The death of two anti-dam activists in police firing last week in Tawang exposes India’s failure to tackle unrest. While hydro-power is important for development, the government should have first consulted local communities and allayed their fears of displacement. Escalation of violence in Tawang has serious security implications too for India as the region borders China
Tawang in India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh is in the grip of unrest.
Early last week, police opened fire on a crowd that had converged at the Tawang police station to protest the arrest of Lama Lobsang Gyatso, a Buddhist monk and leader of the anti-big dam Save Mon Region Foundation (SMRF). The firing resulted in the death of two people, including a monk and injury to ten others.
The incident has triggered public anger with the police’s use of extreme force to deal with the crowd. Even if the protestors were pelting stones and hurling glass bottles as alleged by the police, the latter could have used rubber pellets rather than live ammunition to disperse them. It is widely believed that the police were acting at the behest of the powerful hydropower lobby in the state.
The incident has triggered concern in India’s security establishment given Tawang’s strategic significance.
Located at the south-western extremity of Arunachal Pradesh, Tawang shares borders with Bhutan to its west and Tibet to its north. It nestles in the eastern Himalayas at an altitude of 3,400 meters. Importantly, Tawang is part of the roughly 90,000 square kilometers of territory — roughly approximating with Arunachal Pradesh — that China lays claim to in the eastern sector of the disputed Sino-Indian border.
In 1962, when China and India fought a border war, Tawang was part of the vast swath of territory occupied by China. Although China subsequently withdrew from land it occupied in the eastern sector -– this has remained under India’s control since – it has reiterated claims over it from time to time.
When India conferred statehood on Arunachal in 1986, for instance, Chinese troops made deep incursions into Arunachal at Sumdurong Chu. China has objected to Indian infrastructure projects in the state on the grounds that this is disputed territory.
China refers to Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet.” Indian security analysts maintain that its value to China stems from the fact that its control would enable Chinese troops to easily overrun the Brahmaputra Valley. And control over Tawang, in particular, is important for consolidating its control over Tibet.
Tawang is the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama and the monastery there is Tibetan Buddhism’s second largest after the Potola Palace in Lhasa.
Unrest in a border area, especially one where its control is disputed by China, is hardly in India’s interest. Protests there could provide China with a useful handle to stoke anti-India sentiment that would serve to weaken India’s hold over this strategic territory.
This makes it imperative for India to ensure that anger and alienation from the Indian state do not deepen in this crucial border state. The Buddhist Monpa people have been fiercely pro-India and Tawang has been peaceful for decades.
Unfortunately, India’s plans for building hydro-power dams in the region are generating unrest.
The National Hydro Power Policy of 2008 identified Arunachal Pradesh as having a hydro-power potential of over 50,000 megawatts (MW) i.e. a third of India’s total hydro-power potential.
In recent years, the Arunachal government has signed memorandums of understanding with several power companies for construction of over 100 small and big hydro-electric projects in the state; 13 of these are in Tawang district.
A section of locals is opposing the proposed dams as these would cause widespread displacement, and destroy the local ecology and culture. A major issue on which activists have mobilized support is the impact the dams will have on the habitat of the black-necked crane, a bird that the local Buddhist Monpas consider to be an embodiment of the 6th Dalai Lama who was from Tawang.
Anti-big dam activists say that the government has not consulted the local communities before issuing environment clearances, and is acting in support of the hydro-power companies to silence those opposing the projects.
The issue has divided Tawang’s monks too. Guru Tulku Rinpohce, the abbot of the powerful Tawang monastery, is said to have prevented monks living in the monastery from participating in the anti-dam campaign. This prompted Lama Lobsang Gyatso to question the abbot’s credentials – he pointed out that the abbot is of Bhutanese origin – to issue such orders.
This rift among the monks has in turn divided Tawang society. While many are opposed to the dam, they deeply revere the abbot. The police action has added fuel to the fire.
A small town that generally draws tourists and pilgrims in search of peace and quiet, Tawang is now simmering with anger.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India, who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org