In remote Himalayan India, Buddhist monks and an indigenous tribe fight government hydropower projects


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TAWANG, India (RNS) – The sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, born in 1683, is known for his poems extolling the beauty and uniqueness of the black-necked cranes that live in the remote Tawang Valley of Himalayan India, and To this day the people of the indigenous Monpa tribe of the valley are proud of a small shrine called Lama Tsabtsey, which they say contains the footprints of the Lama.

The shrine is just a sacred site threatened by plans by the Indian government to develop Tawang for its hydropower, in order to provide electricity to the region and beyond. Monpa Buddhists, nomads who raise yaks, sheep and goats under snow-capped peaks, have organized themselves to oppose any plans that would destroy the monasteries, hot springs and temples that dot their homeland.

“These are not just sacred places,” said Lama Tashi, 82, a spiritual advisor to the Save Mon Region Federation, a group led by more than 700 monks. “If we follow the false promises of progress made by politicians and big business, our Indigenous identity and traditions will be destroyed forever. “

Tashi lives in the monks’ quarters in the cobbled alleys behind Tawang Monastery, built in 1681 at the behest of the fifth Dalai Lama. The three-story monastery has a 26-foot-tall golden Buddha statue and life-size paintings towering over its inner shrine. The hum of praying monks and the rotation of prayer wheels resonate in its vast premises housing more than 500 Gelug monks.

Spiritual Advisor to the Federation of the Save Mon Region, Lama Tashi, 82, at Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh, India. RNS Photo by Priyadarshini Sen


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It is the second largest monastery in the world and belongs to the Gelug school of esoteric Buddhism. The current Dalai Lama took refuge there when he fled Tibet in 1959. “Every time I visit these regions,” he said in 2017, “it is very moving for me. I see a place where I had enjoyed freedom for the first time.

Militant monks in the Save Mon region say the dams will not only destroy the monastery and other irreplaceable sites, but will jeopardize an environmentally fragile region and escalate tensions with China, which claims Tawang as part of the autonomous region. from Tibet.

In 2007, the National Hydroelectric Power Corp., a state-owned company, was appointed to develop hydroelectric projects in the Tawang Chhu River Basin, while a private company was asked to work in the Nyamjang Chhu River Basin. adjacent.

Prayer flags fly on and around the 600-year-old Chagzam Bridge, to the right, which was built by a disciple of the First Dalai Lama.  The famous bridge spans the Tawang River in Arunachal Pradesh, India.  RNS Photo by Priyadarshini Sen

Prayer flags fly around the 600-year-old Chagzam Bridge, to the right, which was built by a disciple of the first Dalai Lama. The famous bridge spans the Tawang River in Arunachal Pradesh, India. RNS Photo by Priyadarshini Sen

Tawang monks have led peaceful protests against the roadblocks since 2009, with the support of Monpa and rights activists. “We were mobilizing people through the villages,” said Lama Jhampa Jha, a member of the Federation of the Save Mon region who made his visits wearing a brown robe and a hat made of yak hair characteristic of Monpa. .

In May 2016, police opened fire on protesters who had gathered outside Tawang Police Station to demand the release of anti-roadblock activist Lama Lobsang Gyatso. A Buddhist monk and a civilian were killed and several others were injured.

“This was the turning point of our movement,” said Lama Lopsang Phontso, president of the Federation of the Save Mon region.

Buddhist monks Lama Jhampa Jha, left, and Lama Lopsang Phontso of the Save Mon Region Federation at Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh, India.  RNS Photo by Priyadarshini Sen

Buddhist monks Lama Jhampa Jha, left, and Lama Lopsang Phontso of the Save Mon Region Federation at Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh, India. RNS Photo by Priyadarshini Sen

After the shooting, the monks and the natives stepped up their campaign. More rallies, petitions and protest marches followed, and community support increased across Tawang. Solidarity defeated the powerful pro-barrage lobby, which reportedly received the support of the chief minister of the state government of Arunachal Pradesh, Pema Khandu, a member of an influential family in the region.

Tsering Tashi, a local politician, says the government’s development corporation is aware of the culture and tradition of the people and insists that the projects “would boost the economy and tourism and create jobs.”

VR Srivastava, the executive director of National Hydroelectric Power Corp., says environmental studies for the project are still being completed, but NHPC is focusing on sustainability. “Millions of dollars have already been spent on these projects,” Srivastava said. “We only need the consent of the local community. ”

This assent is increasingly difficult to obtain. In 2018, the Save Mon federation sent a letter to district authorities saying that illiterate villagers had been tricked into signing certificates of no objection for the projects.

“If we knew our signatures were taken for NHPC projects, we would never have agreed,” said Tsering Tempa, who was seriously injured in the 2016 police attack. “We are concerned about our land and our identity, not by material gain. ”

Indigenous Monpas and Buddhist monks fought against hydroelectric projects in the remote district of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, India.  RNS Photo by Priyadarshini Sen

Indigenous Monpa and Buddhist monks have mobilized for years against hydroelectric projects in the remote district of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, India. RNS Photo by Priyadarshini Sen

Today, Save Mon monks still regularly leave Tawang Monastery to organize peaceful protests and meet with activists and locals to discuss how to save their fragile region.

“We have made indigenous people aware of our nonviolent protest,” said LT Khom, vice president of the federation, in part by telling stories about the sanctity of the region and by reading scriptures. “Their faith is strengthened when monks quote Buddhist texts and urge them to join their gatherings and fasts. “

Although the Monpa fear most immediately for historic sites, such as the Chagzam Bridge, built by a disciple of the first Dalai Lama over 600 years ago, or the rock cave where the tantric Buddhist mystic Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche , reportedly meditated, they are also concerned about the less tangible rituals, meditation practices and after-death ceremonies that focus on these places. “These will all disappear and with that our sacred rituals,” Sang Thinley said.

Indigenous Monpas fear that the rock cave where the mystical guru of Tantric Buddhism Padmasambhava was meditating would be lost if hydroelectric projects take off in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh, India.  RNS Photo by Priyadarshini Sen

The indigenous Monpa are concerned that the rock cave where the mystical guru of Tantric Buddhism Padmasambhava was meditating could be lost if the hydroelectric projects take off in the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh, India. RNS Photo by Priyadarshini Sen


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The villagers of Lhou who have mobilized strongly against the electricity projects echoed these concerns, adding that their faith could be weakened by the arrival of foreigners who came to build the dams. “The workers from outside will not only outnumber us, but they will also spread their own beliefs, destroying Tawang’s identity as a Buddhist center,” Thinley said.

The resilience of the Monpas and their spiritual leaders ultimately halted NHPC projects for this year, but the government’s zeal to harness Tawang hydropower has not gone away.

Indigenous peoples say their “moral victory” sent a powerful message.

“We will never allow projects that enslave people,” Jha said. “We are not monks in brown robes who just read the scriptures; we work for the betterment of society.

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