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Former Indian Protectorate Seeks Reopening of "Silk Route" to Tibet

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/10/16; October 16, 2002.]

NEW DELHI, Oct 14 (AFP) - The far eastern Indian state of Sikkim is drumming up support to press New Delhi to reopen a historic route to Tibet, shut since the merger of the Himalayan region with India in 1975, reports said on Monday.

Officials from Sikkim, sandwiched by Bhutan, China and Nepal, argue the route across Nathu La, India's highest mountain pass at 15,000 feet (4,545 metres) could rev up trade and bring Tibetan Buddhists and Indian Hindus closer.

The state government recently invited reporters in a drive to garner support for the re-opening of the path called the "silk route," which bustled with trade after Tibetan price Phuntsog Namgyal was crowned Sikkim's ruler in 1642.

British forces led by Francis Younghusband also used the route for their 1904 invasion of Tibet.

Despite an elected government in power in the state capital of Gangtok, New Delhi only two years ago allowed tourists to reach up to Nath La, the site of a massacre of Indian soldiers by the Chinese army 35 years ago.

Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling said the national government in New Delhi must change its mindset because of the prevailing military tranquility on the Sino-Indian frontiers since 1967 and re-activate the Sikkim-Tibet silk route.

"So much has changed in the last few years," The Indian Express newspaper quoted Chamling as saying.

"Prime Minister (Atal Behari) Vajpayee has opened bus routes across the (Indian) borders in both east and the west, from Calcutta to Dhaka in Bangladesh and from New Delhi to Lahore in Pakistan.

"The time may have now come to reopen a bus route from Gangtok to (Tibetan capital) Lhasa," he argued.

The Express said the chief minister was hoping the reopening of the ancient route would rejuvenate Sikkim's economy, which survives on a 90-percent federal handout.

Sikkim, with a population of 500,000, is one of India's seven far eastern states, called the "Seven Sisters" but besides the endearing name the region has no industrial base, offers poor services and little scope for employment.

Six of the seven are plagued by a variety of ethnic insurgencies because of the decades of neglect.

Sikkim's seniormost bureaucrat Sonam Tenzing said the route's reopening would also provide a more comfortable journey for Hindu pilgrims visiting the revered Kailash Mansarovar lake in China-administered Tibet.

"Trade and commerce that follows would be a powerful instrument to resolving poverty and unemployment, both of which are factors in this insurgency-wracked region," Tenzing told reporters in Gangtok.

India, which fought a brief but a bitter border war with China in 1962, is also home to the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and his 100,000 followers who fled their homeland after Beijing crushed an anti-Chinese uprising in 1959.

But since the mid 1990s, Sino-Indian ties have warmed although trade between the two neighbours remains irksome with New Delhi accusing Chinese entrepreneurs of dumping cheap commodities across the borders in the markets here.

Sikkim bureaucrat Tenzing, however, said bilateral irritants could be resolved through bold measures such as the opening of the "silk route."

"The Himalayas have so far been a watershed but I conceive it as a passage to two big civilisations and markets," he added.

Indian analysts, however, warn that communist China is yet to reconcile to the 1975 accession by New Delhi of Sikkim, which had been an Indian protectorate since British colonial rulers left the subcontinent in 1947.

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