Tawang: After serving two-and-a-half terms as an unopposed leader from his constituency near Tawang, Arunachal chief minister Pema Khandu was elected for the first time with a huge margin of votes on May 23, as Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the polls in the Centre.
In an earlier interview, Khandu said that the return of opposition to his constituency after 20 years is a healthy sign of democracy. He won with a margin of 2,602 votes against Geshe Thupten Khunpen, a monk hailing from Jang village who fought the election on a Congress ticket. However, not everyone sees Khandu’s win as a straightforward victory.
Mukto, an assembly seat in Tawang district close to the India-China border, is perhaps the only seat in India which elected two chief ministers unopposed, and that too for more than two terms. Former chief minister Dorjee Khandu was first elected from the Mukto seat unopposed in 1990 when the elections were held for the first time in the state.
A former military intelligence official who served India during the period of Indo-Pak war in 1971, Khandu Senior toppled Gegong Apang after staging a revolt along with several legislators forming a majority against the incumbent CM.
However, towards the end of his second tenure as CM, Dorjee Khandu died in a tragic helicopter accident leaving a large family with a hard-earned political goodwill. Pema Khandu entered Arunachal Assembly after his father’s death by winning the by-polls completely unopposed in 2011. Over the past few years, a section of locals and monks have made a sizable opposition with issues related to hydropower and corruption.
Creation of the new opposition
Dorjee Khandu’s former aide, Pasang Khandu, recalls how a sympathy wave in favour of Pema Khandu had swept the entire region in 2011 during a bye-election. “Pema Khandu had an important task ahead of him at that point. He had his father’s shoes to fill in. The people stood by Khandu,” adds Pasang Khandu.
Pema Khandu’s younger brother, Tsering Tashi, who has been elected from Tawang for the second time, says that the family was completely shaken by the sudden death of the patriarch. “We were there for each other during those days even as there were a lot of expectations from us,” he says.
By 2014, Khandu was a cabinet minister and due to political in-fighting rebellion in two major political parties of the state — the Congress and the People’s Party of Arunachal — Khandu became a CM in December 2016 and joined the BJP with all the Congress rebels.
As Khandus’ influence in Tawang has translated into electoral victory, his detractors such as Pasang Khandu, who joined the opposite camp, say that one-third of the population have voted against the BJP and its mandate.
Far from Itanagar, discontentment against the Khandus started brewing right before the helicopter crash that killed former CM Dorjee Khandu. On April 19, 10 days before a new Pawan Hans four-seater crash inside the deep jungles between Itanagar and Tawang killed former CM Khandu and four others, yet another helicopter, carrying 15 army as well as civilian passengers including a Colonel, crashed killing everyone on board in Tawang.
At that point, Lama Lobsang Gyatso, who later came to known as Anna Lama, did not live far from the helipad in Tawang in a monastery. The Russian Mi-17, also run by Pawan Hans suffered from a wind shear that brought the helicopter down. Gyatso ran along with the other monks to rescue passengers. “During the rescue I learnt that the town’s fire services were not adequate to handle any crisis. I spoke openly against the government demanding better rescue and fire services,” says Gyatso.
As his voice grew and found new supporters, Save Mon Region Federation, a local organization committed to saving Monpa culture and a few monks belonging to the interior areas approached him to become a voice and a financier of the movement against the big hydropower projects. Being the only son of his parents, Gyatso sold off the land belonging to his forefathers on the outskirts of Tawang and donated all the proceeds to the movement.
“From the very beginning, I told them that they were up against extremely powerful lobbies so it is important for them to secure that political power first,” reminisced Gyatso as he opened up over the factors brought the Save Mon Region Federation candidates down in this year’s Assembly elections.
In 2014 itself, Gyatso decided to fight the electoral battle against the Khandus. As the anti-big dam protest in Tawang picked up in 2009 after former CM Dorjee Khandu signed more than 170-odd Memorandum of Understandings with various dam developers, three mega dam projects were planned for the Tawang district (check). “During the campaign, we organised public hearings across the villages in Tawang district. People were opposed to the dams and that sentiment could have been easily translated to votes. However, senior monks were against this idea saying that there was no place for monks in politics,” adds Lobsang.
The same factors that contributed to the SMRF’s rise would later become the factors for a split between Lobsang Gyatso and rest of the SMRF. “It’s not just me. Several people who were likely to be impacted by the dams plead before the governing council of the monks to contest the elections on the basis of the mandate. However, no one listened,” said Gyatso.
The first protests against Khandus started from Gongkhar village in the Mukto constituency. Lobsang was arrested for leading the protests and his incarceration by the police led to a huge mobilisation in May 2016. Thousands of supporters surrounded the Tawang Police Station with a resolve to free Lobsang from the police. It is alleged that the police fired 300 rounds to quell the crowd. In that scuffle, two protesters were killed and several injured.
Recalling the unfortunate incident, Gyatso says that it was much later in 2018, he learnt from the local administration that the killings could have been avoided if SMRF listened to the call for a meeting. “Later, I learnt that senior monks were called for a discussion with the deputy commissioner and higher-ups from Itanagar to settle the difference followed by my release. They did not come to the discussion table; as a result, people got angry and surrounded the police station leading to those deaths,” says a misty-eyed Gyatso.
For SMRF, the killings have a different meaning. “It only strengthened the movement. We brought the government to the negotiation table and punished the culprits which killed our people,” says LT Khom, secretary of SMRF. He rubbished the claims made by Gyatso saying that SMRF backed him throughout the whole struggle. “At that point of time, many monks were against stepping into electoral politics because of the religious sanctions,” he says.
Several SMRF members also accuse Gyatso now of financial irregularities and taking favours from various contractors. Gyatso has challenged SMRF members to an open meeting at their own convenience to place all the charges against him on record before the people of Tawang district.
Few months before the Assembly election this year, Gyatso got in touch with the senior leaders of Janata Das (Secular). When former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda visited Bogibeel bridge that was completed this year, Gyatso accompanied him. “I learnt from other people that the secret vows known only to the top level SMRF leaders and me were circulating among the people. I was really disappointed and left Tawang to travel in Nepal. I did not wish to come back,” he says.
Later, some senior leaders from Tawang has contacted him and convinced him return for a dialogue when he decided to remove himself from SMRF and contest elections on his own.
As the assembly elections were announced, Gyatso announced that he would contest elections. “SMRF top level immediately swung into action and they also announced that they will contest election. On the last day of filing nominations, I withdrew thinking that I would split the votes in the Mukto constituency, he says. In an earlier interview, Gyatso expressed happiness over the fact that now Mukto at least had an opposition.
Geshe Thupten Kunphen, a monk hailing from Jang, was pitted against the mighty Khandus with a Congress ticket. “This is the electoral battle between the richest candidate and the poorest one,” said Kunphen at the start of his campaign. Although a perusal of electoral documents does not quite put Kunphen in the category of a ‘poor candidate’, present CM Pema Khandu was the richest candidate contesting in the elections this year with declared assets worth Rs 163 crore. His younger brother, Tsering Tashi, has over Rs 109 crore worth of assets.
The Congress campaign against Khandu in his constituency was mainly focused on the corruption and the alleged threats faced by common people speaking against the excesses of Khandu. “There are several important schemes for budding entrepreneurs in the region. Over the years, Pema Khandu and his brothers and their friends have become beneficiaries of large contracts related to roads and infrastructure,” says Pasang Khandu, naming several firms – all linked to the Khandus. Thupten till the end of the campaign talked about BJP loyalists threatening people with dire consequences such as cancellation of ration cards, difficult posting for government officials, etc.
On the ground, the key issues of the people did not matter. What mattered was the loyalty to towards opposition or BJP At Gongkhar village in Mukto constituency, one of the first villages from where the anti-dam movement started, locals could not stop the BJP loyalists or Congress loyalists from installing flags outside their homes.
“I am voting for the first time in the Assembly elections. I had voted once before in the Lok Sabha elections. We used to vote Congress. The dam issue started during the Congress tenure but the same set of leaders joined BJP now. So, we are not voting BJP but we cannot say no to these flags,” says a teacher from the village not willing to be named fearing threats. The teacher further added that in some areas next to her women members of BJP asked the locals take vows over the Buddhist scripture to vote BJP.
“Our main issue, the land loss we are facing because of the Mukto-Shiyakanchu project and the flash floods caused by it are yet to be addressed by BJP,” the teacher added.
Not many agree with this view but very few want to speak openly. A woman from Jang who braved the heavy downpour to witness Pema Khandu’s victory lap feels extremely satisfied with his government and the fact that Khandu has contested from her constituency. However, after giving her opinions in front of the camera, she asked this reporter if he was from BJP.
For Sonam Norbu from Zemithang that falls under Lumla constituency bordering Bhutan and China, Pema Khandu’s cousin, Jambey Tashi, re-elected for the second time defeating Jampa Thirnley Kunkhap has reached out to the people whenever they needed any help. He travelled 100 km from Zemithang to Tawang to take part in the victory procession of Tashi.
“The roads and infrastructure, the schools and sanitation, every has improved under Jambey Tashi,” he says. When asked about dams, most of the BJP supporters in Tawang district say that the dams have been stalled completely by Khandu two years ago.
On the other hand, in an earlier interview, after his victory in the elections said that he would private investment for various sectors including hydropower. “If you talk about tourism, agriculture and hydropower, we have a huge potential,” says Khandu. Sangey Chodup, the BJP district president, however, says that the issue of the hydropower is more or less settled for Tawang as the local district administration has written to the state government that only with the peoples’ consent any mega dam can be built in the region.
A field study published earlier this month by Wildlife Institute of India on black-necked crane nesting sites in Zemithang area found that about all the 46 respondents opposed the dam. The study states that a 3-km stretch near Zemithang, which is also a nesting site of the black necked cranes, would be completely submerged by the reservoir of 780 MW Nyamjangchu Hydropower Project. Black-necked cranes are revered by the Monpa community since it is a part of the Tibetan Buddhist folklore and considered as an incarnation of Guru Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet.
According to SMRF members, this report is a huge success for the campaign against mega dams that swept the region few years ago. “WII’s report proves our contention and even from the wildlife perspective, it is significant. This is the work of SMRF,” says Khom. In other words, Khom added that no matter which party is in power, the mandate set by SMRF has to be given precedence over party ideology. It only remains to be seen how much of this mandate will be followed by those who have been elected from the district. The opposition has joined hands in Tawang to form Tawang Democratic Front, which will take up various issues of the region and if needed field their own candidates.