RANJU DODUM | 14 MARCH, 2019
Monk Against Monarch
#TCVotes Buddhist monk in the thick of anti dam protests takes on Arunachal CM
ITANAGAR: Lobsang Gyatso does not come across as a brazen man. However, anyone who has followed reports of protests against planned hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang district for the past few years knows fully-well that the bespectacled monk is not someone to bow down to pressure easily either.
The Buddhist monk has been in the thick of anti-dam protests in Tawang for almost a decade but came to the limelight at the end of April 2016 when he was arrested for allegedly defaming the abbot of the historical Tawang Monastery.
Soon after, police arrested him which sparked protests and on May 2, people demanding his release had gathered outside the police station in Tawang where he was being held. Overwhelmed by the size of the protesting crowd, security forces fired their guns, killing one newly-wed former monk and another young monk.
Two inquiries were set up to investigate the events and the killings but only the inquiry by the district administration was submitted while the other from the state-level was not.
A case is currently being heard in the Supreme Court.
Two years since the events of May 2, the lama (monk) is about to have the spotlight shine on him once more. This time for taking on Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu in the April 11 election for the Mukto assembly constituency.
Mukto has been Khandu’s family’s stronghold since 1990 when his father, former chief minister late Dorjee Khandu, won the seat unopposed for the first time. The senior Khandu was elected from the constituency continuously until he died in a helicopter crash in 2011. His son and present chief minister, Pema, took over the reins of the constituency the same year, elected unopposed in a by-election. He again did not face any electoral challenge in the 2014 election.
Five years later, the battleground is a little crowded.
“I would have won in 2014 had I contested,” a confident Gyatso said on the phone speaking from Delhi.
He said that in 2014 he had filed his nominations to contest for the seat but withdrew it after his fellow monks asked him to.
“I don’t know why the monks don’t want me to become an MLA,” he said.
Gyatso said that the current scenario is “funny” (the word he used was ‘jokkor type’, a colloquial term derived from the English ‘joker’) because there is reportedly another monk who could possibly be fighting for the same seat.
The reason the outspoken monk feels that the situation is “jokkor type’ because a united front is needed to defeat Khandu and that a fragmented opposition will not gain anything.
“That is what happened in 2016 when those shots were fired and the two men died,” said.
He said that he tried to bring everyone together but was unsuccessful in doing so.
His reasons to contest the elections appear to be two-pronged but is primarily focussed on the hydropower issue.
Currently, there are plans to build two large hydropower projects (the 600-megawatt Tawang- I and the 800-megawatt Tawang-II) in the district. Protests against the projects have been led by monks for years, with Gyatso being in the forefront, under the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF).
Since then, his relationship with the SMRF has soured and is no longer associated with it. He is not currently attached to any monastery either.
He said that the absence of political power can diffuse the agitation and that authorities can ‘use force’ against them.
“The reason I am contesting against Pema Khandu is that he has said that he will amend the land laws if he comes to power” and that if that happens “sab khatam hain”, he said.
Gyatso said Khandu and his family have been ruling Tawang for the past 25 years and accused the chief minister of using strong-arm tactics to get his way.
Elections are never an inexpensive affair, especially in Arunachal Pradesh where the exchange of cash for votes is not even a secret. The monk knows he has his work cut out but is confident of his chances going up against the Goliath in the form of Khandu.
“If people want to get a bullet they don’t have to vote for me. I will try to raise awareness amongst the people. I don’t even have any property against my name but I have nothing to complain about,” he said.
Money or not, he is confident of support and even more so on another monk and his friend, Tsering Dorjee, who is likely to contest the Tawang assembly constituency. The incumbent MLA of that seat is Tsering Tashi, Pema’s brother.
The day we spoke he was scheduled to fly to Guwahati and was planning to return to Tawang to hold meetings with voters and the third candidate.
“If the opposition stands divided we will not succeed,” he said.
Before going up against Khandu, Gyatso’s first task at hand will be to bridge the divide between the opposition.