The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Handshake across Himalayas
- At ribbon-wrapped Nathu-la, foes turn soldier-diplomats

Nathu-la, July 5: Thang Xiao Kang, the corporal of the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army, is leaning over the single strand of barbed wire ' feet in China, head in India ' and is asking Brigadier S.L. Narasimhan “who, who'” when the officer replies in Chinese.

Narasimhan is escorting wife Kamini through the fog and the mist in these heights. She has just arrived for tomorrow’s ceremony when Nathu-la will be officially opened for border trade. Narasimhan replies to Kang in fluent Chinese.

The cigarette stuck to the corporal’s mouth rolls off and the cavalier Kang, who has identified the officer from his epaulettes but could not recognise the commander of the Indian garrison here, freezes and then gets effusive, almost eager to please. He did not know that the brigadier spoke Chinese.

Narasimhan shakes his hand ' a handshake across the Himalayas ' and continues with his guided tour.

Welcome to a new breed in the Indian Army: enter the “soldier-diplomat”.

For all the world, the opening of the trade route through Nathu-la between India and China is an act of commercial interest that is bringing erstwhile foes closer.

At this spot where armies have fought and killed and maimed, it can take great effort for a man like the battle-hardened Narasimhan to banter and joke and exchange courtesies.

But Narasimhan is least exercised. Whatever the spiel from the commerce and external affairs ministries in New Delhi, it is the Indian Army ' in the person of Brigadier S.L. Narasimhan ' who is executing the agreement between the two countries. Army headquarters in Delhi, too, underplays its role and claims it is only a “facilitator”.

Here in Nathu-la, it is the brigadier and his troops who are doing the job. Supervising the arrangements for tomorrow’s ceremony, worrying about parking space, holding extensive briefing sessions with his counterpart, Senior Colonel Chi Ven Zha Bu, the commander of the PLA’s Yatung Garrison, Narasimhan is soldier, diplomat, interpreter and facilitator rolled into one.

Few in the diplomatic corps of the ministry of external affairs can claim to be here with the kind of credentials that Narasimhan has. He is an alumnus of JNU’s school of languages and fluent in Chinese; he has been the Indian military attach' in Beijing for three years till September 2005; he has travelled to Lhasa and now he is here on what is probably India’s most important border crossing to China.

“I cannot claim that my posting here was by design. I don’t choose where I will be. That is the job of the military secretariat. Maybe they saw some sense in having me here,” says Narasimhan. “But yes, the description that befits my current role is ‘soldier-diplomat’.”

Behind the zero-line of the “Line of Actual Control” ' it is still not an ‘International Boundary’ ' where Narasimhan is talking, there is the red flag of China beside a huge poster of Lhasa’s Potala Palace, the erstwhile residence of the Dalai Lama. In front, on the Indian side, there are huge photographs of Rashtrapati Bhavan, India Gate and Delhi’s Bahai’i (Lotus) Temple.

The symbolisms are unmistakable assertions of two distinct styles of power, politics and regionalism. A line not wider than six inches over which a ribbon is being tied ' only to be cut tomorrow ' separates India and China. On either side of the line and separated by about 100 feet, two temporary gates have been built. The Pass ' the road by which traffic will cross over ' is flanked on either side by Chinese and Indian border posts on bluffs of the mountain.

“We operate here on the principle of reciprocity. There will be 100 traders coming in from China tomorrow and the same number going in from our side. I’ve just finished a meeting with the Chinese delegation that is overseeing arrangements,” Narasimhan waves the papers in the army conference room where he hosted the Chinese.

The Indian traders can go up to Rinchengang. The Chinese traders up to Sherathang, seven km inside India. The ‘corridor’ ' mostly a one-way road ' has been fenced on either side. Two companies of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) will secure it. “Meaning, we will ensure that no harm comes to the visitors,” says the ITBP sector commander, R.C. Baijwan. The ITBP will ensure also that none of the visitors decides to take a detour.

Across the fence and in the heights, the 5 Grenadiers battalion of the Indian army will be at their posts. On the Chinese side, similar arrangements have been made by units of PLA’s Yatung Garrison.

This afternoon, Narasimhan ushered in two vehicles from China that carted exhibits. The Chinese traders will get to display their ware at the Sherathang trade mart. The vehicles were carrying the exhibits of the goods that China will send to India through Nathu-la ' goat cashmere (Pasham), goat skins, sheep skins, yak tails, yak hair, China clay, butter and silk.

In the middle of all this serious and frenetic activity, there are vignettes of a bonhomie between the soldiers of the two armies that take tourists and visitors by surprise. The armies are supposed to be eyeball-to-eyeball. There is no tourist on the Chinese side. This part of Tibet is not as freely accessible to the Chinese as Nathu-la is to the Indians.

A Chinese soldier offers a lit cigarette to a Grenadier who says he will not smoke ' Indian soldiers mostly do not in these heights where oxygen is rare. Even the PLA soldier’s good-natured shove asking “are you chickening out'” will not get the Grenadier to take a puff.

Then some one in the Indian soldiery has a brilliant idea while testing the loudspeakers for tomorrow’s ceremony.

“Kaanta laga” ' the remix version ' blares out and wafts across Nathu-la from India to China. What a come-hither!

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