Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Reopening of the Himalayas

During a seminar on "Tibet's Relation with the Himalayas" organized by the Foundation for Non-Violent Alternatives and the Sikkim University in Gangtok, a debate took place: should the natural barrier between the Tibetan plateau and the Indian subcontinent be called ‘Himalayas’ or ‘Himalaya’.
The debate can continue amongst scholars and academicians, but the fact is that for centuries (or millennia) this formidable mountain range has not been a ‘barrier’, but a space of exchange; this is no longer the case today.
The Dalai Lama always surprises when he says that there is no such thing as ‘Tibetan Buddhism’, even less ‘Lamaism’. The so-called ‘Tibetan Buddhism’, was entirely borrowed from India, he says; more precisely from Nalanda. How?
Because, by a twist of fate, Tibetan monks and lamas, as well as abbots and pundits from the Indian viharas, criss-crossed the high mountain passes and transferred India’s knowledge to the Roof of the World.
Santarakshita, the Abbot of Nalanda, not only introduced the Buddha dharma to the Land of Snows, but also ordained the first monks.
For more than a thousand of years, the Himalayas witnessed a constant flow of knowledge, experiences, traditions and goods transiting up and down from far-away places in Central Asia, China or Mongolia to the entire subcontinent.
Then, China invaded Tibet and as the ‘Liberation Army’ began to occupy the high plateau, the passes were gradually closed.
Already in 1954, the infamous Panchsheel Agreement, which for the first time denied the existence of Tibet as a separate identity, designated only 6 passes (in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh) as the sole Himalayan land ports; myriad other routes were hastily closed. The last stroke was the short border war between India and China in 1962. All bridges were then cut between the plateau and the Indian plains; the passes have been blocked ever since.
As I attended the seminar, a question came to me: how to soften the traditional borders again? Can the age-old relation between the Tibetan plateau and India be revived? The process has started, though it is extremely slow.
In 1991, a Memorandum on Resumption of Border Trade was signed by India and China; in a first phase, an overland trade route was reopened between the Tibet Autonomous Region and Lipukekh pass in the Pithoragarh district of (today’s) Uttarakhand; since then, a mart is annually permitted for a few months. In 1994, the same facilities were extended to Shipki pass in Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh and later to Nathu-la (‘la’ means pass in Tibetan) in Sikkim. A series of trade agreements between India and China allowed residents of Tibet and Indians from the border districts to export goods from a selected list of 29 items such as blankets, textiles, coffee, tea, vegetable oil or gur while raw silk, yak tails, goats or readymade garments, etc could be imported from China.
In 2006, India and China decided to resume the border trade through the historic Nathu-la, located 4,545 metres above sea level and 54 kilometers from Gantok; it had been closed for the past 44 years. With Jelep-la (via Kalimpong), the pass was traditionally the most important trade passage between Tibet, China and India.
The bilateral move had also a strategic implication as analysts believed that it signaled Beijing’s implicit recognition of Sikkim as part of India. This is debatable.
Incidentally, when I applied to visit the pass, I was told that I could not go due to my ‘foreign’ origin. This is typically foolish babu-thinking: to allow visitors from India or abroad to have a quick darshan of Chumbi valley on the Tibetan side, would be the best proof that the place is a part the Indian territory, under New Delhi’s control. Security checks should of course go alongside the permission. Babus are often unable to think in India’s interests.
In 2006, it was hoped that the border trade route would give a major boost to local economies and smoothen the bilateral relations between India and China. This has not really been the case for different reasons. The border trade remains rather small in volume, though smuggling of commodity goods is flourishing.
It is perhaps time to think to reopen the Himalayan passes without restrictions. Common men can only benefit from it.
After President Xi Jinping met the Indian Prime Minister on the occasion of the BRICS meet in Durban, the Chinese leader stated that he regarded “ties with India as one of the most important bilateral relationships”. According to him, an important issue was “enhancing people-to-people exchanges and cooperation, and broadening youth exchanges.”
Why can’t both governments agree to remove the restrictions on border trade and later open the Himalayan passes to tourism?
Foremost in my mind is the Demchok route in Ladakh which would allow Indian pilgrims to reach the Kailash-Mansarovar area in a relatively short time and in fairly comfortable conditions. Is it not worth it?

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