On Monday, two people, including a Buddhist monk, were killed and 10 injured in police firing in Tawang, a town perched at 3,000 metres above sea level in Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern Himalayas, right on the China border. The incident has brought to the fore several issues at once.
Prima facie, it was alleged mishandling of a law and order situation by the police — apparently there were hardly 200 people protesting outside the Tawang police station when the firing happened. The issue that had triggered the protest was an emotive one — Lama Lobsang Gyatso, who also heads a group called the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF) had allegedly questioned the nationality status of Guru Tulku Rinpoche, the spiritual head or abbot of the Tawang Monastery. Gyatso had been arrested on April 28, and his supporters were demanding his release outside the police station when they were fired upon, leading to the two deaths.
But the SMRF has also been spearheading protests against a number of hydroelectric dam projects that are coming up in the area. The Arunachal Pradesh government has over the past several years signed MoUs with various companies for over 100 big and small hydel projects in the state, and 13 of these — with a total installed capacity of 2791.90 MW — are in Tawang district.
Groups like the SMRF are of the opinion that these proposed and upcoming hydel power projects would adversely impact the fragile Eastern Himalayan ecosystem, which is also a seismically vulnerable zone that has experienced several major earthquakes over the past few decades.
The anti-dam protesters include various student bodies, environmental groups and civil society organisations in the state — in Tawang, the Buddhist lamas too have jumped in. In January, hundreds of lamas joined protests in Tawang saying “No”, particularly to large dams in the “ecologically, culturally and strategically” sensitive district. Tawang, which was occupied by Chinese troops in 1962, continues to be on Beijing’s mind — which, in fact, stakes claim to the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh.
The National Hydro Power Policy of 2008 had identified a total capacity potential of 1,48,701 MW of hydropower in the country, of which 50,328 MW was in Arunachal Pradesh alone. Of these, the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri hydel project — 80% of the construction of which has been completed — has been stuck since December 2012 following massive protests in downstream Assam.
Activists complain environmental clearances to several projects were issued despite protests, after allegedly hurried or hush hush public hearings that allowed very little time or scope to listen to genuine grievances.
One such project is the 2880 MW Dibang Multi Purpose Project — the country’s largest capacity hydroelectric power project — in the Lower Dibang Valley district, clearance for which was issued in May last year despite stiff opposition. This project which will have a 278 m tall concrete gravity dam that will submerge a vast forest area of 45.77 sq km, a major part of which is said to be community-owned.
Despite the SMRF’s links to the anti-dam protests, however, Monday’s police firing was not directly connected to the ongoing movement. The audio clip attributed to Lama Lobsang Gyatso, purportedly containing remarks including those questioning the nationality of Guru Tulku Rinpoche, has been in circulation in Tawang for the past several days. A majority of people in Tawang hold the Rinpoche in very high esteem, and Gyatso’s purported remarks have offended many. Jambey Tsering, chairman of the Zilla Parishad, filed an FIR against Gyatso on April 28, following which the police arrested him under non-bailable sections of the law.
Gyatso himself had lodged an FIR against one Lobsang Yonto, who had, in a meeting held the same day to discuss some issues relating to Panchayati Raj, had allegedly threatened to kill him. But while Yonto was arrested and almost immediately released on bail, Gyatso had to spend five days in custody, to be released only on Monday — and that too after the police firing had claimed two lives.
Gyatso’s supporters argue that he was right to ask the abbot not to “meddle” in matters related to the hydroelectric projects. Gyatso has alleged that the abbot had refused to permit a large number of lamas residing in the Tawang Monastery from taking part in the anti-dam protests. The abbot has described the allegations against him as “very sad and disappointing”, and which had “hurt” the religious sentiments of many people.
Going by local reports, Monday’s firing could have been definitely avoided. Pictures on social media, purportedly of the scene of the firing, showed a crowd of just about 200 outside the Tawang police station. Whether the police had really not issued prior warning, and whether the firing was actually uncalled for, will be confirmed only after an investigation. But while Chief Minister Kalikho Pul has ordered a high-level inquiry, it is likely that Arunachal Pradesh will remain vulnerable to such incidents as protests against the hydropower projects continue.