Tawang votes under China's shadow


Super Mod
Mar 24, 2009
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It is voting day at the magnificent Tawang Gompa, or monastery, which looms over this border town, perched at 10,000 feet, high on the China border. At 10.30 a.m. 171 of the 265 monks eligible to vote have already cast their ballots. Others wait in their crimson and ochre robes, while polling officers send off a first time voter to fetch proof of his identity.

It is unclear which way the lama vote is going; the Rimpoche (Head Abbot) of the gompa emphasises the monks have no directive. What seems clear, though, is that each vote cast in Tawang is a vote for India. Under Tibetan control until as recently as 1951, and claimed now with growing stridency by China, the Tawang area remains staunchly Indian. The local inhabitants, the Buddhist Monpa tribe, reject China and communism as antithetical to religion.

China, however, remains uncompromising on Tawang. Insiders familiar with the Sino-Indian dialogue say Tawang is the only impasse that is holding up an agreement. There is growing local concern here that India could barter away Tawang for the sake of peace with China. Such fears are fanned by events that are barely noticed in New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh leaving Tawang out of his itinerary during his 2008 visit to Arunachal Pradesh; and the recent last-minute cancellation — under foreign ministry pressure — of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang, scheduled for March 16.

The Dalai Lama was visiting Tawang to commemorate his dramatic escape from Tibet half a century ago, when he entered India right here in Tawang. But China, determined to deny separatist Tibetans a high-profile 50th anniversary celebration of the 1959 anti-China uprising, pressured New Delhi to stop the visit.

There is widespread frustration in and around Tawang at New Delhi’s reluctance to anger Beijing. The Rimpoche (Abbott) of the Tawang Gompa, told Business Standard, “I don’t understand why the Indian government does not claim Tawang in more forceful words. The people of Tawang want to hear New Delhi say, ‘Tawang is ours. We will never give it away to China’. Until they hear that, they will be insecure.”

Even though this is a general election, the Tawang vote is important for Arunachal Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Dorjee Khandu, of the Congress Party. This is his constituency and a heavy win would not just demonstrate his continuing clout, but also work to topple the sitting West Arunachal Pradesh MP, Kiren Rijuju of the BJP. Rijuju has made waves in Parliament with a high-profile campaign against China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh.

The results of the general election could have dramatic fallout in Arunachal Pradesh. Traditionally, the state government has switched parties en masse to whichever party forms the central government. Currently, there is no opposition in the state; all 60 MLAs belong to the Congress (I), the bulk of them having switched over from the BJP in 2004. If the Congress fails to return to power in this general election, Arunachal Pradesh could well see another mass migration to whichever party forms the next government.

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