The Sorry State of Affairs in Tawang - A Deadly Cocktail
In March 2014, Arunachal Pradesh could have entered the Guinness Book of Records: eleven Congress candidates, including the chief Minister Nabam Tuki, were elected unopposed to the local 60-member Assembly.
Even some local BJP leaders ‘paved’ the way for the Congress candidates; for example Chief Minister Nabam Tuki was left without a rival in the Sagalee seat after his lone BJP rival Nabam Tade withdrew his nomination.
Among other Congress candidates elected unopposed were Rural Development Minister Tanga Byaling (Nacho) Tourism Minister Pema Khandu (Mukto in Tawang district), Parliamentary Secretary Nabam Rebia (Doimukh), former Minister Lombo Tayeng (Mebo), sitting MLAs Phurpa Tsering (Dirang), Punji Mara (Taliha), Bamang Felix (Nyapin) and Takam Pario (Palin), besides first-timer Mama Natung from Seppa West.
Was it a coincidence that ten out of eleven of these assembly seats were located in Arunachal West parliamentary constituency?
When one knows that the State is still claimed by China, this created quite an extraordinary situation, a deeply worrying one.
At that time, two words were whispered in the social media circles: ‘Dam Money’.
This came back to mind when early last month, two people, including a Buddhist monk, were killed after the police opened fire in Tawang district of Arunachal. Officially, the police fired at some anti-dam activists trying to barge into a police station demanding the release of a monk who had spearheaded the anti-dam campaign.
A few days later, Chief Minister Kalikho Pul rushed to Delhi to meet Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to tell him that the situation had returned to normal after a peace committee was formed.
Very few believed him.
A few weeks before the tragedy, Kalikho Pul had been making a case for fast-tracking environmental clearances for hydropower projects.
He had spoken at the conference ‘Hydro power at crossroads – tapping the untapped’, organized by Associated Chambers of Commerce of India (ASSOCHAM), stating that hydropower would be developed in an optimal manner with the environmental impact and human displacement would be reduced to the absolute minimal.
He said that the 156 dams being planned would generate over 50,000 mega watts of power; he however admitted that “almost all projects are still in the planning stages and most are awaiting environmental clearances.”
While environmentalists and local communities argued that these dams would damage the environment, Pul affirmed that hydropower is “the only viable source for the resource strapped state which could provide sustainable means of livelihood.”
Many believe that it would only create ‘sustainable means of livelihood’ for the politicians …to be elected unopposed during the next elections.
Pul however promised that the opinion of the stakeholders would be taken into consideration.
Government to reconsider policies
The killing of the two persons forced the government to reconsider some of its policies; the first to pay the bill were the Tawang district’s Deputy Commissioner and Superintendent of Police who “failed to assess the situation.” They were suspended, along with the officer in-charge of Tawang police station.
They were made scapegoats.
Deputy Chief Minister Kameng Dolo announced that the officers had not only failed to assess the situation but also did not to take any preventive measures to diffuse the situation: “Prompt action has been initiated in order to defuse the situation, instill confidence among the people and restore normalcy in Tawang,” Dolo said in Itanagar.
But the situation in the border district, closely watched by the Chinese, is not that simple.
Other aspects of the issue
In an article Beneath the fissures, Jarpum Gamlin, the Editor of a local newspaper (and younger brother of former Chief Minister Jarbom Gamlin) wrote: “The agitations in Tawang are not merely a tussle between pro- and anti-dam campaigners. A closer look reveals a power play in the monastery”.
Gamlin explains that the district administration erred by detaining the monk-turned-activist Lama Lobsang Gyatso, general secretary of Save Mon Region Forum (SMRF) under a non-bailable section for the second time within 48 hours.
Gyatso had earlier led a protest against the six-megawatt Mukto Shakangchu hydel project; on April 28, he said to have done worse: he would have defamed Guru Rinpoche, the abbot of Tawang monastery. He was arrested on this charge.
Gamlin commented: “Amid the hullabaloo, word is out that three of the five secretaries at Tawang monastery are seeking the ouster of Guru Rinpoche; the two who support him are Lama Ngawang Tsering and Lama Dorjee Namgey. It is alleged that the rebel monks — Lama Lobsang Phuntsok, Lama Lobsang Thapkey and Lama Sang Leta — have been aiding Lama Lobsang’s campaign against the political and religious establishments.”
Another rumour was that Pema Khandu, son of former Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu, his brother Tsering Tashi and cousin Jambey Tashi who represent the three legislative assembly segments in Tawang district were deeply upset with the SMRF after it won a favourable verdict from the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
The April 7’s NGT decision probably precipitated the events during the following weeks.
The NGT suspended the environment clearance granted by the Ministry of Environment and Forest for the Nyamjang chu hydropower project in Tawang’s Zemingthang area (the village is located close to the McMahon Line).
The permission to build the 780 MW hydroelectric plant was withdrawn due to the presence black-necked cranes, wintering in a 3-km stretch along the Nyamjang Chhu.
For over four years, the presence of the birds nearby the project area had been debated before the NGT. It appears that it is the first time that a single species has led to the suspension of such a project.
The black-necked crane is a five-foot tall bird, classified ‘vulnerable’, with only a decreasing world population of 11,000. While it breeds in the Tibetan plateau, it spends its winters in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.
The Monpas consider the crane an incarnation of Tsangyang Gyatso, the poet-Sixth Dalai Lama, who was born in Tawang.
It is said the Seventh Dalai Lama was found by following the flight of a white crane after Tsangyang Gyatso passed away (‘White crane lend me your wings. I will not fly far. From Lithang I shall return’, wrote the poet).
Incidentally, the Nyamjang chu flows near the Thagla ridge which was the main bone of contention between India and China and the pretext for the Chinese treacherous attack on India in October 1962.
Dams plus religious rivalry, a deadly cocktail
A section of monks, followers of Lama Lobsang Gyatso, blamed Guru Rinpoche for the deadly firing incident and demanded his resignation.
The Indian Express quoted Lobsang Thapke, the secretary of the monastery saying: “A majority of the lamas (monks) in the monastery has demanded the resignation of Guru Tulku Rinpoche because they feel that he was equally responsible along with the police for the death of two persons.”
Thapke alleged that the abbot could have easily averted the tragedy had the latter asked the police to release Lama Gyatso.
Soon after, Guru Rinpoche resigned following ‘recent turns of events’ in Tawang. The Rinpoche said that he was so deeply hurt and shocked by the recent happening that he had to send his resignation to the Dalai Lama for acceptance “since he solely wishes to dedicate his time for peace, prayers and education of Buddhism and be fully devoted to the people of Mon region.”
To the surprise of all, the Dalai Lama recused himself from appointing a new Abbot for the Tawang Monastery.
In a letter circulated on the social media, the Tibetan leader addressed the Administration and the monks of Tawang Monastery: “I have appointed several Abbots to the Tawang Monastery,” he wrote.
The Dalai Lama continued: “The present Abbot, Guru Rinpoche, at the very young age studied at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, Dharamsala. After that he worked and served in my Office. I have selected a well-qualified person as the Abbot of Tawang Monastery. Yet, if there are people who are not satisfied with the Abbot’s activities then I shall no longer appoint the Abbot to Tawang Monastery. Instead the Abbot will be directly appointed by the Sera Je Monastery.”
It must have been quite a shock for the Monpa population. It is said that it is for the first time in the history of Tawang Monastery, since its inception in 17th Century, that the Abbot will not be appointed by the Dalai Lama.
Does this put the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang later this year in jeopardy?
Probably as the Tibetan leader would not like his presence used by the local politicians and clergy.
The Case of Tsona Rinpoche
Another issue is the mysterious death of Tsona Gontse Rinpoche (alias TGR or TG Rinpoche during his ‘political’ life). The Lama, who passed away in May 2014, had also taken an anti-dam posture.
At that time, The Times of India reported: “A 47-year-old Buddhist monk from Arunachal Pradesh allegedly committed suicide by hanging himself from a ceiling fan at his sister’s house in Vasant Kunj in South Delhi.” The body of Rinpoche was found hanging from the ceiling fan by his sister.
Apparently a suicide note was found from a diary in the room. Rinpoche would have mentioned that he had committed too many sins and that even God would not forgive him.
The police suspected that he was depressed over the defeat of a cousin (another Rinpoche) in the 2014 Assembly elections.
I don’t know about the presumed sins of Rinpoche, but each time I met him, I found in Rinpoche one of the most dynamic young lamas of his generation.
He always wanted to give the Dharma a concrete shape. For him, Buddhism was not a mere philosophy; the Buddha’s teachings had to materialize in the present world.
Whenever I encountered him, Rinpoche had always a new project in mind and he had a capacity to concretely realize his plans.
Some twenty years ago, he organized a kar seva for the Gorsam Stupa, near the Thagla ridge close to the Indo-Tibet border, north of Tawang. He probably thought that the renovated stupa would have the inner power to stop another attack on India. It is indeed impressive.
Then he built a large monastery in Bomdila (where his body will be kept for a week). He also started a Buddhist University, funded by the Ministry of Culture in a lovely environment near Tenga in Arunachal Pradesh.
He was building a huge statue of Tara in Lumla (also north of Tawang), near the Bhutanese border where he had a monastery.
The last time I met him in Delhi, Rinpoche planned to bring the ‘relics’ of the Buddha to Tawang. He had just met the Indian Minister of Culture who had promised to help him. I think that eventually succeeded.
He gave me a lecture on his new ‘baby’, the Sherab Sangpo Society and the concept of ‘Noble Wisdom’.
Rinpoche had become a great defender of the environment (after looking himself after hydropower issues as a minister in the Government of Arunachal).
I could not figure out is why he took the ultimate step. Suicide does not figure anywhere in Buddhist culture; the concept of sin neither.
Tsona, Rinpoche’s main monastery is located in Southern Tibet, north of the McMahon line. Rinpoche always remained a strong Indian nationalist. His demise is indeed a great loss for the Monpa people of Tawang and for the Buddhist world.
The Chinese would certainly be delighted to find his reincarnation first. For Beijing, it would be a formidable card to claim Tawang again.
Beijing is indeed interested by the messy situation in Tawang.
The 16th ‘Meet in Beijing Arts Festival’ saw the launch of the dance drama “Tsangyang Gyatso,” written by Li Cangsang, a Chinese composer who wrote the music for the drama.
As already mentioned, the Sixth Dalai Lama was born in Tawang.
China Tibet News quotes Li saying: “He was a real person yearning for an ordinary life. The combination of the characters of the Buddha, of the ordinary people and Tibetan music, was the most difficult part of my work.”
The drama performed at the National Center for the Performing Art in Beijing is based on Tsangyang’s poems and life story.
Even if Beijing is not interested to talk to the Fourteenth, the Communist government is clearly keen to keep the legacy of the Sixth Dalai Lama alive; it is a way to reinforce their claim on Tawang.
The latest happenings in the border district are indeed worrisome.
Today Beijing is gleefully watching the situation deteriorate, waiting to ‘recognize’ not only the next Tsona Rinpoche, but also Tsangyang Gyaltso’s reincarnation.
Delhi should not play with fire by pushing for unwanted hydropower plants so close to the border knowing that it will stir local quarrels further?