| Chinese soldier at Nathu-la
Roads and railways are the sinews of empire. When the Himalayas were being blasted to lay the Darjeeling road, a percipient old Tibetan remarked to a British official, 'Sahib, the sound of that powder is heard in Lhasa!' He did not say Peking because China's claim of suzerainty over Tibet was then only shadowy fiction.
Sea-lanes and air routes boast greater speed and carrying power. They are less vulnerable to attack. But a route that can resound to the stamp of jackboots and thunderous roll of tanks captures the imagination most dramatically. Hannibal would not have made history if his elephants had been airlifted instead of lumbering through Alpine snows. Francis Younghusband gained immortality when he led his troops over 17,000-foot Kangra-la (la meaning pass in Tibetan) and again with more soldiers, yaks and guns over Jelep-la (the Lonely Pass), five kilometres south of Nathu-la (pass of the Listening Ear).
The British built the Jelep-la road for Darjeeling-Tibet trade. The military followed. Younghusband's was the third armed crossing. Tibetan troops invaded in 1886 and the Derbyshire regiment retaliated two years later, setting up camp at Rinchingong, site of today's Chinese trade mart.
One could not but recall this overlapping of merchandise and military when the Beijing train glided into Lhasa. Or when Nathu-la reopened, as Karma Topden had been demanding in the Rajya Sabha, anguished that Lipulekh in Uttaranchal and Shipki-la in Himachal Pradesh should steal a march over Sikkim as official conduits for trade and tourism. Perhaps reactivated is more accurate since the 14,400-ft pass never did close completely. The exchange of empty mailbags every Thursday and Sunday kept illusion alive.
Nathu-la's revival was greeted with exuberance. Not so China's epochal railway. 'Mass tourism may be about to do for Tibetan culture what the Communist party cadres failed to do,' warned a London newspaper. Echoing that fear, the Dalai Lama's nephew, Khedroob Thondup, described the engineering miracle as 'the second invasion of Tibet' to encourage colonization. 'We feel like an endangered race now,' he lamented.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi understood the railways' potential for evil. So did the headmaster who objected to a line near Eton College. Yet only the promise of trans-continental tracks persuaded British Columbia to join Canada, and Cecil Rhodes's Cape-to-Cairo railway dream prompted French, Portuguese and German colonial networks.
The windswept Nathu-la road with its fluttering prayer flags, overlooking the Chumbi Valley and the bleak Tibetan plateau, was also an imperial construct like Rome's Watling Street and Appian Way. Or Sher Shah Suri's Sadak-e-Azam from Attock to Delhi, which had been part of the Mauryan empire's highway from Taxila to Pataliputra. The British reinvented it as the Grand Trunk Road, eternal river of life, from Calcutta to Peshawar.
Familiar enough with military confrontation in the Sixties, Nathu-la has also always been high on symbols. Jawaharlal Nehru tried to snub China by asking the Chogyal of Sikkim to go direct to Lhasa to invite the Dalai Lama to the Buddha's 2,500th birth anniversary celebrations. Upstaging India, the Chinese kept the Chogyal waiting at the border, rejected his Indian driving licence and forced him to take a motoring test. When the Dalai Lama reached Nathu-la, a Chinese official quietly clipped a Chinese flag on his car.
A suite of carved armchairs, one towering above the others like a throne, gathering dust for years in Gangtok's India House, now Raj Bhavan, was meant to be carried by mule and man over the pass as India's present for the Dalai Lama. It was never delivered. We might know more of Nehru's ready surrender of extra-territorial privileges (operating Tibet's postal, telegraph and telephone service, stationing military escorts at Gyantse and Yatung and running dak bungalows) if the Freedom of Information Act obliges New Delhi to release all Sumal Sinha's papers. India's last representative in Lhasa drafted Tibet's appeal to the United Nations when the Chinese invaded.
Traders preferred the lower, all-weather Jelep-la which served Kalimpong. The fear that West Bengal would again grab the trade worried Topden and, perhaps, Sikkim's chief minister, Pawan Kumar Chamling, who later also boarded the open-Nathu-la bandwagon. They know that mule trains once wound down the mountainside, bells tinkling through the night, and more than 10,000 men sorted mounds of Tibetan wool for export. The huge profits prompted the State Bank of India to open a Kalimpong branch.
The mule trains also brought nationalist silver dollars called da yuan, musk, borax, yaks' tails, curios and Chinese rice, taking back cement, kerosene and manufactures. A car for the Dalai Lama was dismantled and carted up piece by piece. Shortsighted or venal Indian officials turned a blind eye to rations and equipment for Mao Zedong's Peoples' Liberation Army; a Calcutta firm sold fleets of jeeps for the PLA. Principle never impedes the profit motive. Indian businessmen who are licking their chops in anticipation of profits will do it again.
Instead of duty-free goat's skin, horseflesh, sheep, yak's tails, yak's hair and China clay, they will buy plastics, electronics, cheap manufactures, household goods, silks, curios, even those 'Lolex watches' they peddle for 10 dollars on Shanghai's Bund. Instead of the 29 permitted items, they will denude our zoos and forests to meet Chinese medicinal demands. Indians being 'craze for foreign' (citing a V.S. Naipaul character) we can expect a flood of cheap gadgets and 'branded' goods that violate every possible copyright and intellectual property rights regulation. This could be the new smugglers' trail. Conservationists fear poachers and traffickers. Gangtok will become even more squalid.
My last trip to Nathu-la was with the Chogyal's second son, Prince Wangchuck ' now a religious recluse somewhere in Bhutan though consecrated 13th Denzong Chogyal in legitimist eyes ' his Aunt Lhanzin-la and cheerful Roland Christopher, a Sikkim Guards officer. Packed in a jeep, Lhanzin and Roland singing Nepalese folk songs all the way, we turned and twisted to Gnatong, the Derbyshires' ruined fort in the jungle. Nathu-la was an anti-climax. No awesome confrontation, only some tawdry bricks unevenly inscribed INDIA WALL. 'Ni hao ma' How are you' Wangchuck yelled at a Chinese soldier patrolling in the distance and was not rewarded with even a glance. 'Ni hao ma' he asked again. Utter silence. Whether what the Chinese grunted after the third repetition was the proper 'Hao, hao, Ni ner' Good, good. How about you' I could not tell.
T.N. Kaul similarly asked a Chinese photographer on the other side of the Nathu-la fence if he was a friend of India. The man didn't reply. Like Wangchuck, the external affairs secretary-general repeated his question and continued repeating it until the Chinese yelled, 'No!' That moved Kaul to deliver a pious homily in fluent Mandarin on the close bonds between Asia's two neighbours, all Indians being inspired by 'undying friendship' for China.
What price 'undying friendship' Businessmen say that improved rail links at Atari, where every wagon to and from Pakistan must be unloaded and reloaded, would help trade far more. So would widening the single-lane highway at the Petrapole-Benapole crossing with Bangladesh. That might invest the newborn South Asian Free Trade Area with meaning. Even Jelep-la is an easier road. But Nathu-la was chosen because of a symbolism that has nothing to do with trade or tourism.
Many years after Sikkim's absorption, the Chinese would not allow the Chogyal's Tibetan-born sister-in-law, Princess Soyang-la, to visit Lhasa on her Indian passport. A Sikkimese royal was not Indian, they said, and gave her a laissez-passer for the trip. Other Sikkimese were similarly treated. Those who imagine that all that belongs to the past might be disappointed. Since trade through Nathu-la existed when Sikkim was a protected kingdom, restoration of the status quo ante does not automatically imply that Beijing accepts Sikkim's Indian status.
Roads and railways are double-edged weapons. Benefits accrue to the side that is stronger and cleverer. Opening Nathu-la continues ' not ends ' the great game of diplomatic one-upmanship.