If Indian PM Modi goes to Mount Kailash in Tibet, it will be more than a pilgrimage

If Indian PM Modi goes to Mount Kailash in Tibet, it will be more than a pilgrimage

 Bhuchung K. Tsering

As I write this, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is about to leave for China on a trip that might result in Mr. Narendra Modi making another history by being the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the sacred Mt. Kailash (གངས་རིན་པོ་ཆེ་ revered by Bonpos, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains) in Tibet.

 

"Kailash north" by I, Ondřej Žváček. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
“Kailash north” by I, Ondřej Žváček. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

If everything goes as per speculation, Mr. Modi will be visiting Mt. Kailash in the second week of May this year and he is likely to follow the route through Nathu La (agreed to during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s India visit) on the border of Sikkim and Tibet.

This development is interesting. Of course, Mr. Modi, being a devout Hindu, has been on a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash many years back. But then he was not the Prime Minister of India. Although the nature of the proposed visit is not clear, but being a Prime Minister there cannot be any visit that will not have political significance. More so because Mt. Kailash is in Tibet and that has me wondering what the implication is on India, China and Tibet.

Before I try to comment on the implications, some history. Mr. Modi will be the second Indian Prime Minister to be visiting Tibet. In September 1958, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made overnight sojourn in Tibet on his way to Bhutan. In his letter to the chief ministers of India from Gangtok on September 16, 1958, Mr. Nehru explains this: “… the easiest route to Paro, the summer capital of Bhutan, goes from the Nathu La and crosses a small corner of Tibet. Thus, I shall have a brief glimpse of Tibet and I shall spend a night at Yatung, which is about sixteen miles across the border.”

 

PM Nehru with some Tibetan Lamas at Indian Residency at Dromo/Yatung on Sept. 29, 1958. Photo Division Govt. of India
PM Nehru with some Tibetan Lamas at Indian Residency at Dromo/Yatung on Sept. 29, 1958. Photo Division Govt. of India

Yatung or Dromo is very near my birthplace and the whole region forms a wedge between Sikkim (from where Mr. Nehru entered Tibet) and Bhutan. The Indian PM then did not seem to have had a very good impression of the Tibetan landscape. On his return from Bhutan, Mr. Nehru, while in Gangtok, sent another letter to the chief ministers on October 15, 1958 confirms this saying, “The little corner of Tibet that I saw upset my idea of that country. I had always thought that on the other side of the Himalayan ranges, there was the high tableland of Tibet, more or less flat and treeless. As a matter of fact, on the other side of the Nathu La, there were the same precipitous mountains covered with thick forests. This was the Chumbi Valley where Yatung is situated and, broadly speaking, it was similar to Himalayan scenery.“

Prime Minister Nehru also observed something then that should ring a bell of warning to Prime Minister when he passes through the same route as the table has completely turned now. Mr. Nehru commented on the conditions of the roads on both sides of the borders saying, “At the top of the Nathu La ended the road that our engineers had constructed, and on the other side we had to descend by precipitous bridle paths. This road on our side is a remarkable feat for which our engineers deserve great credit. If a road could be built on the other side of the Pass, connecting Yatung, then there would be through road communications between India and Tibet.”

When Mr. Nehru touched on Tibetan soil, the country was nominally still under a Tibetan Government of the Dalai Lama. When Mr. Modi goes to pray on Mount Kailash, he will be doing so under a reality of a Tibet under the control of China.

What are the implications of a possible PM Modi visit to Mount Kailash? Even if it is put within the framework of a pilgrimage, the news comes at a time when the Chinese authorities have banned Tibetans from visiting the sacred mountain. Therefore, at the least the issue of Tibetan religious freedom will be very much out there.

More importantly, Mr. Modi has been seen by some observers as being more vocal on the broader issue of Tibet than any recent Indian leaders. Therefore, it will be interesting to see what steps that he takes not to let Chinese authorities gain political capital from his trip.

Therefore, if Indian PM Modi goes to Mount Kailash in Tibet, it will be more than a pilgrimage. There is no way, he should let China take him on a parikrama (pun intended). But more when Mr. Modi actually makes the visit.

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