Congress candidate Geshe Thupten Kunphen being welcomed Lhau residents outside the village

Tawang: For 31-year-old Tashi Rabten, who is training to be a monk, April 11 is a crucial date. Two monks, or ‘lamas’ as they are called, are in the fray for the upcoming assembly elections from Lumla and Mukto in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang district. It will also be the first time when Rabten will be voting in the Mukto assembly seat that has not seen an electoral battle in the past 20 years.

After travelling for five days from Bengaluru in Karnataka, where Rabten is receiving his spiritual teachings, he reached his home at Gongkhar village and immediately joined the electoral campaign for Mukto, the local assembly seat where incumbent chief minister Pema Khandu will be facing Geshe Thupten Kunphen, a Buddhist monk supported by the Congress.

Monks and nuns from different areas of Mukto constituency assemble during the campaign trail of Congress candidate Geshe Thupten Khunpen at a nunnery near Lhau village

Flagging opposition

Every day, Rabten would cross the Shaikanchu river and travel 40-odd kilometres uphill to Lhau where most of the monks are camping in support of Congress’ Kunphen. In Lhau village, a nunnery serves the food and clothes for the campaigners while villagers collect food grains to feed election volunteers. In the past few days, Lhau has become the nerve centre of the campaign against ruling BJP, which seems to have covered each and every house with the party flags across the state, including Rabten’s house.

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“Here, everyone was made to take a religious vow promising a vote for BJP in both assembly and Parliamentary elections. If someone doesn’t vote for BJP, they will lose their ration cards or may also lose jobs. They also distributed the party flags and asked them to be installed,” he says.

BJP party workers rubbish such claims saying that the contest in Mukto as well as the other two seats, Lumla and Tawang, is one-sided and a cakewalk for the BJP. “There is nothing interesting or exciting in this year’s election in Mukto seat which is seeing a contest after many years. We are confident that Khandu will emerge victorious,” says BJP’s Tawang district president Sangey Chodup. He adds that having an electoral contest is a sign of a healthy democracy.

Known for his flawless speeches in Hindi, Sangey on the foundation day of BJP in the party office in Tawang says that although there are ‘a few local issues’ in the Mukto constituency, the Congress-supported monks are all outsiders from Karnataka. “These monks do not belong here but are inventing issues against Khandu and BJP,” he says.

Dawa Tashi, a resident of Lhau village, however, says that ‘outsider’ influence is a lie spread by the BJP. “Monks from Mon region routinely go to Karnataka to seek spiritual training. It is a seat of Buddhism. Because we seek Buddhist training, are we outsiders?” Tashi asks. Tashi’s sentiments echo with the manifesto that was locally prepared by Geshe Thupten Kunphen, the monk who is contesting on a Congress ticket, campaigning with the archetypal Buddhist ‘bhiksu’ image. The manifesto states that if elected the party would work towards formation of an autonomous council for the Mon People in the lines Ladakh Autonomous Council. Referring to Khandu as the ‘richest man in Tawang’, Lama Kunphen says that the richest man is pitted against poorest man.

Making a brief stop outside a BJP camp near Lhau, Kunphen read out the names of the government contracts allegedly awarded to Khandu’s family and associates in the last seven and a half years of his reign as an unopposed candidate. BJP party workers in a bid to counter the Lama start playing loud music on a console.

Congress candidate Geshe Thupten Kunphen during a campaign rally outside a BJP camp in Lhau village in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang district

Spiritualism to politics

Five years ago, however, imagining an electoral contest in the Mukto seat was unthinkable. Pasang Khandu, former political aide of deceased chief minister and Pema Khandu’s father, Dorjee Khandu, says that Dorjee Khandu was loved by the people. After Dorjee Khandu’s shocking demise in a helicopter incident, Pema Khandu was elected unopposed in a by-election followed by an assembly election in 2014. “However in the past five years, we have witnessed a rise in corruption. Crores of rupees worth of government contracts for roads and other infrastructure were awarded to his firms. Unemployment is at an all-time high,” says Pasang Khandu, who recently quit BJP to join the Congress campaign supporting the monks.

Interestingly, this is not the first time that monks will be contesting in the elections. On earlier occasions, monks have contested from this region. However, these elections have generated a lot of interest from the Buddhist community. “We have support from all the major monasteries from Tawang and Bomdila, and three monasteries from Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh and two from Karnataka each,” says Pasang Khandu, who is now managing the monk’s campaign for the Lumla seat.

In Lumla, National People’s Party (NPP) candidate Jampa Thrinley Kunkhap, who is a monk, is pitted against BJP’s Jambey Tashi.

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At the heart of the campaign by the monks is the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF), a body formed nine years ago to take up the issues of the residents of a region that is dominated by the Monpa people. One of the biggest rallying point is the issue of big hydropower projects planned in the region. On the ground, instead of referring to Congress or National People’s Party (NPP), both the monks contesting the elections from Mukto and Lumla seats are called SMRF candidates.

The reservoir of the Shaikangshu hydroelectric project which lies on top of Gongkhar village in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang district

Ever since former CM Dorjee Khandu signed 140-odd Memorandums of Understanding with various state-owned and private hydropower companies, SMRF has been campaigning against the proposed big dams. The organisation successfully fought a case against National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) and in 2015, the environmental clearance was suspended.

Despite repeated assurances from Pema Khandu’s government that the dams will not be built without the consent of the local residents, the campaign against dams reached a turning point on May 2, 2016. SMRF’s main leader, Lama Lobsang Gyatso, was detained by the Arunachal Police on April 26 after he lead protest against re-construction of a small hydro project on Shaikanchu river in Gongkhar, which also happens to be Rabten’s village. Angered over the arrest of their leaders, SMRF volunteers led by several monks from the region had surrounded the Tawang police station on May 2, 2016. Triggered by the protests, fearing that it would lead to more violence, a policeman open fired on the crowd killing two monks.

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LT Khom, president of SMRF, accuses the Khandu government of lying to the people of the Mon region. “They have not passed any order cancelling the dam. NHPC continues to have an office in Tawang and we are yet to get any justice against those policemen which killed and harassed our people,” says Khom.

After five years since Lama Lobsang Gyatso announced that he would contest the elections, the SMRF split over the question of going to polls. “In 2014, I wanted to contest the elections. However, the organisation mainly led by the monastic order opposed this move saying that spiritual guides cannot be political leaders,” he says.

After the split, Gyatso did not hide his political ambitions and when this year’s Assembly polls were announced, he secured a Janata Dal (Secular) ticket. On March 25, on the last date to file the nominations for the Assembly elections, Gyatso in a dramatic move refused to file nominations. When asked about his U-turn, he says that his goal has been achieved.

“Initially, SMRF was shying away from contesting the elections. The Mukto seat would have gone uncontested yet again. As soon as I announced that I will be standing against Pema Khandu from the Mukto seat, SMRF also announced a candidate. In a meeting, SMRF took a vow that they will not back down from the electoral fight following which I stepped down,” says Gyatso, who is now working closely with the Tawang district administration as a volunteer.

Lama Lobsang Gyatso in the DC office of Tawang where he has been volunteering for election-related work

Khom, however, maintains that the SMRF’s decision to contest the polls is not affected by Gyatso. “We realised that without political power, we will never be able to save the region from scourge of hydropower projects or take up issues of the marginalised,” Khom said. Lama Khupten, contesting against Pema Khandu, says that if the seat goes uncontested, even the Panchayat institutions, village councils will be dominated by BJP.

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“When it comes to the question of having peoples’ consent to various kinds of land diversion from community land or individually owned land to projects, gram sabhas play a key role. Here our lands have been diverted without our knowledge after party leaders bribed village headmen. If the seat keeps electing uncontested leaders, they can easily also use their influence on village councils. Therefore, we need to make our presence felt not just on assembly election but as a political force in the region to counter such policies,” he says.

Dams as an issue

On the other hand, BJP leaders say that dams are a non-issue. “Our CM has already issued a letter to deputy commissioner of the Tawang district more than a year ago recommending the cancellation of the proposed projects. The information can be accessed through a Right To Information request. They are just creating an issue because they have nothing to fight for,” says BJP’s Tawang district president Sangey Chodup.

BJP’s Tawang district president Sangey Chodup at the party office

Khom, however, counters the BJP district president saying if that was the case why has the Arunachal Pradesh government not returned the upfront money taken for the proposed dams or cancelled the MOUs signed with the dam developers.

At Gongkhar, the locals live in fear of the dams. The cause of this fear is a small hydroelectric project built by PWD. The dam developers decided to divert a portion of the river Shaikanchu which flows through a channel and finally collects in a reservoir situated on top of the village. Waters from the reservoir gush through three large pipelines in a powerhouse several feet below Gongkhar village.

In 2017, when the project was still under construction, a landslide caused a breach in the channel due to heavy monsoon downpour. Water and mud rushed through the sole road that connects Gongkhar with the rest of the world leading to a flash flood. “We heard sounds like explosions as big rocks fell on the channel and we ran for our lives. There were no casualties but our houses suffered. Will anyone listen after someone dies?” a local from the village, Thupten Tsering, asks.

After that day, residents of Gongkhar have experienced two similar events, albeit in a smaller scale. In June 2018, CM Pema Khandu inaugurated the 6 MW Shaikanchu Small Hydroelectric Project.

Tashi Rabten from Gongkhar village talking about the SMRF campaign

Rabten, who hails from the village, says that if peoples’ consent was taken in a democratic way, no one would have allowed the dams in the region. “However, in 2006 itself, our village headman claimed that he consented to the projects which led to diversion of our land for this project in 2010,” says Rabten. He adds that the family received compensation of Rs 13,000 where they grew various fruits and crops in a region where arable land is hardly available. Rabten now feels that despite having a BJP flag firmly placed outside his house.

Pasang Khandu, the campaign manager, says that having a candidate against the CM in a seat which historically remained uncontested for most elections is a big win for democracy. “In Mon culture, we have a beautiful meaning for what we know as democracy. It means people who are in the bottom of the society decide their leader. We just hope that this trend continues and peoples’ issue gets precedence over money or muscle,” he adds.

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