resorted to, as police force was very limited at the police station. Since the police station location is at hilly terrain, the injuries were at different parts of the body of the injured persons”. 

However, eyewitnesses cited in the ADC’s report maintain that it was after the police resorted to lathi-charge and firing that stones were pelted. 

The report also states that “the firing order was given verbally by the magistrate RD Thungon, EAC. It is further stated in the police report that the duty magistrate, RD Thungon, refused to give the firing order in writing after the incident”. 

However, Thungon said that “he did not know who opened the fire and also did not know who had ordered to open fire”. 

There are also some findings that shed more doubt than light on the events of the day. 

“The SP, Tawang’s report further states that the statement of the Platoon Commander SI Tage Tath of 3rd IRBN was contradictory in many ways as he stated in his statement before the SP, Tawang that as per the instructions of the SP he ordered that all their weapons be kept under lock in the district KOTE itself. This was done to avoid reckless handling of weapons by the IRBN personnel during the law and order problem. After the firing incident, despite of clear order from the SP, Tawang the Platoon Commander, 3rd IRBN failed to furnish individual count of missing or fired ammunitions from each of the police personnel deployed under him on that day,” the report states. 

The report also carries allegations of alarming behaviour by security personnel. 

EAC Lobsang Tsetan states that he had tried to stop one constable from firing at a civilian when “an IRBN sub-inspector, who was the platoon commander, intervened and asked the jawan to shoot at the deponent i.e. the magistrate instead”. 

The ADC’s report in its findings states that “the weapons were collected by 3rd IRBn personnel and civil police personnel in presence of the SP, Tawang”. 

It also states that “police personnel resorted to blank firing in a very reckless manner and without proper supervision and directions from any senior police officials” and that the firing was “completely reckless and indiscriminate”. 

The report also, however, partly holds the protestors responsible as well, stating “if the crowd had respected the rule of law, the unfortunate incident could have been avoided”. 

It also recommended that a thorough investigation should be made into the matter by an independent agency. 

Arunachal: Between the Dragon and the Elephant

Asserting that Arunachal Pradesh is very much a part of India and not China, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) on Monday staged rallies in the capital Itanagar and Tawang near the international border to protest against the Chinese government’s ‘renaming’ of six places in the state.

Last week, China’s civil affairs ministry had issued a notification changing the names of six places in the state (giving them a more Sinicized touch), saying it had a “lawful right” to do so since those areas were part of what it calls South Tibet. The move is being seen as retaliation to India ‘allowing’ Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama to visit the state earlier this month.

Since then, the rhetoric from China has grown steadily, even warning that India will ‘pay’ for its actions. The latest move of renaming six places though has angered many in Arunachal Pradesh. None more so than the students’ union, whose members even took to burning an effigy of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping.

Monday’s protests, however, are symbolic of a greater characteristic that is unique in the region where emotions are driven more by ethnic identities rather than the idea of being Indian.

AAPSU members burn Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s effigy.

Many people in Arunachal Pradesh proudly state that the citizens here are more patriotic than anywhere else in the country. A popular anecdote often repeated here is that people in the state greet each other with a ‘Jai Hind’ which is proof of their patriotism (although it’s unclear how much of its usage actually stems from a sense of patriotism rather than anything else).

Dr Nani Bath of the Rajiv Gandhi University here and a prominent political commentator feels there are several factors that have contributed to this sense of ‘Indianess’ among the people here.

“We are trained by the successive governments,” he said, calling it a deliberate policy.

“First, Nehru tried to win hearts of tribal leaders by taking them to visit places like Delhi and Kolkata, then Assamese was replaced with Hindi as the language of formal education in schools with teachers from UP and Bihar posted here and the creation of SSB for anti-China propaganda,” said Bath.

Journalist Azing Pertin expands on the idea of patriotism stating that “before the concept of nationhood emerged among us, we tribal people found ourselves already in the Indian Union. As such we have accepted and lived with it. The talk of South Tibet and China claiming Arunachal is a bogey and false since the majority of tribals of the state were independent of the Tibetan kingdom and had their own tribal council systems which governed them”.

Others such as former general secretary of North East Students’ Organization, Gumjum Haider, who made the jump to electoral politics in 2014, said that other factors too have influenced people.

“A lack of exposure and a lack of self-retrospection make our people not realise their self-worth. Arunachalis are very naive and they can be manipulated easily,” he said.

However, he is firm that whether it is “India, North Korea, China, America or Cuba, nobody has right to alter our names” and that “that should be very clear to all”.

AAPSU general secretary, Tobom Dai, is more pragmatic in his approach.

“You never know about the Dragon. At least we are enjoying all democratic rights here in this country,” Dai said, adding that “we have never seen China or for that matter experienced its governance. So it will be like trudging into an unknown realm. In this context, for me, patriotism is by choice”.

Dai’s statement is somewhat reflective of the state of affairs here unlike in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and even Jammu & Kashmir where separatist groups are well and active.

“The history of the Nagas, Meiteis, Kashmiris are different from us.  An Arunachali identity is not possible as we belong to different ethnic communities,” Bath feels. And indeed he is correct.

The state is home to at least over 20 major tribes and an even larger number of sub-tribes. Since the tribes have their own unique customs and languages, the lingua franca here is Hindi (or at least a form of Hindi with influences from Assamese, Nepali, Bhojpuri, and Bengali).

Haider said that “Hindi and Bollywood have penetrated so much in our minds but we are not doing anything to safeguard or to promote local languages”.

Dai also agrees that safeguards need to be placed and that “AAPSU should start a process whereby the defective statehood act can be rectified” in order to give the state and its people complete rights over the land and resources as is the case with Nagaland and Article 371 (A) of the Constitution.

As for Monday’s rallies, there were some mixed feelings.

While Dai understandably called it a success “in spite of heavy rains”, the turnout itself was lower than expected, most likely due to sudden rains and examinations that are on.

Pertin said that “youths and students voicing their angst against the non-stop Chinese interference is an issue which needs to be dealt with seriously. Students taking out the rallies reflect the common and popular opinion against Chinese disturbances”.

Although he could not be part of the rally at Itanagar, Haider said that “we should not aim (our stance) at China alone” and that the people of the state must “assert our indigenous rights to both countries”. A sound statement considering the fact that while the Chinese may have given their own names to places in the state, the name ‘Arunachal Pradesh’ itself has no resonance with any of the indigenous tribes here.

Another view was offered by current NESO co-ordinator, Pritam Sonam, who said that “it’s not necessary that time and again we should show our patriotism and tell the world that we are Indian”.

Taking to social media, Sonam said that “we are Indian by origins and by birth but let’s ask the fellow mainland Indians if they know about Arunachal or even they consider us as fellow Indians”.

All photos by Damien Lepcha.

Lax policies cause of concern for conservation

For over a decade, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been working with communities in West Kameng and Tawang districts of Arunachal Pradesh to preserve forest resources and make them self-reliant. While considerable amount of success has been achieved, without proper policies in place, successes will mean little in the long-run. 

WWF-India began its work in Thembang in West Kameng in 2004 with the introduction of Community Conserved Areas (CCA) which comprises of a village-level management committee that is given the responsibility to conserve natural resources and address local livelihood means. 

Among its goals is to engage villagers in collective dialogue and decision-making relating to conserving natural resources found in the forests of the area including wildlife. After their initial success, the WWF replicated its model in Zemithang in neighbouring Tawang district in 2007. 

Zemithang has an important role to play in conservation as it is one of the two remaining wintering sites of the black-necked crane in the state- the other being Sangti Valley. Earlier, the birds were reported to have been sighted at Ziro Valley in Lower Subansiri district too but have since stopped coming after a few of them died when they got entangled in electrical wires. 

The riverbed of Nyamjang Chhu that is the wintering site of the black-necked crane.

Kamal Medhi, the Western Arunachal Landscape co-ordinator for the WWF who has been working in the region for years, informed that there were 21 sightings of the birds from last November to March this year- a significant improvement from the past. 

The WWF’s work has also led to increased awareness amongst the people, Medhi said, and that people these days inform the WWF officials whenever they see the birds which come to the dry riverbed of the Nyamjang Chhu. The birds are of special importance to the Buddhist Monpa tribe who consider the black-necked crane sacred. 

And while game hunting in the area has never been a major issue, Medhi informed that the musk deer, called laa-va locally, is hunted for its bile which is used extensively in Chinese traditional medicine. Reportedly, the animal is hunted and its bile extracted before making its way to China through Nepal. 

Medhi said that the hunting of the deer is not an issue amongst the seven villages in the Zemithang area that are part of the WWF’s CCA but that there is a threat from villages outside of the area. 

“Villages in Zemithang have served notices to the other offending villages to curb the problem,” he said. 

There are also economic benefits that villagers are slowly beginning to witness from conserving forest resources. 

Recently, the Pangchen CCA Management Committee (comprising of Lakhar, Lumpo and Muchat villages) began manufacturing incense sticks that are used extensively by most Buddhist tribes of the state. It’s an initiative that could become an alternative to a widely used product that is currently brought in from the North Bengal area. 

Other challenges however, remain. 

The WWF currently has 1,200 square km of land under the CCA model including villages in Thembang, Zemithang and Manlaphu (which was inducted last year). But that figure is relatively small compared to the work that needs to be done. 

“We are saving a small portion of forests through the CCA model,” Medhi informed and that around 30,000 square km of land is still officially designated as Unclassed State Forests. 

“The government should come up with policies to give the management of forests to the local communities, whether in the form of CCAs or any other model,” he said. 

Aside from the lack of a clear policy on the tribal people’s rights and use of forest resources, at the policy level the issue gets more complicated due to the region’s proximity to the sensitive international border it shares with China. 

Foreigners are not permitted to enter Zemithang, even with special permits, which can affect the tourism of the area. 

Although homestays have sprung up, the place has been unable to attract foreign tourists due to travel restrictions. Recently, a group of environment enthusiasts from Bhutan who had wanted to visit the area for the black-necked crane were given a hard time due to the existing laws. 

Ironic, considering that traders and pilgrims who belong to the same Monpa community but live across the border in Bhutan regularly venture into the region with ease, as theIndian armed forces personnel are not aware of the subtle differences in the traditional attires of the cousin communities. 

12 years a wait

A colourfully dressed man wearing an intricate mask is brought near a large flaming altar. Two men guide him with a tightly-wound cloth around his neck. He kicks his legs up in the air, jumps about and quickly collapses to the ground before the cloth around his neck is loosened and he is quickly rushed inside the monastery.

At around a height of 100 feet, the Chorten is an intimidating structure to say the least.

Every twelve years, the gates of the Gorsem Chorten, a large stupa in Gorsem village near Zemithang, around 90 km from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, are opened to the public who can pay their respects to the scriptures and statues kept inside the centuries-old structure. While pilgrims and followers make rounds (kora) of the stupa on a regular basis, it is only every twelve years that the people are actually allowed inside it. This year a special four-day mela was held from March 25 to 28 to mark the event.

Considered a major religious site, no written records about its origins exist now. Legend has it that the stupa or chorten was built at around the 12th century by a monk from the area called Lama Pradhar. Monks and locals said that the stupa was built after Lama Pradhar visited Nepal and saw the Swayambhu stupa. Realising that for most people from the Mon region of the state it would be an immensely difficult task to walk across to Kathmandu Valley to make the pilgrimage, Lama Pradhar decided that a replica should be built at its present site. Here is where the story becomes somewhat apocryphal.

According to monks and people from Tawang to Zemithang, and indeed the popular version of how things unfolded, is that the monk made a scaled model of the stupa in Nepal by carving out a radish. Unfortunately, that radish became somewhat shrivelled on its journey and hence the slight variations in the size of the replica from that of the original!

The stupa in Gorsem also makes up the trinity of similar stupas in Nepal and Bhutan.

The oracle draws the excitement of the people as much as he draws their curiosity.

The oracle draws the excitement of the people as much as he draws their curiosity.

Legends and stories aside, the stupa is definitely an impressive and imposing structure. With a large white base, topped off with a golden top, the chorten stands around 100 feet tall.

An important event, made evident by the sea of believers that had gathered to gain a glimpse of the inside of the structure, the reason why it opens only once every twelve years depends on who you ask.

While some said that it was in the Year of the Rooster as per the Tibetan calendar (which has twelve cycles) that the chorten was completed and hence it’s opened on the same astrological year (such as 2017), there was another reason that was offered.

Apparently, the chorten gates (at the top of the structure) were earlier opened regularly. However, frequent thefts of the relics and valuable statues led to their closure and formulation of the twelve-year rule. For the faithful though, the reasons matter little. Thousands upon thousands converged in the small village just kilometres from the Chinese border to climb the top of the chorten to get a 20-second glimpse of the statues and scriptures.

The event also presents a business opportunity.

The event also presents a business opportunity.

Reportedly, Monpa pilgrims belonging to the same tribe as their Indian cousins turned up from neighbouring Bhutan too, although technically the area is off-limits to foreigners.

While pilgrims come to conduct the kora (circling of the structure) and see the inside of the chorten, an important part of the last day is the forecast ceremony that is held towards the end and before the sermon and blessings given by Thegtse Rinpoche of the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

A young monk explained to us that the colourfully-dressed masked man happens to be a government official from Bomdila in West Kameng district who acts as an oracle and is able to see the future. People believe that once the oracle is possessed by the spirit of Nyari Gachen (sic), he is able to speak and write in the Tibetan language, thereby able to make predictions about the area and/or reveal important information for the prosperity of the people. The prediction however, is revealed only to the Rinpoche.

Zemithang is a small administrative circle at an elevation of over 7,000 feet. Much like throughout Tawang district, it is home to the Buddhist Monpa people. Its religious importance aside, Zemithang is also one of the only two remaining wintering sites of the vulnerable black-necked crane in the state. The birds are safe for now after the National Green Tribunal last year suspended the Union environment ministry’s clearance granted to the 780 Nyamjang Chhu project in 2012.

During such present times when much of the region is trying to balance the demand for modern development with that of the need to preserve the environment, one can only hope that the oracle had good news to share.

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.

—   

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.

WhatsApp Image 2016-08-15 at 12.10.13
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.

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.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

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. )

Buddha’s warriors: Monks take on the powerful

Standing at the entrance of the watch tower on the southern gate of the Tawang Monastery, Tashi Norbu, dressed in the traditional maroon-hued robe, explains how in the past one monk would stand guard and be on the lookout for Bhutanese or Mongolian forces while another would rest the barrel of the gun through a small opening on the wall, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. While the enemy is no longer foreign forces, the monks of the 336-year old monastery now face adversities of a different kind.
Ever since the events of May 2, the usually peaceful town of Tawang has been gripped by news of violence. Several monks from the historic Tibetan Buddhist monastery, second in size only to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, located in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang town in India’s Northeast have been actively involved in their opposition to plans of building 11 dams in the district (two have been dropped recently). Leading the protest in Tawang have been Buddhist monks who are known more for their peaceful chants than loud protests. Their concerns and opposition to the dams however, have been met with mixed reactions.

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A young monk peers out the watchtower.

At the inter-state check gate in Bhalukpong in West Kameng district, a young tax and excise security personnel from Tawang says that monks should stick to monastic activities. A similar view is stated by a prominent businessman in Tawang town as well. Such views are an echo of what many politicians from the region and across the state have said in the past too. Norbu and other monks though, disagree with such a point of view.
“This is not the first time monks have defended the region,” he says, visibly worked up. He says that monks from the monastery were fending off Mongol and Bhutanese forces ever since it was established more than 300 years ago with their guns called menda from their watchtowers called kochung.

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Norbu, the passionate one.

Norbu, who is also the president of the Save Mon Region Federation that has been leading protests against dams in the district says hectares of land has already been taken away from villagers for highway construction but people have not been compensated and neither have the roads been built.
“We are not asking for ‘azadi(freedom)’,” he says in reference to calls for independence from India made in some other states before adding that they just want justice.
Recently, accusations were made against the SMRF general secretary, Lobsang Gyatso, that he was being funded by the Chinese. It’s an accusation that has him upset.
“How can I be working for the Chinese when the Chinese have wronged our spiritual leader (Dalai Lama) so much,” he asks.
Lobsang has been in the forefront of the protests since late 2011 and it was his arrest on April 28 on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the monastery that led to protests outside the police station by his supporters who were seeking his release on May 2. On that day, two people were shot dead and several others, including some security personnel were injured. While two inquires are currently underway, the monks are calling for a CBI inquiry instead of state government constituted inquires.

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Lobsang Gyatso.

Pema Gyatso, a 35-year old monk, says “we haven’t had proper roads since 1962. We need development and schools not hydropower”.
Lobsang is clear in his stance that the SMRF is not against smaller projects but is opposed to larger dams that will lead to loss of large areas of farming land.
Reportedly, there are over 20 mini and micro dams in the district, most of which are either not functioning or breakdown often. 
The monks appear to be fighting not just power developers or their alleged nexus with politicians but stand against corruption.
Pema says that prime land has been given away to the army and worries about what people will grow if the remaining cultivable land is given away to power developers. In fact, in Tawang town and its peripheral areas large swathes of land are used by the army and SSB. All along the way to Tawang too, various Army battalions have garrisons and camps in plush land. 200km below at Tenga Valley in West Kameng district is almost entirely a military town with few civilian residences.
In Tawang, the monks complain of politicians from every level being hand-in-gloves with power companies for their personal benefit.
Norbu says that politicians are building hotels and homes for themselves while doing little for the people.
Speaking of their decision to openly fight powerful politicians, Lobsang says that as monks they are viewed as messengers of gods and that “if we compromise on the hydropower issue, how can people have faith in the religion we preach”.
But it is Norbu who puts it in the most eloquent manner defending their actions.
Explaining how villagers routinely donate food and other amenities to the monks, Norbu says “humlog basti wala se tax khake tatti karke bethega kya? (Should we just accept food from villagers and shit it out?)”.

Lobsang Gyatso: The man behind the monk in the middle of a dam controversy

For the first eight years of his life, Lobsang Gyatso was a student at a government school in Tawang. The next year, he was more than 3000km away at the Sera Je Monastery in Bylakuppe, Karnataka studying the Buddha’s teachings. On April 28 this year, he found himself in prison.
Located near the Sino-India border, Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Last month, 18 people had died in two separate landslides caused by heavy showers that had been pouring for two weeks.
Just as residents were settling into their daily routine, trouble began brewing after an audio clip surfaced where Gyatso, an ordained monk, is heard telling the abbot of the historical Tawang Monastery to stay out of hydropower issues in the Mon region comprising of Tawang and West Kameng districts, spread over an area of 9,527 square km.
Following a meeting of panchayat leaders from Tawang on April 28, an FIR was filed against Gyatso for allegedly defaming the abbot, Guru Tulku Rinpoche. Gyatso claims in the audio clip that the abbot is from Bhutan and does not understand the sentiments of the region. He was promptly arrested and kept in police custody until May 2 when his followers gathered outside the police station where he was held, demanding his release. What was supposed to be a simple protest turned tragic when police began firing to disperse the crowd. At the end, two men –  one a young monk and the other a newly-wed – had died.
While the details of the events that led to the firing remain murky, as official word from the district has been difficult to acquire owing to communication lapses, the incident has thrust into the limelight the issue of hydropower development in the state and the man who was arrested. Who is Lobsang Gyatso?
The son of an ex-army man from the village of Namet, Gyatso was born in his aunt’s hut in Tawang town, around 7km away. Having spent his early years getting a formal education at the government school in Tawang, he was sent to Bylakuppe near Mysore to the Sera Je Monastery in 1988. He returned to Tawang 15 years later in 2003 and joined the Jamyang Choekhorling Monastery. In 2011, an aircraft tragedy would end up acting as a catalyst for Gyatso to begin his activism.
On April 19 that year, a Pawan Hans-operated Mil Mi-17 helicopter crashed near Tawang, killing 17 of 23 passengers and crew members. According to Gyatso, the state mechanism was unprepared to conduct effective rescue operations.
“I got into an argument with the former chief minister, late Dorjee Khandu, at the time of the rescue operations,” he said over the phone and informed that that’s when he started working on social issues and left the monastery where he serving his second stint as administrative secretary.
“I thought it would be best to leave the gompa (monastery) to focus on social work,” he said.

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The son of an ex-army man, the monk has been leading the charge against large dams in the ecologically sensitive area.

Gyatso said that during the Kalachakra ceremony in Bodh Gaya, Bihar in 2012, some fellow monks advised him to divert attention to social issues in the Mon region. Back home, together with some friends and like-minded people, Gyatso formed the Save Mon Committee, which was later renamed as Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF). In April of that year, the committee organised a rally against plans to construct mega hydropower projects in the region.
Currently, there are 37 projects planned for construction in Tawang and West Kameng districts with total installed capacity of 5254.30 mega watts.
Gyatso has been extremely vocal in his opposition to such plans. In fact, it was SMRF which had filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal in 2012 against the Bhilwara Group’s 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu Hydroelectric Project in Zemithang which led to the suspension of its environmental clearance in April this year.
It was argued that the project would disrupt the habitat of the black-necked cranes which flock to the area from November to February. For the Buddhist people of the region, the bird is held in high regard and even considered as an embodiment of the sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso who was born in Tawang in the 17th century.
His supporters claim that the tribunal’s decision and his growing popularity resulted in some politicians from the area viewing him as a threat. Gyatso himself admits to the claim.
“They do view me as a political threat,” he said and that he had even considered contesting the election in 2014 until his friends convinced him otherwise.
Now, he says, he is not interested in politics.
“Elections have become expensive in Tawang. You need at least ten crores to run elections nowadays,” he said and that “it’s better to work for society instead”.
Not everyone is impressed by the monk’s activism, which has drawn mix responses. While some of his followers refer to him with the moniker ‘Anna’ Lama (monk), an homage to activist Anna Hazare, his detractors refer to him as ‘Anda’ (egg) Lama.
Currently out on bail, Gyatso said the May 2 incident has left him saddened. Tsering Tempa was recently married and the other casualty, Nima Wangdi, was a monk.
Eight people were injured during the police firing, one of whom is currently in medical care at Shillong, Meghalaya.
“Police had fired around 200 to 300 rounds indiscriminately,” he said and that he is surprised that the casualty list is not higher.
Considered a “bright student” during his time at school, Gyatso stands firm in his resolve against plans to build dams that can adversely affect the fragile eco-system of the place.
“Politicians do not care what happens to the land of the poor people because they have their own houses at Gurgaon and Noida,” he adds.

 

A version of this story appeared in The Telegraph: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160505/jsp/northeast/story_83873.jsp#.VysgRYR97IU

Workshop giving Tawang kids creative platform, hope

Children listen to Art For Cause founder Irshal Ishu during one of the sessions

Children listen to Art For Cause founder Irshal Ishu during one of the sessions

A year after a camp in Tawang at India’s remote north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, organised by the New Delhi-based NGO Art for Cause, led to the discovery of 14-year-old shutterbug Lobsang Nima, fourteen volunteers, including from Australia, New Zealand and the United States, have returned in search of another prodigy.
    The NGO is back in Tawang for the Tawang Autumn Camp which began on September 5 and will end on September 18. However, this time around it’s focusing on finding talented writers amongst its participants, who range from the ages of nine to 14 years.
    Speaking from Tawang, Irshal Ishu, the founder of Art for Cause, informed that aside from staff from the NGO, six volunteers from Australia, New Zealand and the United States are part of the camp as mentors.
    Ishu said that last year’s find, Lobsang, is also acting as a mentor for the children this time around.
    “He is home and assisting in most of the practical sessions,” he said. Lobsang is a shy kid and doesn’t say much besides that he “feels good” to be involved with the workshop.
    Aside from photography, the camp is also conducting workshops on performance art, arts and crafts, creative writing, art therapy, health care and filmmaking, which was introduced this year.
Volunteers at the camp

Volunteers at the camp

The workshops are being held across three schools in Tawang and the Mahabodhi Centre in Teli village, around 10 km from Tawang town. The centre provides shelter, food and clothing to senior citizens and children who are either orphans or come from poor financial background.
    Ishu also informed that this year’s camp’s focus will be on creative writing, and he hopes to publish an anthology of the children’s writings soon.
    One of the biggest obstacles children in the area face is the lack of creative outlets.
    “The kids do not have access to extracurricular activities,” Ishu said. “All that the children do is watch the sun rise and set over the horizon.”
    Most of the children attending the camp come from financially poor backgrounds. Ishu said many of them have to work as labourers during their vacations to help with the household expenses. Despite the lack of avenues, the children are talented and have managed to impress the mentors conducting the classes.
    Sudhir Mishra from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, who is teaching the arts and craft lessons, said the children are “very creative” and that their awareness about their culture helps their creativity.
    Emma Ryan from New Zealand, who is researching the NGO’s work in Tawang and is part of the volunteering team, feels that the camp will “make a huge difference in the lives of the children”.
    The camp, she said, “not only teaches children skills but also teaches them to hold their heads high”.
    Her New Zealand compatriot Katie Reardon, who volunteered for the camp after moving to India in April this year, said she wanted to do something “more meaningful with life”.
Katie Reardon from New Zealand with students at the camp

Katie Reardon from New Zealand with students at the camp

Tourism minister Pema Khandu, who is from the district, has been supportive of the initiative this year and reportedly told Ishu that he wants “ten more Lobsangs to be discovered this year”.
Khandu is also optimistic about the opportunities that the workshops could provide to the children.
    “All of us have our own abilities and this workshop will help children acquire knowledge to hone their skills,” he later said, adding that the workshop “provides a necessary platform” for the children.
    Apart from being taken in by the scenic beauty of the place, the volunteers all appear to be taking back something from this experience.
    While Ryan said that “people appear a lot happier than where she will be heading” after the camp concludes, Mishra said he is learning from the children as well as teaching them.
    For Reardon the constant smile on the faces of the children at the workshops “put things in perspective”. She hopes to return next year.
Children at the art and craft workshop

Children at the art and craft workshop

All pictures are by Shubham Singh and Vaibhav Chawla. A version of this story was published in The Telegraph on 15 September 2015. Link to the original story: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1150915/jsp/northeast/story_42681.jsp#.VffbYBGqqko
For more info about Art For Cause and their work, head over to http://artforcause.org.in/