In 2015, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership gladdened the hearts of hundreds of millions in India by announcing that a new route to Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar would be made operational through Sikkim. The gesture was seen as evidence of the growing friendship between Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi and President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China. Involving a less arduous trek than the other route through Uttarakhand, egress through the Nathu La pass proved a boon to pilgrims eager to witness for themselves the majesty of Mount Kailash and the calm of Lake Mansarovar. On the other side, arrangements were made with precision and in many respects perfection, thereby ensuring an incident-free trek for the overwhelming majority of pilgrims using the route. Certainly, each returning pilgrim would have had feelings of gratitude to the Chinese for having facilitated the realisation of what to most has been a dream since childhood. Clearly, the decision in 2015 to allow entry through Nathu La was a decision taken by the CCP General Secretary and not by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), which has for decades held a negative view of India and has pressed for policies that place the competing interests of Islamabad far above the legitimate rights of Delhi. It is clear that the decision, without warning, to cut off entry to pilgrims eager to go to Kailash and Mansarovar was taken by MoFA in Beijing, most likely with the support of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is the main international backer of GHQ Rawalpindi, including the ISI. Indeed, the MoFA-PLA tilt towards Pakistan has reached the extent of protecting international terrorists such as Masood Azhar from United Nations sanctions, simply because these individuals function as auxiliaries of the Pakistan army. It has also reached a stage where China refuses to allow India into an international body unless Pakistan gets admitted as well, as seen in the NSG standoff. Such moves cast doubt on China’s commitment towards good relations with India and its desire to do battle against global terrorism, a scourge that affects even the PRC, and not merely in Xinjiang, but in acts of terror across the country. The decision to deny access to pilgrims from India through Sikkim shows a complete disregard of the importance of faith and spirituality in the lives of ordinary citizens of this country, and will have a chilling effect on perceptions towards the CCP and the country it administers in hundreds of millions of individuals across India. It seems clear that the decision on blocking of access was ill conceived and harms the global standing of China, especially in India, its most consequential neighbour.
Together, India and China comprise 2. 6 billion people, not an inconsiderable number. The two countries, indeed the two civilisations, have for millennia existed in peace alongside each other. The Chinese fishing nets of Kochi and the high tiled gables of housing architecture in the south and east are evidence of the close relationship between the cultures of China and of large parts of our country. Every Chinese citizen is aware of the fact that Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born in India, but that his teachings spread in China at a time when they were on the defensive in India. Matters of spirituality should not enter into the ugly cauldron of geopolitical tit for tat, and hence it would be best if President Xi Jinping were to ensure that the status quo ante get restored in the matter of entry of pilgrims from India to Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar. There is no reason to halt, even for a temporary period, such a journey that creates only goodwill for China in India and which showcases the impressive organisational skills on the Chinese side. Over the decades, China has emerged as a first world power in infrastructure, and this is instantly visible on the Chinese side of the frontier. Prime Minister Modi is attempting to set right years of neglect of infrastructure in the Northeast, but this is proving to be a slow and expensive effort.
Coming back to the most recent flaring up in relations, caused by a Chinese unit seeking to construct a road on the Indian side of the boundary, it would be damaging to overall relations were pilgrims to be made a negotiating pawn in the ongoing battle of wills concerning the matter. What needs to get done is for the Line of Actual Control to get officially demarcated, and soon. But before that, pilgrims need to be once again given access through Nathu La in their journey to Kailash and Mansarovar. It is a given that China and India should return to the path of friendship, and a good way to start would be to restore the status quo ante over Nathu La. It would be harmful to Chinese interests to sacrifice the goodwill of China simply in order to prove a point to innocent pilgrims, who, at the moment, have been halted from making the journey of a lifetime because of the ban just imposed.