Tawang file photo (DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images))
Snapshot
    • Police in Tawang (Arunachal Pradesh) opened fire on about 200 people, including Buddhist monks, demanding the release of Lama Lobsang Gyatso (a monk)
    • Gyatso had been leading popular protests against a series of big dams
    • He was arrested on a flimsy charge
    • Firing resulted in two deaths (unofficial toll is 8)

Beijing is gloating over India’s ineptness. Long accused by the world of terrible repression, including those of Buddhist monks demanding greater autonomy or independence for Tibet, China is now happy that India has now joined its ranks on this count. India, say the Chinese, has lost the moral ground to lecture Beijing on its treatment of Tibetans and Buddhist monks in Tibet. Chinese newspaper have, over the past few days, carried reports of how “Indian occupation forces” are repressing the people of “south Tibet”, as China refers to large parts of Arunachal Pradesh that it claims as its own.

Monday’s firing by the police on a group of 200 gathered outside the Tawang police station demanding the release of a Buddhist monk arrested on specious charges led to the death of two, including a woman (the toll, say locals, is eight and includes a monk). This is a major setback for India. There have been widespread protests in Tawang and the rest of the state over the construction of a hundred small and big dams in the state. Of these, 13 dams, with a total generating capacity of 2791.90 megawatts, are in Tawang district alone.

The protests have been taking place under the banner of the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF), which holds that instead of big dams, if the existing small and micro dams are maintained properly, they would generate enough power to meet the requirements of the entire district and more.

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Tawang, which holds immense strategic importance for India, and which the Chinese had overrun in 1962, suffers from acute power shortage and power supply is limited to only a couple of hours a day at best. It is also an extremely backward and poverty-stricken area with pathetic infrastructure. But despite their immense hardships and sufferings, the local people, most of whom belong to the Monpa tribe, are fiercely loyal to India and have been in the forefront of various movements rejecting China’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh.

The SMRF’s primary objection is to the Rs 6400 crore Nyamjang Chhu Hydro Power project in the district’s Zemingthang area. This run-of-the-river project is to generate 780 MW of power. SMRF holds that apart from the obvious environmental and ecological imbalances that such a large project would cause, it would also destroy two nesting sites of the endangered black-necked crane that is revered by the Monpas. They believe the black-necked crane is the embodiment of the 6th Dalai Lama who hailed from Tawang. In fact, China’s claims over Arunachal is primarily based on the fact that the 6th Dalai Lama was from Arunachal and, hence, Arunachal was a part of Tibet. Early last month, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) suspended the environmental clearance given to the Bhilwara group for executing the Nyamjang Chhu project on a petition filed by the SMRF in 2012. The NGT upheld the SMRF’s plea that public hearings for the proposed project were farcical and the environment impact assessment reports were flawed. This was a major victory for the SMRF.

It was then, alleges the SMRF, that the targeting of Lama Lobsang Gyatso, who is the face of the Federation, intensified. “False cases were filed against me and I was arrested once last month. I was arrested again on April 28 on flimsy charges,” Gyatso said from Tawang. The immediate cause for arresting Gyatso was a video clip of a speech he delivered in 2012 requesting the abbot of the iconic 336-year-old Tawang Monastery, Guru Tulku Rinpoche, to stay away from the politics over dams. An FIR was filed in end-April against Gyatso for hurting religious sentiments. “I never insulted the abbot, I had merely said that since he does not hail from Tawang (Rinpoche is from Bhutan), he would not understand the sentiments of the local people and should thus stay out of the dam issue. He had prohibited monks of the Tawang monastery from participating in the anti-dam stir and that was objectionable because monks have always taken the lead in safeguarding the interests of their people,” explained Gyatso.

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Gyatso was arrested on April 28 and local people expected him to be out on bail on Monday (May 2). But when bail was denied to him—another person who had threatened to kill Gyatso and was arrested was meanwhile released on bail—the angry locals mobbed the Tawang police station demanding his release. The police panicked and opened fire. Following this, in what was another terribly ill-advised move, the army was called out to restore order. Tawang is now simmering with rage over not only the police firing that resulted in the deaths, but also what locals perceive is a high-handed attempt by the local administration acting in collusion with the promoters of the controversial Nyamjang Chhu project to silence the anti-dam protestors.

Phurba Tsering, a prominent businessman in Tawang, put the anger and sense of betrayal of the people of Tawang succinctly: “The unprovoked police firing on unarmed young people, women and lamas is exactly what the Chinese do on protesters in Lhasa and Tibet. We never expected our own police to do this. And then the army being out on the streets made Tawang look like an occupied zone. We have always looked on the Indian army as our close friends and our fathers and grandfathers helped the Indian army at great risk to their lives in 1962. But to see the army with their guns out on the streets of Tawang was heart-breaking.” Many in Tawang that this writer called up spoke in a similar vein. Feelings of anger, hurt and betrayal have overwhelmed them.

The newly-installed BJP government in Arunachal Pradesh headed by Kalikho Pul has, admittedly, initiated damage-control measures. The Tawang police chief Anto Alphonse, who the locals blame for the firing, the district administration head Duly Kamduk and the officer in charge of Tawang police station have been suspended. But the army is still patrolling the scenic Tawang town, leading many to draw a comparison between the sound of the heavy army boots during the flag marches being staged on Tawang’s soil and similar frightening sounds in Lhasa and all over Tibet.

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Senior officers in the state administration who do not want to be quoted allege that forces opposed to India and the generation of hydro-power that would fuel Indian economy’s growth are behind the SMRF and similar bodies in Arunachal and states like Assam where anti-dam movements have mushroomed. They suspect that China could also be behind these movements. But even if that is true (and such allegations seem to be far-fetched), it is important for the state to realise that bodies like the SMRF are raising genuine concerns. The issue of adverse effects of big dams on the environment and ecology, especially in a fragile and highly active seismic zone like North-Eastern India cannot be wished away. It is incumbent for the Arunachal government to sit with bodies like the SMRF and take their concerns into account and engage experts to assess the impact of the proposed dams in a scientific and transparent manner before taking a final call on the projects.

People like Gyatso may be opposing big dams, but they are deeply patriotic Indians. It does the Indian state no good to hurt them. China, obviously, is full of glee. The self-goal scored by India in Tawang will, for a long time now, be held up by Beijing as India’s “repression” of the people of “south Tibet”. What an irony, and one that India has only itself to blame for!

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