Tawang is a paradoxical paradise. An anger within sustains the peace-loving people in this jewel of the Eastern Himalayas. And the serenity of the lofty hills is dictated by a territorial turbulence. The only thing that’s consistent, perhaps, is the weather — cool and pleasant in summer and bone-chilling in winter.
For generations of Buddhist Monpas — they dominate 9,827 sq km of western Arunachal Pradesh bordering Bhutan and Tibet—Tawang has been under the geo-political weather. More uncomfortably so since the Chinese aggression in October-November 1962. While old-timers shudder while recalling those days when “hell descended on heaven”, the youth brigade is annoyed that Beijing’s unfounded claim on their homeland should hang over their heads like Damocles’ sword for 46 years.
The uneasiness has compounded since China’s ‘revised’ claim following Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing. The claim has apparently narrowed down from the whole of Arunachal Pradesh to Tawang. But is there a catch to this territorial revision? “Certainly,” says Tsona Gontse Rinpoche, legislator and the 13th reincarnation according to the Tsonawa school of Mahayana Buddhism. “By Tawang they mean the old Tawang administration that stretched up to the banks of the Brahmaputra in Assam. Why else should they claim 90,000 sq km when Arunachal Pradesh covers only 84,000 sq km?”
China justifies its claim on Tawang by maintaining that it was directly under Lhasa’s rule before the 550-mile McMahon Line drawn after the 1914 Shimla Convention separated Tibet and Tawang. “History is history, but if one has to go by historical facts, Tibet was not under Chinese occupation when Henry McMahon drew the boundary,” says Rinpoche. Beijing, hence, has no business in claiming Tawang, he adds. Bomdila-based contractor Prem Thilley Sunick agrees. “History also says Mongols ruled China for many years; so should Mongolia now claim China?” he asks. Bomdila, the headquarters of West Kameng district, sits 8,800 ft above sea level between Tezpur in Assam and Tawang.
DAYS OF HORROR
Kangola Lama, 78, a farmer from Serubastivillage near Tawang, recalls the days of horror 46 years ago. “The roads were splattered with blood, bodies of soldiers lay all around as we began fleeing towards Bomdila,” he says. His account of the Indo-China war is eerily similar to Assamese bard Bhupen Hazarika’s description of the scenario immediately after the war. Hazarika was then among the first scribes — he reported for an Assamese monthly— to reach the conflict zone, describing how the ‘helmets of Indian soldiers kept cracking under the wheels’ of his jeep.
Bomdila was no less affected. Retired government officer Tenzing Norbu, 62, was studying at the government high school here when the war happened. “Everyone including our teachers began fleeing. Before long, we found ourselves being herded onto a one-tonner and driven down to Missamari (Assam) along a kuchcha road that no longer exists today,” he says.
Tenzing Briangju, a student from Naphra, 55 km from Bomdila, grew up on these stories. “They still give me goose pimples, but not as much as when New Delhi cuts a sorry figure whenever China raises the Tawang issue. It is as if the Chinese aggression carries on in a different form.” Briangju gives away the anger on otherwise cheerful faces across Tawang and West Kameng districts which are inhabited by 91,126 people comprising four tribes other than the Monpas—Mijis, Akas, Sherdukpens and Buguns.
“Maybe we are too small a people to appeal politically to New Delhi, or maybe we are too far away to really matter,” says All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union leader Passang Dingla. “Why is it that we have to raise our voices to let the country know we are Indians, that we have died for the country in 1962 and will defend another attack to death? Why is that we have to spend thousands of rupees to tell New Delhi not to be wary of Beijing when it comes to our homeland? This is our land, and we shall not part with even an inch.”
The anger is all-pervasive. Locals feel the government’s fear that their land might be taken away by China prevents it from investing in infrastructure. Most villages in Tawang and East Kameng have no roads — people of Lubrang village for instance have to walk 4 km before hitting the road to the nearest hospital 8 km farther — and, the health scenario is pathetic and the literacy rate in places like Lumla is barely 14 per cent.
“We wonder if India is more resourceful than Bhutan,” says housewife Kesang Drema, 30. She has a strong reason to feel so: Lumla gets 3 hours of electricity a day while Tashigang, a Bhutanese town 20 km below, is always flooded by light. And across Bleting on the Indo-Bhutan border is a swank hospital Lumla residents invariably go to.
The anger is more against New Delhi, which many such as Lhakpa Tsering feel is in awe of Beijing. “Why play safe whenever any decision has to be taken about our future? Are we not citizens of the same country? We speak better Hindi than more than half the Indian population elsewhere. Do you need more proof of our Indianness?”
To let the world know Tawang is an integral part of India, there’s a movement brewing in these parts. People across Tawang, adjoining West Kameng and parts of East Kameng district have been pushing for an autonomous council under the Sixth Schedule so that “our homeland bears the stamp of the Indian Constitution”. That, as they say, is a different story.