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Kailash Mansarovar Pilgrimage Via Demchok: Chinese Reluctance – OpEd

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Reports post standoff in Eastern Ladakh sector have revealed that the Chinese military is reportedly constructing a surface-to-air missile (SAM) site as well as other military infrastructure around Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet. Having done the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage (Yatra) in 2015 via the Nathu La route encouraged me to write on the subject.

For centuries, the trade and pilgrimage route for the Kailash-Manasarovar region followed the course of the Indus, passed Demchok the last Ladakhi village and then crossed the border to reach the first Tibetan village Tashigong inside Tibet. Since the 1962 Chinese aggression the trade and pilgrimage has been stopped along this route and demand to resume has failed for reasons best known to both the governments.

Kailash-Manasarovar has religious importance for the Hindus, Jains,  Buddhists and to  the followers of the Bon Religion. Every year, thousands make a pilgrimage to Kailash, a tradition going back to thousands of years. Pilgrims  believe that circumambulating (parikrama) Mount Kailash on foot is a holy ritual that will bring good fortune. The parikrama is made in a clockwise direction by Hindus and Buddhists, while Jains and Bönpos circumambulate the mountain in an anticlockwise direction. The pilgrimage is open every year between June and September. The devotees get two options to choose between the two routes–Uttarakhand’s Lipulekh Pass, and since 2015 the new route through Sikkim’s NathuLa Pass. Lipulekh Utrakhand route took 27 days to complete the yatra which is prone to landslides and is a tough trek. However, no pilgrimage has taken place for the last two years due to COVID-19 pandemic.

The state of Jammu and Kashmir regularly collected revenue from Minsar till 1950 which was utilised for the maintenance of holy sites at Lake Mansarovar and Mount Kailash. Minsar is about 50 km west of Mount Kailash. It was part of the kingdom of Ladakh from the early 17th century. The Treaty of Tingmosgang that was signed between Tibet and Ladakh in 1684 allowed the latter to retain Minsar. During the 19th century, when Ladakh was conquered by the forces of Maharaja Gulab Singh, Minsar too became part of Jammu & Kashmir. Post-independence of India, when Maharaja Hari Singh acceded to the Indian Union, the jurisdiction over Minsar automatically passed on to India.

China allowed Kailash Mansarovar Yatra via Nathula pass in Sikkim in 2015 as the MoU between India and China was signed (18 Sept, 2014) allowing for the opening of this new route for Indian pilgrims to the Tibet Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China. Addressing the media after the signing of the MoU, PM Modi said the new route offers many benefits. “It makes Kailash Mansarovar accessible by a motor-able road, which is especially beneficial for older pilgrims. It offers a safer alternative in the rainy season, makes the pilgrimage shorter in duration and will enable a much higher number of pilgrims to go there.” But this ‘gesture of friendship’ from Beijing was obviously driven by self-interest! President Xi’s proposal of ‘One Belt and One Road’ Initiative (BRI) of the New Silk Road brought a new connotation for the old Silk Road. 

In August 2015 as part of this Kailash Mansarovar Yatra via Nathu La Pass experienced the journey along this new route. This new route is safe andbeneficial for older pilgrims who could travel comfortably. One also gets the opportunity to travel the length of Tibet in luxury buses and see for oneself the kind of infrastructural development taking place in Tibet.

Tradidional route: Leh-Demchok-Kailash- Mansarovar 

The ‘Panchsheel Agreement’ of 1954 between India and China was supposed to be the bedrock of an ‘eternal’ friendship between nations; The Agreement lapsed in April 1962 and 6 months later China attacked India and fought a bitter war. The Agreement had specified some passes  of entry into Tibet for trade and pilgrims of both countries: Shipki-la pass, Mana pass, Niti pass, Kungri Bingri pass, Darma pass, and Lipulekh pass.  Article IV mentions: “Also, the customary Ladakh road via Demchok to Tashigong along the valley of the Indus River may continue to be traversed in accordance with custom.” Beijing adamantly refuses to reopen it. It is however rather strange that China, which is batting for a grand plan of BRI to create a modern Silk Road, with a mind-blowing investment refuses to open the customary Kailash Mansarovar route via Demchok.  This will be the shortest and safest route to Kailash Parvat. The 633-km route from Leh to Tarchen-Parakha (Parikrama start point for Mount Kailash) can be covered in just two to three days.

Customary Ladakh road via Demchok is the easiest and the most convenient route to Mansarovar. This route follows the footsteps of General Zorawar Singh (Dogra General) who captured areas up to Mansarovar. This route will be shorter, convenient and provide a near disaster-free Yatra, especially for senior citizens and remind us of the rich history of our troops reaching Mansarovar. This route through Ladakh and Western Tibet is least strenuous and economical. Entire pilgrimage and logistics are based on motor-able roads.

ManaliLeh Highway is one of the roads that lead to Leh. It is one of those Highways which offer almost everything to an adventure lover that is available with nature. Serious travelers in India and even abroad do have a dream of traversing this most beautiful Highway at least in their lifetime and I have been lucky to have experienced this journey of my lifetime.

It is understood Leh-Demchok  route for Kailash-Mansarovar has been a part of Agenda for some time during bilateral border talks. Domestic Buddhist Tourism should be linked to this Yatra to further encourage religious tourism so that Ladakh earns additional revenue and in turn will give Economic boost to the region. The Ladakh Hill Development Council  is hopeful of reopening the Leh-Kailash Mansarovar route as part of “The Ladakh 2025 Vision Document.”Reopening of the Demchok route as one more additional route to Kailash-Mansarovar has been the demand of the people of Ladakh.With Ladakh having become a union territory the demand for this alternative route is likely to be renewed.It is clearly in India’s interest to open up Demchok route to Kailash-Mansarovar and demand quid pro quo of the Chinese for opening Kailash Mansarovar route via Nathula.

Possible reasons for Chinese Reluctance in reopening the Leh-Demchok-Kailash- Mansarovar Yatra route:

·       The Chinese claim it as a disputed area.

·       The border is not demarcated.

·       India may re-stake their historic, documented claims to Minsar villages near Mansarovar lake. These areas used to be a part of Indian territory until the late 1950s, when the Chinese forcefully took over parts of Mount Kailash, Mansarovar, and Eastern Ladakh. 

·       Demchok is a strategic area so the Chinese would not want the pilgrims to visit the area owing to security considerations as the PLA may be deployed.

·       The Chinese would not like pilgrims to see all these military infrastructure developments enroute. Chinese setting up tents in the Demchok area in September 2014 reflects that they are not in favour of opening the Demchok route.

The Chinese military is reportedly constructing a surface-to-air missile (SAM) site as well as other infrastructure around Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet. If these developments are found to be true, it appears to be a major reason why the Chinese over the years have not been in favour of reopening the Leh-Demchok-Kailash- Mansarovar pilgrimage routeIrrespective to the continued Eastern Ladakh standoff the traditional trade and pilgrimage based confidence building measures must commence between the two countries knowing fully well that religion has no importance to Communist China. India needs to take the initiative on this important issue.

The best trust building measure would be to undo what was done in 1954 and reopen the Demchok-Tashigang route on the border for trade as a first step; the next one would be to let the pilgrims visiting Kailash-Manasarovar use this route.” says Claude Arpi.

*Patial RC is a retired Infantry officer of the Indian Army. Possess unique experience of serving in active CI Ops across the country and in Sri Lanka. Regular writer on matters military and travel in military professional journals. The veteran is a keen mountaineer and a trekker. 

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