India and China on Thursday took a Himalayan step on the road to peace and friendship at Nathu-la. Amid colourful celebrations on either side of the border, Sikkim chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling and Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) chairman C Phuntshok together reopened the 14,400-ft high pass for trade after 44 years.
Nathu-la (literally meaning listening ears) was closed after the Sino-India border conflict of 1962. The other two passes that were opened for trade in the Nineties were Shipkila (Himachal) and Lipulekh (Uttaranchal).As Chamling and Phuntshok cut the ceremonial ribbon symbolising the reopening of the pass a little after 9 am, an Indian Army band played Sare jaha se achchha. The Chinese also simultaneously played a tune on their side.
A colourful welcome arch in red with eight auspicious symbols and paintings separated the two countries. The morning chill and fog accompanied by a nagging drizzle didn’t dampen celebrations as people from both countries, unmindful of the surroundings that reminded one of a bitter and hostile past, mingled.
The sharp, rocky hills that flank the narrow pass are still dotted with minefields, foxholes, trenches and tiny watchtowers that seemed to be touching the sky. A martyrs’ column raised in memory of Indian soldiers also stands next to the pass.
Officials, guests and media personnel started arriving at the venue around 6 am. As they waited for the inaugural function, Indians moved to the border fence to shake hands and take photographs with People’s Liberation Army personnel.
Later, the Chinese also began taking photographs with Indian Army officers and jawans. In between, Chinese and Punjabi pop songs were played to make the atmosphere a little more festive.
Even Chamling and Phuntshok could not remain unaffected by all this. They offered khadas (holy scarves) and gifts to each other. In their speeches, the two focused on the common historical and geographical bond between the people of the two nations.
“It’s a new dawn in history,” the chief minister said as he recalled the close ties between the two neighbours since the time of Ashoka, Fa Hien and Huien Tsang. “We are in a win-win situation,” he told his Chinese guests.
He gave hints about the possibility of his seeking a bus service between Lhasa and Gangtok. Phuntshok talked about how the mountains were creating a bond instead of separating people and countries.
He said, “Trade will strengthen our ties.” Talking to media personnel, Chinese ambassador to India Sun Yuxi described the reopening of Nathu-la as a good beginning.
At the end of the programme, Chamling led a select group of Indians into theTibetan territory to see off Phuntshok. The Chinese sang songs to welcome Chamling. He then interacted with his hosts with the help of an interpreter.