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Prospects for opening of the route via Ladakh for Kailash Mansarovar Yatra!

Heena Jabeen, Fellow, Imagindia Institute (May 2015)

With India and China agreeing on allowing pilgrims to the holy Kailash Mansarover via Nathula, the expectations for the fulfilment of Ladakhi demand for re-opening of the centuries old pilgrimage route via Ladakh seem to have dissipated. Could it be the end of hope for a revival of the traditional Yatra route from Ladakh or is it a matter of time before it is re-opened? 

Ladakh, at an altitude of approximately 3000 to 5000 meters above sea level has quite extreme living conditions with more of winter than summer. For half of the year it remains cut off from the rest of the country. Most of the people have occupations only in summers when it is a tourist attraction and the only time when crops and vegetables dare to pop up.

Happy tourists and locals of Ladakh on the streets make it the most tantalizing time of the year. It is much natural that people would want to make the most out of the benevolent summer. Nature has always been harsh and will always be.

But the hope of another road connection to the world outside was something everybody was looking forward to with excitement. There could have been more of Indian tourists pouring in Ladakh which means more jobs.

So, has the decision of building the Yatra route via Sikkim shattered the dreams of people of Ladakh? 

Sino-Indian relations:
After the eighth round of unsuccessful border talks in 1987, there came an important turning point in Sino-Indian relations when a Joint Working Group was formed following the official visit to China by the Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi in 1988.

The visit was made on the invitation of the then Premier Li Peng and raised hopes of a fruitful start-over in bilateral relations. Recently, Indian and Chinese leaders gathered again, discussing the unresolved border issue during a meeting of the Joint Working Group.
 This institution, established in 1989, has surely elaborated a roadmap involving some important steps towards a solution. But so far, no real breakthrough has been reached.

With another dynamic Indian government in place under Modi’s leadership, the time for a solution seems more favourable than ever.
Relations between India and China have remained tense for several decades. Whereas the Panchsheel Treaty defined five principles of peaceful co-existence between the two neighbours, the Dalai Lama's exile in India since 1959 and China’s sudden attack in 1962, including the annexation of parts of the north- east and Aksai Chin in the Ladakh region, made things worse.  

It may be recalled that out of a total area of 82,665 square kilometres of Leh District, more than 37,000 square kilometres are already under Chinese occupation.

The border issue is further complicated with China remaining unwilling to give up its claims over territories within India and often displaying hostile acts of incursions (at Chumur area on the eastern border and Depsang valley on the northern side) as well as raising objections to development activities on this side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Of late, India has been making efforts to consolidate its position by increasing its military presence, by constructing several strategic roads and by improving its communication network in the region.

Current Situation
The emerging scenario of the global political economy makes it imperative for both China and India to compete as well as cooperate with each other.

 In past two decades, these two most populous nations of the World have developed closer ties in various fields including cultural exchanges, education and, more importantly, in bilateral trade which is touching new heights despite a lack of balance from India’s viewpoint.
While the two neighbours are engaged in a continuous dialogue process, it is difficult to ascertain if anyone cares what people of Ladakh feel and think?

Setting aside the question if the decision to open the Sikkim route was right and how it was reached, this article attempts to give a glimpse of the concerns in Ladakh regarding Sino-Indian relations.

If we stand in between China and India at the border, we can see the 19th century and 21st century side by side. China has been putting in so much effort in developing infrastructures on their side and has even built an airport recently.

On the other hand, the Indian border area looks like it has not been discovered by human kind yet. Locals of Ladakh have been expressing the need for development of infrastructure on the Indian side of the border, because this is the only way for future development of the region, particularly the backward region of Changthang (known for its high pastures, nomads, the pashmina goat, the yak and some rare species of wildlife).

Ladakh is well known for its tourist attractions. It has always been a destination of choice for many Europeans, and now it has become a source of attraction for Indian tourists as well. Every second person you have a conversation with wants to go there or has recently been there, wants to go again soon or just gets excited to hear about the place.

Although the Govt. of India has opened most of Ladakh (including the famous Pangong Lake with its 2/3rd portion lying on the other side of the border) for tourists, the major part of Changthang and Nubra adjoining the eastern and northern borders remain restricted.

It should be fair enough to say that, given a chance to flourish by creating basic facilities, e.g., road infrastructure, the region could soon get rid of the tag of a remote and backward area.

 So, what could be the reason for Ladakhis not being able to get the opportunity provided by the opening of a road to Kailash Manasarover?

The Yatra Route – Why Sikkim and not Ladakh?
When it was clear that the Ladakh route would have taken much less time than via Sikkim, yet the Government favoured the long route of Sikkim, why?

Mr. Thupstan Tsewang, (Member of Parliament from Ladakh) sees Chinese reluctance as a major reason for not getting the green signal for the Ladakh route. There seem to be several factors – internal as well as external, contributing to the choice made in favour of the Sikkim route.

Being a part of Jammu and Kashmir
Firstly, Ladakh is a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and not a state in itself. Therefore, the fate of Ladakh is tied to J&K whether the locals like it or not.

In the dispute of Kashmir between India and Pakistan, China with its ‘friendly’ relations with the latter, has taken a peculiar stance well demonstrated in cases involving issue of visa to citizens of J&K. Moreover, Srinagar in itself has issues that probably seem much bigger than the issue of Ladakh.

Being part of a disputed area, government cannot take decisions only in the interest of Ladakh. It is also one of the many reasons why people of Ladakh (or of Leh at least) have been demanding Union Territory status for the region.

Bilateral Issue
The second reason for not considering the Ladakh route seems to be that it involves a ‘Line of Actual Control’ (LAC) which is disputed between the two parties, and it is not possible to consider a Yatra route without resolving the border issue.

Tibet Factor
Thirdly, the devotion of the people of Ladakh towards his holiness, the Dalai Lama is a concern for the Chinese. China definitely does not see the Dalai Lama as a friend. Considering him a threat, Chinese have even made known their intention to control the lineage of the Dalai Lama.
 The route via Ladakh, proposed for Kailash Mansarovar Yatra could also be a way in for Tibetan refugees or, in Chinese mindset, provide a stronger base for Tibetans in India for causing trouble for the Chinese regime in Tibet.

Thus, being part of a disputed State, having a disputed border with China and Ladakh’s proximity with Tibetans in exile seems to be major drawbacks for Ladakh, but other reasons may have contributed to the decision as well.

Demographic Reason
The altitude of Ladakh is a bit too high for the people from lower areas due to lack of oxygen. Any holy yatra is mostly planned for the family or with the family and the aim is to reach the top without much trouble. Also, many pilgrims are elderly people, and for them, Sikkim has a more favourable climate.

The Siliguri road is also of great importance as it connects the whole northeast market, and it is valuable for India and much more for China.
The Sikkim route presumably requires the pilgrim to spend several days on the Tibetan side, which could mean monetary benefits to the local population there. Also, this route is much closer to Lhasa and other important cities, thus enhancing the prospect for inflow of tourists to these places.

The Ladakh route has some advantages as well. Once constructed, it is an easy journey through the narrow valleys and pasture lands along the Indus, with no high passes to surmount.

In this sense, it is an easier and much shorter route to Mound Kailash once the pilgrim is in Leh. And we know, Leh is now better connected by roads via Srinagar and Manali while several airlines operate from Delhi to Leh on a daily basis. However, a disadvantage is that the Yatra can be done during summer months only.

Local Perceptions:
Ladakh is often referred to as the ‘Little Tibet’. For centuries, the trails along the Indus Valley have been regularly followed by Budhist and Hindu pilgrims on their route to the holy lake of Manasarover and Mount Kailash. Later, the route between Ladakh and Tibet was extensively used by traders as well.

This is also the route frequented by thousands of Budhist monks to seek their religious education in important Tibetan monasteries and learning centres.

Historically, people of Ladakh have had spiritual, cultural and trade relations with Tibet for centuries, and the route to Kailash Manasarover has played a key role in maintaining these ties. As such, the average Ladakhi, particularly Budhists, aspire to be able to visit Kailash Manasarover, Potala Palace in Lhasa and the large number of monasteries spread across Tibet.

Secondly, people are excited that the opening of this route will attract a large number of Hindu pilgrims from all over India and boost tourism in the region.

The third benefit is seen by many in terms of a possible revival of trade with additional avenues of employment and income. Some elders contemplate with nostalgia that if the border dispute is resolved, it may even be possible to resume the caravan trade with Yarkand as well.
Ladakh was once a commercial hub and an important tributary to the Silk Route via Xingjang.

Of the five traditional routes linking Ladakh with the outside world of those days, only two, i.e., the roads to Kashmir and Manali are operational whereas the Yatra route to Tibet and the Caravan route to Yarkend fall on the LAC between India and China, and the third route to Skardo Baltistan (in the west) lies on the LOC between India and POK (under Pakistan).

It may be recalled here that people of Kargil District and Turtuk belt (in Nubra Valley) share the same culture with their relatives in Baltistan.
 A re-opening of Skardu Road will provide a much needed boost to a revival of Balti culture (as a part of Tibetan civilisation) as well as offer new opportunities for trade between India and Pakistan via Ladakh.

Among the local population of Ladakh, there are concerns as well. First of all, average Ladakhi perceives China as a major threat and wants the Govt. of India to strengthen its positions on the eastern and northern borders.

An early resolution of the border dispute will itself be a major breakthrough for most Ladakhis. Many people also feel that the Indian Govt. has been too soft in dealing with China’s aggressive stance over the border issue.

 Some even apprehend that it may be willing to cede more territories of Ladakh in order to gain elsewhere in its negotiations with China.

Different Views of Locals of Ladakh
Some sections of Ladakhi society have concerns regarding opening of the Yatra route itself. They feel that Ladakh has been facing difficulties in effectively managing the existing inflow of tourists (crossing above 1,50,000 people per annum now) during its short summer season, and is unprepared to host a large number of yatris at this point of time.

Some others appear worried about possible cultural onslaughts as well as potential environmental hazards it may pose (to the fragile eco-system of Changthang, in particular).

There are yet others who are uncomfortable with the idea of a possible domination by Tibetans and other outsiders over tourism as well as trade that might take place on both sides of the border.

On the other hand, there are people who argue that the experience of having dealt with tourism in five decades has made Ladakhis competitive enough.

They also feel that, following an initial phase of indifference and neglect, Ladakh has now woken up to the urgency for preserving its cultural heritage and is taking adequate measures for passing on its traditional wisdom to the next generation.  

People of Ladakh are known for their helping, down to earth and kind nature. Interdependence, peaceful co-existance among communities and a harmony with nature have been the hallmarks of the social fabric of the region.

This is probably true even today and, by and large, the region continues to hold on to its cultural values. No society can remain insulated, and inflow of pilgrims should not be seen as a threat to the culture of Ladakh as long as locals care to keep their traditions and value system intact.

 And one can say with confidence that despite many new developments in past few decades, Ladakhis have managed to maintain their core cultural ethos.

“However, if people of the region want to make an impact on policies affecting their lives, they must realize the importance of unity of thought and action among themselves” said Ambassador Phunchok Stobdan, a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence studies and Analysis (IDSA) who himself is from Ladakh. He feels that tourism has given tremendous success to Ladakh but at the cost of their spirit of self-reliance.
Prior to tourism, agriculture was the main occupation in Ladakh as people were self sufficient in their basic needs. Today the scenario is totally opposite. Tourism has definitely bought major enhancement in standards of life, but it continues to suffer from the problem with respect to a fair distribution of benefits.

An average Ladakhi continues to be dependent either on government subsidy, army or the trucks from Srinagar or Manali. It is, therefore, important that we set our priorities right and strike a balance in order to be able to hold on to the principles of sustainable and equitable development.

The Way Forward:
Opening of the Sikkim route to Kailash Mansarover may not be a setback to the prospects for a revival of the ancient Ladakhi route. Instead, it could be seen as a precursor to the Ladakh chapter in the ongoing dialogue between China and India.

The real issue is the border dispute along LAC, and the current situation seems to be favourable for making some headway towards resolving it. Such a development will obviously have a positive impact on the geo-politics of the region including possibilities of progress towards resolving the argument over Kashmir.

We know that having picked up a few lessons at home and in the neighbouring country Afghanistan, Pakistan is inclined to pursue a more conciliatory approach towards Kashmir which the new leadership in India seems capable of reciprocating in an appropriate manner.
Meanwhile, envisaging a newly emerging role in the global economic and political scene, the Chinese leadership may not be too reluctant to gradually move towards a new dispensation in which it empowers the autonomous region of Tibet in a manner and to a degree respectable enough to suit the ageing Dalai Lama and his followers.

This scenario may seem to be too utopian, but it is better to conclude with optimism and to work towards it rather than continuing to live with negative thoughts that have prevailed over the region for many decades now. To sum up, it may not be too ideal to assume that the worst in over. ‘A revival of the ancient route via Ladakh has been a long standing demand of Ladakhis and will continue to remain so’, says Mr. Rigzin Spalbar, the Chairman of LAHDC (the District Council) Leh.

 So, the message for Ladakhis seems to be to sustain their demand for opening of the Ladakh route to Kailash Mansarover, take a pragmatic view of the Sino-Indian relations and the Tibetan standpoint, and work towards developing a judicious mix of land based economy and tourism in creating better opportunities for their young people without being xenophobic.

While India and China are engaged in a dialogue process, people of Ladakh may expect the Yatra and trade as potential outcomes in the mid to longer term future.

If and when this happens, Ladakhis should avail the time available to gear up efforts for hosting the yatra (and maximising its benefits to locals) and to develop its human resource to re-engage in possible trans-border trade with Tibet, Xingjang and possibly Baltistan!