Tawang Monastery,Arunachal Pradesh: A white flag bearing the words, “One world. One Dream. Stop human rights violations in Tibet”, flaps desolately in the gray stone courtyard of a monastery, 500km east of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Hemmed by the Himalayas in India, this is the second largest Tibetan monastery in the world and one of the only places left where the practice of Tibetan Buddhism has never broken. But beyond the fluttering flag, there are few signs of protest. Most, after all, have been silenced.
Inside, young boys chant and pray for peace at the feet of a 50ft Buddha statue, brought here from Tibet 300 years ago. The boys, bored by the monotony of prayers, sometimes playfully jostle each other as the priests look on with anguish but don’t rebuke.
In this remote place that serves as home to the Monpas, a tribe whose name means people from the south, monks say they cannot protest for Tibet’s freedom because they are caught between two squabbling giants protecting a prized possession: this monastery. It is the only remaining unbroken tradition, the last memory of an unmolested Tibet.
China claims to be the rightful owner of this land of “lower Tibet” where the monastery stands because the culture here is largely Tibetan. India, on the other hand, has responded by protecting the cultural identity of tribes, setting up a large army base and is asserting its control by building new roads, hospitals and hydropower projects in the district. However, India says the geopolitics here are sensitive and discourages pro-Tibet protests here, fearing that the Chinese may use them to validate their claims.
Even as monks say they cannot bear the tales and photos emerging from Tibet, they cannot protest because it may harm India, the country that has protected them. Worse, if the protests backfire and the Chinese come calling, they fear the same fate as their Tibetan brethren.
In April, when the world was protesting for Tibet, the monks say they also decided to march against Chinese occupation of Tibet, but the Indian government came down hard and fast on them. The district commissioner (DC) of Tawang, T.T. Gamdik, called in the police forces and ordered them to fire tear gas on the protesters. When the crowd dispersed, they had marched no more than half a kilometre. Gamdik disputed this account in an interview, and said the head monk had actually blocked the road in protest.
“The thought keeps us awake at night. What will happen if the Chinese come? Every time they claim Tawang, a stone slips in my stomach. If the Indian government does not reply back, we get more worried. We have to save our culture and ourselves in India. For that, we cannot protest for our Tibetan brothers who are suffering there every day. It makes me feel very selfish. It is a cruel situation for us,” said Lama Tsering, a 55-year-old monk who lives in the monastery here.
Earlier in April, when the global protests against Chinese occupation of Tibet peaked, the head monk, Tengay Rinpoche, asked the commissioner of Tawang for permission to the march in the town. “He did not give it to us. We still left, thinking it will not be a problem because it was only a peaceful march. We didn’t think we would be stopped because we only wanted to show our support for Tibetans in Tibet,” said Rinpoche, speaking through an interpreter. About 2,000 people gathered at the monastery gates and they had barely left when a barricade of army vehicles and the district commissioner himself stopped them.
Ancient tradition: A 50f Buddha statue at Tawang Monastery. It is the second largest Tibetan monastery in the world and one of the only places left where the practice of Tibetan Buddhism has never been broken. Photograph: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
When the protesters refused to follow orders and turn around, the police fired tear gas. “It was like breathing fire,” said Lama Urgen Tsering, who swallowed the curling white smoke. In the confusion, the crowd tried to press on towards the barricade. Tsering said that while trying to stop the surging crowd, Rinpoche fell down on the road and injured himself. The crowd suddenly stopped, helped him up and the protest came to a sudden end.
Rinpoche confirmed his injury, and explained that “the lamas were very, very angry. I had to stop them. Even the government should have been peaceful in trying to stop the rally. There was no need to use tear gas. Using violence is not the answer. Even the district commissioner should not be angry. We were only talking about human rights abuses in Tibet. That’s all. But this is such a political issue here. So we cannot express out sadness here. We cannot express our fears.”
The commissioner says it is not true and in fact, the Rinpoche “slept on the road and refused to get up”. Defending his decision to fire tear gas at the crowd, he said he feared “violence” and he was only defending India’s strategy in the region. “China is claiming this land as southern Tibet because the Tawang monastery is here, because the sixth Dalai Lama was born here. If we allow protests here, it will validate their claim and can lead to trouble between India and China. We want to avoid that. We don’t want to give China any reason to start demanding this land again,” Gamdik said.
S. Chandrashekharan, director of South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG), a non-profit think-tank that does strategic analysis of security issues, says this Indian strategy does not make any sense. “Tawang is fully under Indian control. Border negotiations are at a standstill and there are only rhetorical statements being made by China. Where is the question of China claiming it? This is our country and people can protest, as they will. If anything, it might be a law and order issue, certainly not a political problem.”
Following the showdown, Rinpoche, who has led the monastery for 12 years, has filed his resignation papers at the office of the Dalai Lama. “He has accepted my resignation and I will leave from here this month.” He made these comments in April.
While the protests have ended, the wish to march has not. Sitting in his Tibetan style home with colourful wall motifs, Tsewang Dhondup, a former member of legislature and founder of the Indo-Tibet Friendship Society, tried to explain why protesting is so important by recounting the day he received a young Dalai Lama, fleeing from the Chinese, at India’s border.
“I was there, the day he came. He looked so young and lost. I cried that day. I vowed to put him back on his golden seat,” he said. He says there are many like him, who have waited 50 years, waited for the right time.
“Now it has come. Now the whole world has risen to protest what is happening in Tibet. Now we have hope. And they want us to keep quiet? After waiting so long?” he asks.
The refrain is recurring in these mountains. “All we want is to be able to express our solidarity with Tibet. They let protests happen everywhere but not here. This is not a question about a piece of land called Tibet. It is a question of its culture, heritage and identity. Here sentiments are much higher than any other place in the country. From here, we can see Tibet across the border. I cannot tell you how hurt people here are,” said Burang Lama, a member of the Indo-Tibetan Friendship Society. “We were protesting that China does not let Tibetans speak. Turns out, even we cannot,” he concludes. Shaking his head, he pointed towards the end of the winding road where a milestone read: Lhasa. 500 km.
Lama said sadly, “We are so close. We are still so far.”
This is the sixth in a series of articles on Arunachal Pradesh.
Next: How corruption has become an accepted part of life in Arunachal Pradesh.