Although the marchers chose not to be vocal about their protest against the setting up of hydel power projects in the Lepcha reserve, the real purpose of the exercise was not lost on anyone.
“We are basically going on a pilgrimage to our holy land. Hopefully, the march will also raise awareness about the significance of the place to us. Every Lepcha will be hurt if people violate the sanctity of the place,” said Azuk Tamsangmoo, an adviser to Rong Ong Prongzom (a Lepcha youth association).
The association and other Lepcha organisations have been leading a sustained campaign against the decision of the Sikkim government to set up hydel projects in Dzongu.The Lepchas began their march with a prayer at the confluence of the Teesta and Rangit in Kalimpong. Attired in traditional costume, the marchers sought the blessings of Rumitboobebumoo, who the Lepchas believe is the creator of the world, by offering him chee (traditional brew made from millet). They will also offer some of the home-made brew to their deity at Dzongu.Amid cries of “mutanci rumkup (children of God)”, the Lepchas started their long trek which is expected to end at Dzongu on April 17. The marchers entered Sikkim after crossing the Rangpo bridge around 4pm. “We will be spending the night at Singtam and resume our march tomorrow morning,” said Tamsangmoo over the phone. The Sikkim government has issued special identity cards to all the marchers, he said.
According to government sources in Sikkim, the marchers will not be allowed to pass through Gangtok. They will either be diverted from Singtam via Dikchu to North Sikkim or told to use Indira Bypass below the capital and directly get on the North Sikkim highway.
Unlike the Tibetan exiles who were stopped at Rangpo on their way to Nathu-la on the India-China border, the Lepchas were allowed to enter Sikkim without any trouble. However, their passage to Gangtok has been blocked because of some incidents in the past that had threatened to create law and order problems in the state capital.The police claimed that they were only ensuring the safety and security of the marchers. Affected Citizens of Teesta, an organisation spearheading the anti-hydel power project protests in Sikkim, however, claimed that the government was making all efforts to obstruct the rally and was not letting the marchers stop and meet people.