|The Himalayas: a barrier and a bridge|
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The Himalayan belt, showing the strong patriotic fabric of the ‘border people’, has indeed massively voted for Narendra Modi. If trust between India and China has to be rebuilt, the people of the Himalayas have to be taken on board
The Modi sarkar wants to be a government of many firsts. Everything seems possible as the new Prime Minister of India has, for the first time in decades, won a large majority to govern and even if necessary, bring some amendments to the Constitution.
Analysts have dissected each and every aspect of the new team and each one has generously offered advice to Modi on how to run his government. The Prime Minister himself has called on the public to give ‘fresh’ and out-of-box ideas to make India a better place to live.
An aspect which has not often been mentioned is India’s relations with the Himalayas and indirectly with Tibet and China. For centuries, the Himalayas have been the bridge between India and Tibet which shared a common spiritual search. A crucial turning-point in the history of Tibet was when it discovered Buddha’s teachings during the seventh century AD. The following centuries saw a constant flow of Tibetan lamas, pandits and yogis visiting the great Indian viharas of Nalanda, Odantapuri or Vikramasila. Once Tibet converted to the doctrine of non-violence, it was transfigured. After adopting the new religion, the powerful Empire, which had spread far and wide, suddenly turned pacifist. As a result, it would never recover its past military glory but would start another kind of quest, more spiritual. Since time immemorial, the Himalayas have been at the heart of this quest and the living link between India and Tibet.
All this changed in 1950, when the Chinese troops entered Tibet (to liberate it, they say). Four years later, Nehru’s government signed the ill-fated ‘Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet Region of China and India’ (also known as Panchsheel). It was composed of two parts: the preamble (the nice Five Principles) and the content (dealing with trade and pilgrimage between India and Tibet).
It was a grand victory for Beijing (and a crushing defeat for Nehru). For the first time in 2000 years, India acknowledged Tibet as merely a ‘Region of China’ and in the process the importance of the Himalayas progressively faded away. Soon, even the routes and passes were closed.
India had to pay dearly, and is still paying 60 years later for the idealist policy of her first Prime Minister, who advertised the preamble and ignored the content.
The objective of the ‘Indo-Tibet’ Agreement was only to regulate trade and pilgrimage between India and Tibet, through the Himalayan passes; this brought life and wealth to the Himalayan belt. The Agreement had specified several points of entry into Tibet: “Traders and pilgrims of both countries may travel by the following passes and routes: Shipki-la pass, Mana pass, Niti pass, Kungri Bingri pass, Darma pass, and Lipulekh pass.” Apart from the first one located in Himachal Pradesh, the other passes lie in today’s Uttarakhand.
Article IV mentions: “Also, the customary route leading to Tashigong along the valley of the Indus River may continue to be traversed in accordance with custom.” This is the old Ladakh road via Demchok, which, for centuries, was used by the Indian pilgrims who wanted to visit the Kailash-Manasarovar area.
It is closed today, and Beijing adamantly refuses to reopen it. Why is Beijing refusing to open the Demchok route? Probably because Demchok, the first traditional Ladakhi village is occupied by China!
Let us take a look at the situation on China’s borders today. It is extremely unstable (for example, a bomb recently killing some 30 people in Urumqi, Xinjiang or Eastern Tibet witnessing constant unrest), while this side of the border, the Indian electorate (an unknown concept in China) is staunchly with India.
In one of his speeches in Arunachal during his campaign, Modi mentioned the border: “Times have changed. Expansionist mindset won’t be acceptable. China too will have to give up this mindset. Only the mindset of development will be in currency.” He also reiterated that Arunachal Pradesh was an integral part of the country and will always remain so. “No power can snatch it from us”, he affirmed.
It is true that in the border states such as the Ladakh region of J&K, Himachal or Arunachal, the development of infrastructure is moving at a snail’s pace. Some areas in Arunachal remain more than a week-long walking distance as there is no road suitable for any mode of conveyance. On 5 February 2013, the then Union Minister for Road, Transport and Highways, CP Joshi, admitted that only 100 km of the 2,400 km Trans-Arunachal Highway, announced under the Prime Minister’s package for Arunachal Pradesh in 2008, had been completed.
This will probably be remedied with General VK Singh having independent charge of the North-East and the dynamic Kiren Rijiju, seated in North Block; and as importantly, most of the Himalayan MPs belong to the BJP majority; this should greatly facilitate the relations with the Central Government.
The Himalayan belt, showing the strong patriotic fabric of the ‘border people’, has indeed massively voted for Modi. From Ladakh (1/1) to Himachal Pradesh (4/4), Uttarakhand (5/5) and Arunachal (1/2), 11 out of 13 Lok Sabha seats have gone to the BJP.
Further, the Himalayas, let us not forget, have always provided the nation its best soldiers. The Himalayan people are known to be strongly nationalist; the Prime Minister noted in Arunachal: “the clarion call of Jai Hind reverberates in this land.” This is true for the entire Himalayan belt, though many of these areas have been neglected or discriminated against in the past.
At a time when the local ‘minorities’ on the other side of the Himalayas, have become more and more restive, often violently opposing Beijing’s rule, the fact that the Himalayans have strong feelings for India, could be a game-changer in case of a conflict. For other reasons too, it is also important for the new government to have these populations on its side: take difficult issues such as climate change, glacier melting or environment. The main Indian rivers have their sources in the Himalayas and a closer collaboration between the stakeholders and Delhi is crucial for these vital issues.
The Panchsheel Agreement of 1954 between India and China was supposed to be the bedrock of an ‘eternal’ friendship between the two nations; the accord guaranteed that the nations would mutually respect each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. It also spoke of equality and mutual benefit in bilateral relations and peaceful co-existence.
Nice words; only never implemented by China.
At the time of signing the Panchsheel Agreement in 1954 and despite the preamble, the two delegations were miles apart. A telling incident shows how little confidence there was between India and China. In the Hindi version of the Agreement, the Indian translators had written chhota mota vyapar for ‘petty trade’. Chhota means ‘small’ and mota, ‘fat’ or ‘big’. The Chinese Hindi expert could not reconcile the two contradictory words. He did not realise that it was a widely used idiomatic Hindi phrase for ‘petty’. He thought that there was some trick behind the term. It took two weeks to convince the Chinese that the term chhota mota was correct. They finally accepted it only after having cross-checked with their embassy in Delhi.
If trust between India and China has to be rebuilt, the people of the Himalayas have to be taken on board. And common men in India would love to circumambulate Mt. Kailash and take a holy dip in the Manasarovar. Should Beijing facilitate the pilgrimage by agreeing to new routes (Demchok or Shipkila), it could go a long way to repair some of the trust.