Monday, April 6, 2015

New Silk road

The nalla marking the border between Ladakh and Tibet
My article New Silk road appeared in The Statesman.

Click here to read...

For more than a year now, China has been batting for a grand scheme with a mind-blowing investment, to create a modern Silk Road. Speaking on the sidelines of the Asian ‘Davos’ at Boao, President Xi Jinping said the scheme would stimulate trade and investment between China and countries along the route. We hope that the annual trade volume between China and these countries surpasses $2.5 trillion in a decade or so, affirmed the Chinese President.
At the same forum, the Chinese Commerce Minister, Gao Hucheng, explained that more than 50 countries have shown interest in the initiative known as ‘One Belt, One Road’ to build a modern Silk Road Economic Belt as well as a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
These projects include a network of railways, highways, oil and gas pipelines, power grids, Internet networks, maritime and other infrastructure links across Central, South Asia and the West as far as Greece and Russia. Beijing’s declared objective is to drastically increase China’s trade connections.
While Beijing makes these grandiose plans to ‘open’ new routes, it still refuses to open the Demchok road in Ladakh, the main traditional trade route linking the subcontinent to Tibet and Xinjiang. On 23 May, Scoop News reported that the Chief Executive Councilor of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Rigzin Spalbar wrote to J&K Chief Minister Mufti Mohd Sayeed requesting Srinagar’s support on this issue vital for the people of the mountainous region. Spalbar wanted Mufti to take up with Delhi the opening (or more exactly, the reopening) of the Kailash Manasarovar route via Demchok, in Leh district of Ladakh.
During President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014, China announced a ‘political gesture’; the Chinese President agreed to the opening of a new route, via Nathu-la in Sikkim, for Indian pilgrims wanting to go on the Kailash Manasarovar yatra. It is a fact that the Ministry of External Affairs’ yatra, via the Lipulekh-Purang route has always been rather treacherous. For those who are unaware of the topography of the Himalayas, the Chinese offer to open Nathu-la seemed exciting.
PTI then explained: The new route, though longer, takes pilgrims from Nathu La to Shigatse… (and) from there the pilgrims could comfortably travel to Manasarovar and Kailash using the well laid-out highway. It would be part of the big gesture of friendship not only to strike a chord with Mr Modi but also the people at large, specially the Hindus and Buddhists considering its religious importance. It was obviously Beijing’s rationale, but was it really in India’s interests?
It is clear now that this ‘gesture of friendship’ from Beijing was driven by self-interest. In his letter to Mufti Mohd Sayeed, Spalbar mentioned the historical and spiritual importance of Mount Kailash and Manasarovar Lake as pilgrimage places for Buddhists as well as Hindu and Jain believers. He further pointed out that the Buddhist population of Ladakh had a long tradition of visiting the Kailash area, at least till China occupied Tibet in the early 1950s; the pilgrims till then always used the Demchok road. Spalbar added that till the 17th century, the Manasarovar Lake and Mount Kailash were part of the Kingdom of Ladakh and the village of Minsar, near the Kailash continued to pay revenues to the J&K State up to 1960. He cited Ven. Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, then a Minister in J&K Government who in 1954, along with Sonam Khangsar, a judicial clerk of the Leh District Commissioner’s Office, visited Kailash/Manasarovar via Demchok; at that time, they collected taxes from the Minsar villagers.
The Chief Executive Councillor highlighted the fact that the Lipulekh and Nathu-la routes are difficult as it involves trekking at high altitudes up to 19,500 feet under inhospitable conditions including extreme cold and rugged terrain. The yatra usually takes more than three weeks. Spalbar suggested using the Demchok route because the Holy Lake and Mountain are located a mere two-day drive from Leh; further the road is relatively easy as it does not encounter any major pass en route.
The letter further states that the opening of the Leh-Demchok route to Kailash Manasarovar route has been a persistent demand from the people of Ladakh since last many decades and has been relentlessly taken up with previous Governments at Centre. According to the Chief Councillor, the opening up of the Demchok road could be a catalyst for the local economy as well as for the overall development of Ladakh as it would give a new dimension in the trade and tourism sector to the Ladakh district and the entire J&K State. Moreover, the long lost historical and spiritual relations [between Tibet and Ladakh] will be revived, wrote Spalbar.
A couple of days later, the Legislature Party leader from Ladakh, Rigzin Jora alleged: Modi government has failed to take up opening of Demchok… It is unfortunate that he has not taken up with China the opening of a new route …although this was BJP’s commitment in the parliamentary election. Jora used the same argument as Spalbar: One can drive upto Kailash Mansarovar from Leh in two days without going through any high pass. Demchok provides the easiest access.
A pilgrim can visit the holy site and be back in Delhi in a week’s time. Jora asserted that during former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second tenure, Delhi was given to understand by Beijing that China was ‘not averse’ to open the Demchok road as it was ‘not a disputed area’. Jora’s assertions cannot be confirmed as it is not known whether or not the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, could take up the issue of Demchok with his Chinese counterpart, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, when they recently discussed the IndiaChina boundary issue.
But it is a fact that at a time when Beijing promotes its New Silk Road, the traditional routes, Demchok and the Karakoram Pass linking Ladakh to Tibet and Xinjiang remain closed to tourism, pilgrimage and trade. Can’t this be called double-standards? It is encouraging, however, that the J&K State has decided to increase the areas coming under the Inner Line Permit system (or Protected Area Permit) in Ladakh.
The Chief Minister recently declared that the matter regarding extending the inner-line permit for foreign tourists from Panamik to Varshi, including Yarma, Gumpa and Yarma Gongu monastery (in protected areas) in Nubra valley of Leh district, has been taken up with the Ministry of Home Affairs in February. These areas fall under the border districts of J&K which are covered by the Protected Area Regime under the Foreigners (Protected Areas) Order, 1958; it means that this order predates the time India discovered that China had built a road through the Aksai Chin.
The area was so well ‘protected’ that nobody noticed that a road was being built! In January, the J&K administration issued an order allowing domestic tourists to enter some of the so-called ‘protected areas’ in Nubra sub-division. The Indian Army was however not keen to allow foreign tourists in these protected areas without certain precautions. While the security concerns should certainly be taken into consideration, it is also important to show to the world (and first, China) that these areas fall under India’s jurisdiction, by issuing the permits.
The same principle applies to many areas of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Regarding Demchok, China’s hypocrisy on the issue should be publicized; India can’t be roped in a Silk Road project if her interests are not taken into consideration and it is clearly in India’s interest to open up Demchok to pilgrimage and later trade.

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