Five decades after the Chinese troops laid siege to it, the 336-year-old Tawang Monastery is facing a new aggressor — high-stakes hydropower politics.
Tawang town, 525-km northwest of Arunachal Pradesh’s capital Itanagar, has had more armed forces personnel than local residents since the 1962 attack by China.
But soldiers never patrolled or put up checkpoints along the road to the monastery until now, replacing the “trigger-happy” police in policing the town after the May 2 killing of two anti-dam activists, including a minor Buddhist monk.
The monastery is the guiding light for Tawang district’s 50,000 people, mostly Monpas. Because of its historic link with Lhasa in adjoining Tibet, it has also been central to Beijing’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh.
The monastery is now at the centre of a controversy that seems to have pitted its abbot, Guru Tulku Rinpoche, against a senior monk, Lama Lobsang Gyatso. At play is a dam lobby that allegedly enjoys the backing of Tawang’s most powerful political family, that of former chief minister Dorjee Khandu.
Gyatso, whose arrest on April 28 led to protests and the bloodbath four days later, heads the anti-dam Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF), which suspects the dam lobby is using Rinpoche to influence villagers in project areas.
“The SMRF dragged Rinpoche into the picture because chief minister Kalikho Pul had, after taking charge in February, advised him to tell the monks to focus on religious activities, not on dam politics,” Tsering Tashi, MLA and Khandu’s younger son, told Hindustan Times.
Once a Congress leader, Tashi is the BJP-aligned People’s Party of Arunachal’s representative from Tawang assembly constituency, one of three in the Tawang district. Brother Pema Khandu and cousin Jambey Tashi represent the other two.
Pul’s advice was understandable. The SMRF defied Rinpoche to mobilise most of the Tawang Monastery monks for an anti-mega dams rally in April 2012. The protests spread to villages to – officials alleged –“brainwash” poor people against dams.
“What angered the dam developer-politician-bureaucrat-police nexus was our petition that made the National Green Tribunal suspend the 780MW Nyamjang Chhu hydro project last month,” Gyatso said.
SMRF argues that Nyamjang Chhu, awarded to the Noida-based Bhilwara group, is proposed on the wintering site of the endangered black-necked crane, sacred to Buddhists because it helped the Tawang-born sixth Dalai Lama identify his successor in Tibet.
But Zilla Parishad chairperson (ZPC) Jambey Tsering said dams did not take Gyatso to the lock-up. An audio clip circulated via WhatsApp did. “He said the abbot was Bhutanese and had no business in lecturing on development. This hurt the people’s sentiments because the nationality of a spiritual leader, like the 14th Dalai Lama, does not matter to Buddhists. I filed an FIR against him,” the ZPC said.
Used to peace, Tawang did not expect the outcome — the shooting by police at unarmed people seeking Gyatso’s release. Besides killing two and injuring eight others, the gunfire left holes on the walls of two schools adjoining the Tawang police station.
“We did not order the firing,” a district administration officer said. The overzealous police, working on behalf of the dam lobby, went on a shooting spree, SMRF said. But the dam effect made many monks question Rinpoche’s nine-year tenure as abbot because – as a rule – Dharamshala appoints abbots by rotation every three years. These nine years have coincided with the hydropower push for 133 hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh.
Gyatso denied having abused Rinpoche, insisting the clip merely suggested that the abbot, a non-local, should not discourage the monks from taking up the cause of the common man.