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In Tawang, Buddhist Civil Society Group Uses Law on ‘Religious Sentiments’ to Ban Meat

The ban is as much an assertion of religious beliefs held by the majority Monpa community as it is an attempt to address the growing fear of “outsiders”.

A view of Tawang town. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh: Memories of the good old times rushed through my mind as the taxi I’d taken from Assam’s Tezpur town finally approached Bhalukpung.

Far from the sepia-tinted recollections of the picnics that my school friends and I had along the bountiful streams and dales of this tiny town, Bhalukpung – or Bhalukpong – seems entirely transformed today. The growing commercial activity in the town has barely left any physical traces of the places pinned in my memory.

As the entry point to Assam’s neighbour Arunachal Pradesh, Bhalukpung has become a very busy, though still tiny, town, catering to the increased traffic that flows to and from a number of hill towns in the area, particularly Tawang, the high abode of Tibetan Buddhism in the northeastern part of the country, better known to the rest of India as the area that China claims territorial ownership over.

As soon as the shared taxi halted at Bhalukpong bazaar (it falls within the territory of Arunachal Pradesh) for a quick tea break, my fellow passengers – all residents of Dirang and Bomdila, Arunachal’s West Kameng district towns – darted off to the few meat shops lining the main road, leaving this correspondent wondering when Bhalukpong gained a reputation for good quality meat.

The clock had barely struck seven in the morning but the meat shops, mostly selling pork and beef, were already doing roaring business thanks to the passengers headed to those towns.

The reason for this rush turned out to be a revelation, at least to someone who has not visited the Tawang and the West Kameng districts in the last five years.

According to those buying meat, the rush at the shops was due to a “recent rule” set by “some Buddhist civil society groups” belonging to the majority Monpa community in Bomdila mandating that all residents of the town shun meat forever – not just pork but also the meat of all the other animals they commonly eat, such as goats, sheep, cows, mithuns and yaks.

On asking around, this correspondent discovered that almost all the slaughterhouses that sold such meat in Bomdila had been “asked” to close shop “about a month ago” because “killing animals hurt the religious sentiments of the Monpa, because Buddhists don’t kill animals”.

The reason behind the scramble for meat

“It happened about a month ago in Bomdila. I don’t know the name but it’s an organisation associated with the monasteries which has done it. If anyone is found selling such meat, he will be fined Rs 40-50,000. Police will not come in between. They will have to mutually solve it. Since we no more get to buy pork now in Bomdila, which is a staple meat for us (Nepalis), we have begun buying it in small quantity from Bhalukpong whenever we travel this side,” Rita Thapa, a co-passenger and resident of the town, told The Wire.

Rita and her family don’t eat mithun, cow or yak meat for religious reasons but her co-passenger Tage Bath, belonging to the Nishi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh and a follower of the indigenous Donya-Polo religion, does. So he searched for a shop in Bhalukpong that sold beef.

“Earlier, 10-12 cows were slaughtered in Bomdila every day; now barely one, that too clandestinely. Not just us but the Monpa also eat beef and yak meat. However, they have been told by some civil society group and monks that they should do less sin now by not killing animals for food. However, some of them still buy, particularly beef, from Bhalukpong, Seppa and Tenga. where other tribes live and kill animals for meat. There is no fine on procuring such meat from outside Bomdila in small quantity for home consumption,” Bath related.

Though The Wire couldn’t independently confirm this from the district commissioner’s office in Bomdila, the headquarters of the West Kameng district, many people and restaurant owners that this correspondent spoke to in the town later, claimed that there “is now an official order to protect the religious sentiments of the majority Monpa.”

“The Giddu (local term to refer to non-Monpa) who ran slaughterhouses met the Bomdila district collector recently, said they don’t mind not doing the meat business if it hurts the religious sentiments of the Buddhist people, who are a majority in the town, but they demanded alternate means of livelihood from the government,” said Phurpa Tsering, a Monpa who runs a provision shop in Bomdila.

Abdus Ali, who said he was from the Sonitpur district of Assam, was one such slaughterhouse owner in Bomdila. Confirming the meeting with the district collector, he said, “I have closed down the shop three weeks ago; otherwise I will have to pay a huge fine to the Monpa and leave town. So I am now thinking of selling only fish, which is allowed. Fish anyway come from outside the district.”

Apart from the Monpa, Bomdila residents include Miji, Sherdukpen, Bugun and Aka tribes besides Nepalis, Nyishis, Assamese and others.

A restaurant owner belonging to the Miji tribe, who preferred to remain anonymous, is angry at the meat ban. “The Monpa, even though they are in a majority, could have never been able to implement this ban in Bomdila because many other people also stay here for business and to study in the local college, which is the only one in the entire area. However, Pema Khandu, a Monpa, becoming the chief minister has helped them get an official order in their favour.”

A signboard in the Rama Camp bazaar, near Dirang town. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

From ‘rule’ to ‘order’ to ‘law’

As you tread the mountainous road ahead, the “rule” many Bomdila residents spoke of stood out prominently, now as a clear government “order”.

In the Rama Camp area of Dirang town, a Monpa-majority area, one can spot a signboard in the bazaar flashing an “order” by the local additional district commissioner-cum-additional district magistrate (ADC-ADM) in that regard.

Dated July 17, 2015, the public announcement, stated: “Owing to rampant killing of animals which in turn hurts the religious sentiments of the local populace and to protect the endangered species,” the then ADC-ADM, Dagobam Riba “hereby banned slaughtering, hunting and fishing in any form within Dirang sub-division”.

Though all cattle can be slaughtered in the state, the order was passed under section 133 (1) of the criminal procedure code, 1973, which deals with “conducting any trade or occupation or keeping of any goods or merchandise (that) is injurious to the physical comfort of the community”. The order has been in force in the sub-division since then.

By the time you reach Tawang – the last district headquarters on the Indian side after crossing the Sela Pass – the “order” is more of a “law”. Across the town’s many colonies and bazaars, in front of the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, the sacred Urgelling gompa and the sprawling Tawang monastery, big signboards have been put up prohibiting the slaughter, selling and hunting of animals.

Titled ‘Jio or Jine do’ (Live and let live) the first board shows up at Sela Pass itself. It has photos of animals, like a pig, goat, cow, yak and birds, and refers to a July 2012 order from the district magistrate in both Bodhi and Hindi.

The organisation that has put up those boards across the district is called Tangnyom Tsokpa.

A signboard seen in Tawang town. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

“Buddhists don’t kill animals for food. It is a sin. However, some people from down below set up shops here and began polluting our land by openly killing animals and selling their meat to us. We decided to stop it by forming a civil society group six years ago. Besides the religious reasons, it is also to protect the environment, the wildlife,” said Thukpen Dawa of Tangnyom Tsokpa. ‘People from down below’ are those who belong to the towns from the plains in the adjoining districts.

Dawa said, “In 2012, we could convince the district administration to pass a favourable order after all the shop owners of the three bazaars of the town agreed to support us”.

Though Dawa is a monk of the Tawang monastery, some of the executive members of the organisation are not. “We are seven executive members. Since, we believe in equality, we rotate the presidentship of the organisation every three months,” he said.

“By now we have hundreds of members in the Monpa dominated areas,” he pointed out. “Slowly, the rule has spread to other Monpa areas. In Dirang, there is a government order. I heard in Bomdila too, there is one now,” he said.

The members and the executive council keep a strict vigil. It is not difficult to find Dawa and some other members of Tangnyom Tsokpa walking through the markets of Tawang few times a day to “check things”. If anyone is found guilty of slaughtering animals or carrying large quantities of meat for sale, they are heavily fined.

“It can be Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000,” said a restaurant owner.

“The local administration doesn’t come in between. There are hardly any FIRs filed by the police in such cases. They sort it out among themselves,” said Tad Issac, the district information officer.

Speaking to The Wire, Lama Lobsang Gyatso, the well-known anti-dam activist of Tawang, expressed his support to the drive. “It will finally save our environment. It has already begun to show results, you will see yaks grazing across the district freely now.” Dawa added, “Earlier, it was not the case. Some meat sellers would steal yaks, kill them, mix the meat with beef and sell to the Monpa as beef.”

Not that Monpa don’t eat yak meat. “But we are against rampant killing of yaks and other animals. It will finish our environment,” argued Dawa.

Did the people easily accept the “order” that would ultimately change their food habits?

“80% of them have. People here are very religious.  They want to be good Buddhists. They listen to the monastery. However, some cases were filed against us, mostly by the meat sellers. It all got sorted out now, except one which is still pending. The best thing is, we could close down all the meat shops run in Tawang by the outsiders, which is our main aim,” Dawa replied.

Selling chicken and fish is excluded from the ban though.

Dawa gave a reason, “We have not been able to stop the chicken shops as many of them supply to the army deployed here. It will affect their ration. We allow fish because they come from outside the area. They reach here dead. According to Buddhism, you can eat dead animals and fish but not those which are specially killed for you.”

No meat on Wednesdays

The Dalai Lama’s recent visit helped Tangnyom Tsokpa tighten the rule further.

“We banned the sale of all non-vegetarian items, even chicken, eggs and fish, during his stay here. The Dalai Lama is a vegetarian. A few months before his arrival, we also made a rule that Wednesdays will be vegetarian across Tawang. No restaurant will sell non-vegetarian food on Wednesdays as it is the birthday of the Dalai Lama,” Dawa said, adding, “The rule was first implemented in Dharamshala, then in Majnu Ka Tila in Delhi, and now in Tawang.”

Though the no-meat rule on Wednesdays is followed strictly by all the restaurants in Tawang, some eateries do sell beef and pork on other days.

“We are trying. It is not easy because of the tourists coming to Tawang. So, we have given the restaurants some relaxation, though they have to procure the meat from outside the district,” Dawa replied when asked about it.

Thugkpen Dawa. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Identity crisis

Although Tangnyom Tsokpa cites religious and environmental reasons, it is easy to decipher that the Monpa’ overwhelming support for the ban originates in a growing insecurity among many people who want to assert their right over the land and protect their culture and religion. Many, including lamas from the Tawang monastery, talk of  “the need for constitutional protection” of their land, or what they called Monyul.

“Though most land, at least in Tawang, is still with the Monpa, there is no law that stops other tribes of Arunachal from buying land in Monpa areas. It is a worry for some, particularly because tourism in Tawang is picking up. Bomdila already has a mixed population. Many Monpa fear that it will lead many other tribes to settle in Tawang too,” pointed out H. Nima, a local youth.

“Also, Bangladeshis have reached Tawang from Assam by showing fake documents at check points and bribing security guards. When questioned, they say they are from Assam but they are actually illegal immigrants who do meat business here. They can’t buy property in Arunachal but they can conduct business here and make good money. With the meat ban, some of them have left now for other parts of Arunachal, while some others have taken to selling chicken here,” claimed a Monpa restaurant owner in Tawang town.

Keeping this fear of “outsiders” in mind, there has been a strong demand to constitute an autonomous district council (ADC) comprising the Monpa-inhabited districts of Tawang and West Kameng. The demand for the ADC was first raised by the popular Tsona Gontse Rinpoche before he passed away in 2014 in New Delhi. The recommendation for the ADC has been passed by the state assembly thrice, starting in former chief minister and a Monpa Dorjee Khandu’s tenure in 2004. It has, however, met with severe opposition from different quarters within the state. This past week too, the Students United Movement of All Arunachal took out a rally in Itanagar demanding that the government roll back the assembly resolution as “it was a hurried decision”.

Apart from the fear of losing land, many Monpa are also apprehensive of losing community members to Christianity. Monks and some local residents of Tawang point at “churches that have recently come up in Bomdila”, “conversion drive among the Monpa” and “a church in Tawang”.

The presbyterian church built in Bomdila in 2001. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

“We have stopped the construction of two other churches in Tawang with the government’s help,” Dawa said. During his recent address to the public in Guwahati and Tawang, the Dalai Lama spoke against conversion “by force” and “for money,” and asked the Monpa to “stick to (your) religion” (meaning Buddhism). The imposition of a meat ban as a Buddhist edict can also be seen in this context.

The meat ban may change the food habits of the Buddhist residents of Tawang to a large extent in the not-so-distant future. However, they were never vegetarians.

Lama Lobsang Gyatso recalled, “Before the advent of Tibetan Buddhism in Tawang in the 17th century, the people of this region were practitioners of (animist) Bon religion, as per which animals were sacrificed to satisfy the gods.”

In the book Tawang – The Land of Mon, Neeru Nanda, an IAS officer posted as ADC in Tawang between 1974 and 1977, wrote: “The advent of Buddhism was resisted by the Bon priesthood in Tawang but the Guru Padma Sambhava did not seek to obliterate the Bon gods altogether. He was content to accept their submission in a trend from the legend of the subjugation of the Bon god, Damjin Dorji Lekpa who was elevated in status and admitted into the Buddhist pantheon.”

However, over the centuries, the spread and assertion of Tibetan Buddhism through the powerful Tawang monastery swept out most of Bon traditions from Monpa practices. “There are only two such places in Bomdila area now,” Dawa said dismissively.

However, some syncretism between Bon and Tibetan Buddhism still continues to exist in the living practices of the Monpa. For instance, in every Monpa household, small Buddhist altars are given water offerings in little cups and butter lamps – a Bon tradition. Interestingly, Choikar, the harvest festival of Tawang and Torgya, the lama dance of the Tawang monastery, too show traces of Bon influence.

The most important festival of the Monpa, the annual Losar or the new year celebration, also has its origins in Bon and pre-Buddhist traditions. These roots are particularly evident in the food that is eaten during the festival.

“If every May, we shun meat as it is the birth month of Lord Buddha, during Losar, which usually falls between February-end and March-beginning, we eat a lot of meat for eight to 15 days, as it is the celebration time. We clean our houses and surroundings, visit each other’s houses, there is a lot of festivity. Being from the mountainous region, we are traditionally meat eaters. So during Losar, we cook a variety of meat dishes, eat some and distribute the rest to the poor,” explained a Monpa housewife in Tawang’s Craft Centre Colony.

A Monpa taxi driver from Bomdir area of Tawang filled in, “Now that meat is not easily available in Tawang and Dirang areas during Losar, many Monpa pester us to procure it from Bhalukpung or Seppa. But all the taxis coming from these towns are specially checked by Tangnyom Tsokpa for meat during that time. We will be heavily fined, our taxis will be seized if they find large quantity of meat in them; so we try and avoid bringing it.”

The owner of a popular restaurant in Tawang town said, “Losar is our biggest festival. The Tangnyom Tsokpa should relax the rules during Losar; it is after all, our culture, our identity.” Though, she added, “They are a powerful group. Many people have avoided eating meat also out of fear.”

  • Rohini

    Am amazed to discover that Buddhists are a ‘majority’ community in India…where. where are all those majority Buddhists?
    Am glad to see that this tiny community with its wonderful philosohpies is asserting itself in a world which takes it for granted and especially in India,where they lie all but forgotten (except for Buddha art statues, prayer wheels, and fine art in elite living rooms or restaurants’).