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Tawang: A town with a tale to tell

November 22, 2009

By Saransh Sehgal
Asia Times
November 21, 2009

NEW DELHI -- Tawang, a tiny outpost sandwiched
between Myanmar, Bhutan and Tibet in the lush
forested state of Arunachal Pradesh in the
Himalayan foothills, is governed by India but claimed by China.

Tawang is very close to the Chinese border, just
a few kilometers from Bumla, the nearest border
post. It is at Bumla that army officers from
India and China meet for routine border post
meetings every three months. Chinese army
officers and civilians on the other side also
cross the border on August 15 every year to
attend celebrations of India's Independence Day.
The Indian side, too, reciprocates by sending a
delegation each year to the other side on October 1, China's National Day.

The region has frequently changed hands amid
chaos, such as in the late 1940s during the birth
of communist China and after the 1947
independence of India from British India. The
last upheaval was in 1962 during the Sino-Indian
War, when Chinese troops briefly overran the
Himalayan town and its surrounding areas, which
are known today as part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Tawang has once again drawn international
attention to the territorial dispute between
India and China - the world's two most populous
countries - which are now both nuclear-armed and
competing for world power status. The recent
visit of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, to
the region was played up by media as a
three-sided contest between New Delhi, Beijing
and the Tibetan government in exile, which is based in India.

China slammed the Indian government for allowing
the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal, an area with a
Tibetan culture that Beijing claims as "Southern
Tibet". While New Delhi did not seemingly yield
to Beijing's protests, India did expel all foreign journalists from the region.

China's anger stems in part from a territorial
dispute over Arunachal Pradesh that can be traced
to about a century ago. China claims sovereignty
over the region and refuses to recognize the
so-called McMahon Line, a border drawn by India's
British colonial rulers in 1914 that gave
Arunachal to India. China also occupies a part of
Kashmir claimed by India. Despite 13 recent
rounds of talks between the two countries on the
border dispute, no agreement has been reached.

The indigenous inhabitants of the area are the
Monpas, who had always kept a distance from the
Tibetans of the plateau, despite sharing
religious and cultural values. Inhabitants in
their 60s in the area of Tawang have the distinct
experience of living under four national flags -
British, Tibetan, Chinese and Indian.

Chinese scholars argue that the Monpas' interests
would be better safeguarded with China, and that
only the Monpas can decide their future. So
Monpas perceptions and opinion of India remain
important for the future of Tawang.

In the past, Monpas tribes were unhappy subjects
of often oppressive Tibetan rulers. Today, the
fortunes are reversed - Tibetan rulers are now
viewed as persecuted and many have had to flee
the country - while Monpas are free citizens of
India. It seems few want to live under Chinese or
Tibetan rule, though they all revere the Dalai Lama as their religious leader.

Tawang has a special status in Tibetan Buddhism.
Its monastery is one of the largest and oldest of
the dominant Tibetan Gelupga sect, which is near
the home of Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai
Lama born in 1683 - a leader particularly beloved
by the Tibetans and the native Monpas. The
present Dalai Lama, they believe, is a
reincarnation of Tsangyang Gyatso, who was a
Monpas and the only Indian Dalai Lama. "It is
very important to remember that India, too, once
produced a Dalai Lama," says Wangchu, a local
Monpas, claiming that the sixth Dalai Lama's blessings keep Tawang safe.

"Because of the recent border tensions and the
Dalai Lama's visit, we had some fear of the
Chinese. But there is nothing happening there,
Tawang is of India and not of China. And this is
what the Dalai Lama cleared during his first day
here - he was almost surprised by China's claim
over Tawang" said Tsering Lamho, a Monpas woman
who serves in the Arunachal Pradesh state government.

During his first day at Tawang, the Dalai Lama
said, "The then [1960s] Chinese government
declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew. Now
the Chinese have got different views. This is
something which I really don't know. I am a little bit surprised."

Tsering Tsomu, a 10-year-old Monpas girl said,
"We are delighted that His Holiness has come
here. My family tells that I am lucky being
blessed by the Dalai Lama and I hope that his
visit will bring about lasting peace to Tawang and the state as a whole."

"The Indian flag is all over the town because
this is India. As well as the Tibetan flag
because His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the highest
Tibetan spiritual leader, is coming," said Guru
Tulku Rinpoche, head of the Gaden Namgyal Lhatse,
popularly known as Tawang Monastery.

"He stayed here for a few days when he fled from
Tibet 50 years ago. He was here three more times,
the last being in 2003. But this time is special,
in view of China's unwarranted objections," said
Phupten Tenzin, a local Monpas tribal who runs a souvenir shop.

Some Tibetans living in exile in Tawang say they
still hope for the day when they can return to Tibet with the Dalai Lama.

"We have always longed to see our own homeland,
our dear Tibet. It is just across those
mountains. But since that is not possible at the
moment, at least we can get the blessings of our
great leader," said Gyelpo, whose parents escaped from Tibet to India in 1959.

As when he visits elsewhere in the world, the
Dalai Lama's presence drew thousands of Buddhists
from within and outside India during his tour. At
Tawang and other local towns, Bomdi-la and
Dirang, people turned up with their entire families to hear his discourses.

"We'll follow him wherever he goes. We'll go to
Tibet only if he goes there," said Yeshe Jamyang,
77, who fled Lhasa along with the Dalai Lama in
1959 and later served in a special force of
Tibetans raised by India that saw action in the
1971 India-Pakistan war that led to the creation
of Bangladesh. The Dalai Lama spent 10 days at
Bomdi-la during his escape from Tibet.

At Tawang and Dirang, a number of Nepalese and
Bhutanese Buddhists were present at the Dalai
Lama's congregations early this month. "The Dalai
Lama is our supreme god," said Nima Tamang, a
Nepalese Buddhist, as she rushed to listen to the
Tibetan leader with her husband and children.

During his visit, the Dalai Lama asked the
community to work for removing evils like
superstition and bring "positive change" in
society. "Let us be Buddhists of the 21st
century, acting as harbingers of positive
change," he said, also extolling the virtues of
Buddhism and saying there was a need for
introspection so that reforms could take place at
the individual and community levels.

"Tawang's political significance is what makes it
important, said Jambey Tashi, a local lawmaker.
"Besides, many look at Tawang for direction when
it comes to preserving Tibetan culture and heritage."

"There is nothing Chinese here, so there is no
need to see us differently," said Tashi Rapten, a
Monpas who came to see the Dalai Lama from Lumla,
another village. "The Dalai Lama is our living
God, we feel happy and lucky to see and get his blessings."

"His Holiness' visit to Tawang is all sacred and
nothing political. Tawang can never be Chinese,
though it used to be dominated by Tibet.
Beijing's protest is baseless, all of a sudden
China wants Tawang. I think Tawang is important
for tourism and that may be the reason China
wants it now," added Rapten. "For us, being born
here means we are pure Indian."

Many residents in Tawang say incidents such as
last year's crackdown in Tibet have only hardened
their resolve to protect their culture and
religion. "We hear about the atrocities in Tibet,
the repression they [China] are carrying out,"
said R Neema, a local doctor. "But Tawang will
try to sustain what China seeks to destroy in Tibet."

When asked whether he thought Tawang should be a
part of greater Tibet that enjoys greater
autonomy, Neema said that Tawang was now India's
region, adding, "It is more Tibetan in culture
and nature here in a free country than Tibet itself under Chinese domination."

However, some Monpas feel neglected by the Indian
government in terms of development. They also
believe that their tribal identity has been
deliberately diluted. Seeing what China has
achieved across the McMahon Line has made them
feel they are on the wrong side of geography.

Lamho, who lives in Tawang town, said, "All we
hear is developments on the other side of the
border, we feel bad at heart, as if our [Indian]
government is sleeping, New Delhi should do
something. It would not only develop us but also keep the Chinese away".

However, Tenzing Tsetan says "India is our only
hope". "In our demonstrations, we always shout,
'Tibet Ki Azaadi, Bharat Ki Saraksha', which
means, 'Tibet's freedom is India's security'. It
is in India's interest to support the Tibetan cause. They shouldn't be afraid."

Many Tibetans and native Monpas in Tawang fear
the succession of the Dalai Lama as they believe
China will use it as an opportunity to suppress
the Tibetan cause. Tibetans allege that China has
imprisoned the Panchen Lama, recognized by the
Dalai Lama, and propped up its own Panchen Lama
to divide Tibetans. "We can't rule out the
possibility of such interference by Beijing in
the selection of future Dalai Lamas," said a monk from Tawang.

It is not only the Tibetan spiritual leader's age
- he turned 74 this year - but the possibility of
China interfering in the selection of future
Dalai Lamas and India's desperate efforts to
maintain a balance between Beijing and Dharamsala
that have begun to worry followers of Tibetan Buddhism.

The local Monpas and exiled Tibetans in Tawang
fear that their god-king, the Dalai Lama, will
never visit again due to his advancing age, busy
schedule or shifts in New Delhi's policy.

Lama Tashi, a composer of religious hymns who was
once nominated for the Grammy awards, says he is
not sure whether the Dalai Lama will set foot
here again. "He's an international figure and has
a hectic schedule. One never knows if he will
visit again as his trips have to be cleared by all levels," Tashi said.

* Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in
Dharamsala, India, who can be reached at info@mcllo.com.
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