Lepcha people protesting against hydro-project in Dzongu

The Nonviolent movement of Primitive Tribe Lepcha to resist the Hydel Projects in Sikkim

Author: Ganga Maya Tamang

Dzongu: The homeland of Primitive Tribe Lepcha

Lepchas are a group that are considered to be an early inhabitants and an aboriginal community of the region of Sikkim. They are also recognized in several records as a primitive tribe. Outside of Sikkim, Lepchas sparsely reside in areas within Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Kuersong, Bhutan, and Nepal as a minority community. In such areas, Lepchas are observed to have lost their culture due to the strong influences of dominant communities within the respective regions. Dzongu is the exception. It is the only Lepcha majority area where the Lepcha language, culture, and traditions are still preserved. Still, Lepchas are considered a minority community with diminishing population growth rate and endangered cultural significance. Due to their cultural vulnerability, scholars have described Lepcha as a ‘dying race’[1]vanishing language and culture’[2] and ‘Vanishing Tribe[3]. Lepchas consider Dzongu their spiritual homeland or holy-land as it is considered as a place of their origin and last bastion of the Lepchas culture.

In 2003, the Sikkim government announced a series of 26 hydro projects to be built along the river Teesta and its several tributaries for the purpose of developing territorial regions. Five of these projects were located in Dzongu, North Sikkim on Tholung Chu and Rangyong Chu (Panam 280 MW, Lingza, Ringpi, Rangyong and Rukel approx 300 MW) and Teesta stage IV (520 MW) on Tessta river at Dzongu’s border Dikchu (Subrata, 2013)[4]. Dzongu is officially listed as a ‘Lepcha Reserve Area’ restricting people from outside the perimeter, including the Lepcha, to settle. Entry requires special permit. Following the announcement of the hydro projects in such an area, the nonviolent movement against the mega hydel projects commenced in 2003.

Affected Citizens of Teesta raising awareness against the dam projects on the Teesta river in Sikkim, another northern state. Source: ACT

The stream of nonviolent protests began with a ground of young, modern, educated members of the Primitive Tribe of Lepcha opposing the proposed mega hydel projects in Sikkim. They cited the negative environmental and socio-cultural impacts of the projects as the key determinant. Initially, their voices remained unheard and ignored. They were labelled ‘anti-development’ by many. The young, energetic group then decided to narrow their focus specific to Dzongu. Still, fighting the powerful state, business entities, and capitalist structure was not an easy task. Strategically following the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, they chose the nonviolent approach: mobilize, organize, and agitate to make their protest effective and successful. They used culture, tradition, mythology, religion, indigenous status, minority positionality, their listing as a primitive tribe, vanishing tribe, and provisions afforded to the Lepcha Reserve Area as material resources in building strong narratives of the unwanted socio cultural impact of the proposed mega hydel projects.

The movement first started in 2003 by holding small meetings in village areas, creating awareness of socio-cultural and environmental impacts of the hydel projects. In 2004, they formed an organisation ‘Affected Citizens of Teesta’ (ACT) under the leadership of Dawa Lepcha and Tenzing Lepcha, with 17 members (Little, 2010)[5]. Initially, due to lack of awareness, actions of ACT was locally not much supported at scale, hence, it engaged its focus on grassroots mobilisation and local level protests. 

Socio-Cultural Narratives against the Hydel Projects

Dzongu is the only protected area of the Lepcha primitive tribe and their vanishing language, culture and dying race. Construction of mega hydro projects can thus be considered a violation of the constitutional minority and cultural rights of India and international law of indigenous people’s right, as it was associated with direct impacts on the identity and culture of the vanishing tribe.

The Lepcha worldview regarding land and river is different from industrialist who see forests, rivers and land in terms of material value they offer as natural resources. For the Lepchas, the land, river, mountains, forest, caves and sacred grooves defines their identity, belongingness, civilization and authentication of inhabitation recounted for several centuries of their history. Lepchas were animist and their everyday practices, history, culture, tradition and believe system are all closely associated with nature. They called themselves ‘Rong’ (revinefolk or dweller of valley), and children of Mount Kanchenjunga, as they believed that their ancestors was created out of virgin snow of Mount Kanchendzonga.

Nature worshipping still continues in modern days among the Lepcha community. Dzongu has various sacred landscape, grooves, caves, lakes, river, mountain peaks, hot springs and monasteries which hold great historic and religious significance to the tribe. The proposed construction of mega hydel project would thus not only destroy the sacred landscape, but also pollute the sanctity of the region by infiltrating of hundreds of migrants labours and harmful to the fragile ecosystem of Kanchendzonga National Park, a World Heritage Site in Dzongu.

Lepcha people protesting against hydro-project in Dzongu
Lepcha people protesting against hydro-project in Dzongu. Photo courtsey India Together

Nationalism as a Tool of Nonviolent Movements

The nonviolent protestors used strong sentiments attached to Dzongu to engender feelings of ethnic nationalism, resulting in the mass mobilization of the movement through the articulation of emotional rhetoric such as “Fight for the Holyland,” “Motherland,” “Protect Lepcha identity, culture, tradition,” and generating a fear of cultural alienation They used the symbols and festivals associated with the primitive tribe as social material to strengthen the feeling of ethnic belonging through cultural assertion, like wearing traditional clothing as a symbol of identity and solidarity.

Similarly, the celebration the state level festivals of nature worship; ‘Pang Lhabsol’ and ‘Tendong Lho Rum Faat’ worshipping of Mount Kanchendzong as guardian deity, uniting Lepcha-Bhutia into blood brother relation and Tendong hill as a saviour of Lepchas from flood disaster with wide campaigning attracted mass audiences. Strategically, the strategies were effective in creating Pan Lepcha ethnic nationalism, which went on to consolidate unanimous support of all form Lepchas associations from Sikkim and beyond. Lepcha communities from the neighbouring state West Bengal also organised various provocative rallies, relay hunger, Kalimpong and Darjeeling and pilgrimage procession to Dzongu (Little, 2008) as a symbol of their solidarity.  Pilgrimage procession and blockade of national highways by Lepchas of neighbouring state in support of ACT also made movement controversial, calling it unauthentic movement led by outsiders, alleged of disturbing peace of Sikkim and interfering in internal issues.


As the movement became more intensified, satyagraha proved to be one of the most important methods of non-violent movement practiced by the ACT. In 2007, with strengthening local support, the movement shifted from Dzongu to capital Gangtok at Bhutia-Lepcha (BL) House as the central point of protest. Dawa and Tenzing Lepcha called for an indefinite hunger strike until all the proposed hydel projects in Dzongu were withdrawn. It attracted large numbers of supporters. Many youths from Dzongu joined the relay hunger strike. The action of hunger strike at state capital was able to catch the attention of various activists, media, organisations, and a mass of concerned citizens. Resultingly, it also got the attention of prominent environmental activists like Medha Patkar of Narmada Bachao Andolan and Sunderlal Bahuguna of the Chipko Movement.

hunger strike
Indefinite Hunger Strike by ACT members at Gangtok, BL House. Source ACT

Nonviolent protest strategies like sit-in, rallies, protests, enduring relay hunger strike, mass petitions, processions, town meetings, public speeches, banners, posters, slogans and use of indigenous and primitive status as special tagline (“Save the Land of Primitive People”) attracted large scale support from outside Sikkim. Further, the reach of the internet and the movement’s blog (weepingsikkim.blogspot.com) on the environmental impacts of the proposed hydro projects helped the movement to communicate with worldwide audiences. Prolonged hunger strikes enduring for one year boosted the protest’s visibility in the eyes of local, national, and international communities, thus creating immense pressure on the government to ultimately scrap four hydel projects proposed in Dzongu. All except the Panam and Teesta Stage IV at Dickchu was scrapped on 12th June 2008. This was one of the longest satyagraha ever called in Sikkim. The demand for cancelation of the ongoing construction of Panam Hydel Project is still ongoing.

[1]  Gorer, 2005, Himalaya Village, p.36.

[2]  Klafkowski, 1980, ‘Rong (Lepcha) Vanishing Language and Culture in Eastern Himalayas.

[3]  Foning, 1987, ‘Lepcha My Vanishing Tribe’.

[4] Subratta, 2013, Hydro Power Development and the Lepchas.

[5] Little, K. 2008, From Villages to the Cities.

The graphics, views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Centre for Social Change.

Ms. Tamang is a student of peace and conflict studies. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is from ethnic Nepali linguistic community in India and her community has been demanding separate federal state called Gorkhaland. She has been part of two nonviolent movements mainly second and third phase of the Gorkhaland movement in 2007 and 2017 respectively. She wishes to enrich her ideas on practical technicalities of nonviolent resistance especially at grassroot level and compare similar experiences in Nepal and India.

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