Nathu La: It's more than revival of a trade route[Monday, July 10, 2006 11:20]

By Sunanda K Datta Ray

A suite of carved armchairs, one towering above the others like a throne, gathering dust for years in Gangtok's India House, the old Residency that is now Raj Bhavan, told the sorry tale of Nathu La, the Pass of the Listening Ear.

Meant to be carried by mule and man over the windswept pass with its fluttering Buddhist prayer flags into the Chumbi Valley and across the bleak Tibetan plateau to the Potala, the furniture was India's present for the Dalai Lama and a snub to Beijing.

But war intervened. Technically, Nathu La remained open all those four decades with a twice-weekly token mailbag, last reminder of the extra-territorial privileges - operating Tibet's postal service, stationing a small detachment of troops and running dak bungalows - that Jawaharlal Nehru surrendered without a whimper.

Nathu La has always been high on symbols. When the Dalai Lama arrived there to attend the Buddha's 2,500th birth anniversary celebrations, the Chinese matched Indian one-upmanship with their own.

Nehru had asked the Chogyal of Sikkim pointedly to go direct to Lhasa to invite the Tibetan pontiff, thereby irritating the Chinese. They kept the Chogyal waiting at the border, rejected his Indian driving licence and forced him to take a motoring test. When His Holiness reached Nathu La, an inconspicuous Chinese official quietly clipped a Chinese flag on his car fender.

Jelep-la, five kilometres to the south, was really the traditional trade route. Friends in Kalimpong - Nehru's "nest of spies" - talking glowingly of long mule trains winding down the mountainside, bells tinkling through the night.

An estimated daily turnover of Rs 400 million prompted the State Bank of India to open a branch. More than 10,000 men were engaged in sorting out mounds of white, grey or black Tibetan wool into bundles for export to the West.

Thousands more provided fodder and maize for the mules and exotic entertainment for their masters after the privations of a 10-day journey.

The mule trains also brought Kuomintang silver dollars, musk, borax, yaks' tails, curios and Chinese rice. They took back cement, kerosene, Indian manufactures, and even a car for the Dalai Lama, dismantled and carted up piece by piece.

It was whispered in Kalimpong that Indian officials turned a blind eye to rations and equipment for Mao Zedong's People's Liberation Army. A Kolkata firm was suspected of sending up fleets of jeeps - the more they sent the more money they made - for the PLA.

Principle has never impeded the profit motive of some businessmen. If there is no market for no-duty imports like goat's skin, horses, sheep, yak's tails, yak's hair and China clay, and no profit to be made out of permitted items such as iron-ore, wool, livestock produce and electrical appliances, they will find other merchandise to live up to the Trade Study Group's hopes of a Rs 12,203-crore (Rs 122.3 billion) turnover in a decade. Rhino horn, tiger pelts and who knows what other contraband.

After all, Gangtok's Lal Bazar always sold smuggled Chinese fabrics, porcelain and domestic gadgets.

Nathu La may not have seen much trade but it did experience hostilities. The first firing there was reported in September 1965. More serious encounters followed when the Chinese tried to prevent Indian soldiers erecting a barbed-wire fence. Both sides used field artillery and heavy mortar, and suffered casualties. Lal Bahadur Shastri saved the peace by proposing an unconditional ceasefire and a meeting between sector commanders.

My last visit was with the Chogyal's second son, Prince Wangchuck, now a religious recluse somewhere in Bhutan though legitimists see him as Consecrated Thirteenth Denzong Chogyal - his aunt, Lhanzin-la Tashi, and Roland Christopher, a cheery Sikkim Guards officer. Packed in a jeep, Lhanzin and Roland sang Nepalese folk songs all the way.

The Black Cats entertained us to lunch, and I was struck by the adaptation of British mess protocol. "Shriman," bawled a soldier with a tremendous stamp of booted feet. "Bhojan tayar hai!" Like a Mayfair hostess, our host, a colonel, neatly divided his attention between Wangchuck and me.

Nathu La was disappointing. No formidable show of strength, no military grandeur. The border had shifted and the prayer flags Lhanzin had come to replace were all on China's side.

Between us was a low brick edifice unevenly inscribed INDIA WALL. It was a tawdry spectacle. "Ni hao ma? (How are you?)" Wangchuck yelled at a Chinese soldier in the distance and was not rewarded with even a glance. "Ni hao ma?" he repeated. Again, utter silence. The Chinese grunted something after the third repetition but whether it was the proper "Hao, hao, ni ner? (Good, good. How about you?)" I could not tell.

Many years after Sikkim became an Indian state, the Chinese would not allow the Chogyal's Tibetan-born sister-in-law, Princess Soyang-la, to visit her relatives in Lhasa on her Indian passport. A member of Sikkim's royal family was not Indian, they said, and gave her a laissez-passer.

With Nathu La joining Lipulekh in Uttaranchal and Shipki-la in Himachal Pradesh as an official conduit between the two countries, India need not fear another diplomatic slap on the wrist when any Sikkimese, royal or commoner, next visits Tibet.