For Tawang, the incidents of May 2 will remain a scar forever

In the second of the three-part series, we look at how the Police completely botched up in handling the protests of May 2 and opened fire on protesters without any warning. Although following the incidents, heads have rolled and the administration has promised swift action, the shooting has reminded anti-dam protesters of what lies ahead in their struggles. Read part one here

By Amit Kumar,

Support TwoCircles

Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh: The end of April was a bad time for the town of Tawang; landslides had caused substantial damage of life and property in the area and the general apathy of the district administration had left a bad taste with the residents. Earlier that month, the NGT order denying environmental clearance to the 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu power project had further polarised opinions in the city; the businessmen who were looking forward to lucrative contracting opportunities, along with the town administration were visibly angry at the outcome.

Tenzin Dakpa talks about the May 2 incident.JPG

Tenzin Dakpa talks about the May 2 incident

On April 25, buoyed by the NGT order, Lama Lobsang Gyatso of the Save Mon Region Federation decided to file a PIL against the alleged low-quality construction material used in the making of the Mukto Shaikangchu, a 6 MW project developed by the state government. The police, in an attempt to put an end to any further anti-dam movement, promptly arrested Gyatso, only to see him out on bail the same day. Although this action angered his supporters and the anti-dam activists in the region; things had until then, remained under control.

On April 28, however, things took a turn for the worse. As we have mentioned in part one, the Zilla Parishad called a meeting under the aegis of discussing the Panchayat affairs, only to use the moment to slander Gyatso in public for ‘insulting’ the Abott of the Tawang Monastery. Interestingly, they used a clip from 2012 to stoke anger against Gyatso, and ensure that a case was filed against him. The same day, Gyatso was arrested again. Sensing the gravity of the situation and given that the SP had already called for additional forces, a platoon of Indian Reserve Battalion arrived in the town on April 30.

‘People were angry and protesting, but none saw the outcome’
Ngawang Choegyal, 25, has been volunteering with the Save Mon Region Federation for the past three years and has been a witness to the people’s struggles against the Mega Dams. However, it was only three months ago that he returned home from Bengaluru and ever since, he has been actively involved in the affairs of SMRF. On May 2, Choegyal, along with thousands others, had been demanding the release of Gyatso, who had been secretly hushed into the police station. When the protestors demanded his release, the police, according to Choegyal, initially denied his presence in the lockup. However, a few people had seen him being taken into the police station from the back gate and refused to believe their version. “We wanted to know why he has been taken so secretly,” says Choegyal. By afternoon, the crowd around the police station had started to swell and the residents could no longer carry on with their business like usual. “By 1 pm, we knew that something bad is happening…there were people all over the roads and surrounding the police station. I knew I had to shut my shop immediately and go home before anything untoward happened,” said Sheela, the owner of a Fast Food stall about the May 2 incident. “What we had never expected however, was that police would open fire,” she added. Sheela had been in Tawang for the past sixteen years and had never seen such commotion in the town.

What happened next is something that is unlikely to be forgotten by any person who was in Tawang that day. “As we continued protesting, the police asked us to back off. But since we would not back off without seeing Gyatso, we remained in our position,” said Sonam, a local resident and the owner of a small guest house. “Initially, the police asked three people to enter the police station compound, but the moment they entered, the other policemen started lathicharging at them,” he added. Before long, other protestors tried to climb the compound wall and enter the station. Within minutes, the main gate was breached too and protesters started pouring inside the station.

Interestingly, apart from a platoon of the Indian Reserve Battalion, the Seema Suraksha Bal had also been called into action. However, as protesters ran inside, the SSB are said to have vacated their posts. More worryingly for the police, they had until then, did absolutely nothing to disperse or pacify the protesters. They had not come out from the station in their anti-riot gears and not tried to create a barricade between the police station and the protestors.

Tenzin Dakpa recovers at the Tenga Millitary Hospital.jpg

Tenzin Dakpa recovers at the Tenga Millitary Hospital

It is important to point out that the Tawang police station has a narrow gate to enter the police station, and as such, a majority of the protesters had not entered the compound but chose to shout slogans from outside. However, as the crowd of people entering the compound increased, albeit slowly, the police did the unthinkable: instead of firing teargas shells, or even warning shots, it started shooting blindly at the protestors. In all, protesters said more than 300 rounds of live bullets were fired at them and had it not been for the compound wall, riddled with bullets, the death toll would have much higher than the two recorded that day.

Of course, such views were of little comfort to the families of Tsering Tempa, a 30-year-old resident of Jangda village and17-year-old Lama Nyima Wangdi. Tempa died after a bullet him in his head while Wangdi died after being shot in his abdomen. Ten others suffered injuries, including four who suffered serious injuries and are still admitted in the hospitals of Guwahati and Shillong. The patient in Shillong, Tenzin Wangchuk, is a 30-year-old from Pempaling village. He was shot in his head and he has been in COMA since the incident.

According to Tenzin Dakpa, a 17-year-old Lama from the Tawang Monastery, the firing was incessant. “Initially, we did not even realise these were live bullets. We had no idea that they would open fire on Lamas protesting,” he said. Before he could get out of the harm’s way, a bullet had scraped past his face and ripped up his right cheek. Another got lodged in his shoulder and soon, he was unconscious. “I woke up in the Tenga Millitary Hospital the next day. My shoulder had turned green and it hurt a lot,” he said. Although he is out of danger now, he says he never expected such actions from the police. But ask him if he will protest again, and he breaks into a smile. “Of course I will. We cannot let Mega Dams ruin our ecology,” he says defiantly.

‘This was no way to handle a protest’
Tumme Amo has not had the time to see much of Tawang. On the first day of the month, he had been on a break after he had been relieved of his duties as the Superintendent of Police, Ziro. Eight days later, he had taken charge of Tawang as the SP, and since then, it has been a constant attempt to ensure that what happened on May 2 never happens again; although he admits that the next month is crucial. Speaking to, he immediately accepted that the police had handled the matter in an extremely callous way. “The local policemen did little to calm the people down. Bringing Gyatso from a different entrance was a big mistake. What was the need to do that? If the people had seen Gyatso initially, they would have been unlikely to enter the compound,” he says. Amo added that the police also made a mistake in not filing an FIR initially against the shootings. “That should have been done immediately, but instead the police filed a complaint against the rioters while keeping themselves out of harm,” he says. When asked if reports that 300 rounds of bullets were fired, he immediately said, “No”.
“The total number of rounds fired that day stands at 380. The weapons of the IRB were used by all, including the civil police. There is no way this can be justified,” he said.

The police during the May 2 incident.jpg

The police during the May 2 incident

Over the next four days, as pressure on the police built up, the SP, Anto Alphonse, Deputy Commissioner Duly Kamduk and Officer in Charge Lam Dondhup were suspended. However, it was not until two weeks later that an FIR was finally filed against the officials after sustained media pressure. During this period, the families of the dead persons were paid an ex-gratia amount of Rs 18 lakh each while the people injured were paid Rs 6 lakh. Amo also added that the magisterial report by ADC Jang, Dr D Chutia and the one constituted by the state government headed by IAS officer Hage Khoda are being prepared and would be tabled by the first week of June, after which appropriate action will be taken against the erring officers.

The incident also saw protests in Delhi on May 26 in search of justice, while the National Alliance of People’s Movement wrote to the National Human Rights Commission requesting the Chairperson to constitute an independent expert committee and send them to Tawang valley for investigation of the whole incident including role of police officials and politicians.

But for the people of Tawang, this incident has forever scarred their belief that their town was a peaceful place with no threat to life. As for Gyatso, he has decided to stay in the Monastery itself and not return to his house. “If they can open fire at Lamas, I do not know what they can do to me when I am alone. I am safer here,” he says.

Read part One: Why Tawang is protesting against Mega Dams