Saturday, Aug 24, 2019 | Last Update : 12:59 AM IST

A battle over culture? India, China & heritage of Kailash Mansarovar

The writer is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court. The views expressed here are personal.
Published : Jul 19, 2019, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jul 19, 2019, 12:05 am IST

Having traversed across the mighty Himalayas for several years, up to 20,000 ft, several points occur to this columnist.

The Chinese protest reportedly originates from “territorial sensitivity” on the matter as the “actual site of Kailash Mansarovar is located in Tibet, which is part of China, and is recognised by India as such. (Photo: File)
 The Chinese protest reportedly originates from “territorial sensitivity” on the matter as the “actual site of Kailash Mansarovar is located in Tibet, which is part of China, and is recognised by India as such. (Photo: File)

A recent news item — that China had lodged a strong protest after the “Indian part of the Kailash Mansarovar landscape” was being considered by Unesco for inclusion in a “tentative list” of possible World Heritage Sites, at the behest of the Indian ministry of culture — appeared both interesting and intriguing.

Having traversed across the mighty Himalayas for several years, up to 20,000 ft, several points occur to this columnist. What is actually the “Indian part of the Kailash Mansarovar landscape”? Where does it start and where does it end? Can an authentic line of demarcation of the “Indian part of the Kailash Mansarovar landscape” be drawn, like an international boundary/border? Or be defined, described, formalised with any precision?

To this writer’s perception, without following the “watershed” principle in the high Himalayan hills, it’s neither practical nor feasible to authoritatively state that so-and-so mountain or water body constitutes Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Nepalese, Bhutanese or Burmese “landscape”. Else, there would be nothing left except opening an avoidable Pandora’s Box in a physically formidable terrain.

The Chinese protest reportedly originates from “territorial sensitivity” on the matter as the “actual site of Kailash Mansarovar is located in Tibet, which is part of China, and is recognised by India as such. For once, in this writer’s view, China cannot be faulted for its “territorial sensitivity”. If any proposal of this nature were to be pursued in the international arena, it should have been done through the ministry of external affairs, and not by any other ministry or authority of the Government of India. I have said it before. All foreign affairs dealings are the job of diplomats with domain expertise, and not that of any chief minister, regional satrap or, for that matter, any other department or ministry of the Centre.

Let’s get into the groove of Kailash Mansarovar. It was suggested that the issue raised was on the “larger landscape of 31,000 sq km, referred to as the “Kailash Sacred Landscape”, constituting Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar. Be that as it may, between culture-religion and sovereignty-political geography, no country would put the former over the latter so far as diplomacy is concerned. That certainly cannot happen in the 21st century. It might have been possible in the Middle Ages.

Religion and culture, across the world, may have their own unique and distinct identity, but in no way can it supersede the polity-sovereignty of a modern nation state. Thus Mecca, despite being the holiest and most sacred pilgrim centre or all Muslims, belongs to Saudi Arabia; and no country, howsoever, devout Islamic, or friendly to the Saudis, should make a cultural or religious proposal for UN Heritage status for Mecca or Medina bypassing Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, Tawang, being where it is, cannot be proposed for heritage status except by India, being an integral part thereof. It simply would be a non-starter to state that Tawang belongs to, and is part of, the physical or some river basin or an extension and continuation of Tibet’s terrain.

The same way, Lord Buddha was born in Lumbini (Nepal); attained enlightenment in Gaya (India); preached Buddhism in Sarnath (Varanasi) and died at Kusinagar (Kasia), Uttar Pradesh, not far from where he was born — Lumbini. Should Nepal then propose heritage status for Kusinagar to the UN? Bypassing India diplomatically?

Descending to the ground geography of the Himalayas, Lipulekh Pass, 5,200 m (17,060 ft) is the last Indian point in Kumaon, Uttarakhand, from where one has to descend 20 km-plus to reach Taklakot (Tibet), at 4,755 m (15,600 feet), the springboard of/for Mansarovar, which is more than 125 km, at 4,590 m (15,059 feet); 30.6615 degree north latitude and 81.4718 degree east longitude. Mount Kailash is further north of Manasarovar, and hence further away from the last Indian post of Lipulekh Pass. Here surfaces Indian emotions and sentiment on religion, culture and tradition, which seems to have got the better of the cold game of diplomacy and foreign relations.

There is absolutely no doubt that Kailash Mansarovar falls in Tibet — hence under China. Nevertheless, it’s also a fact that from the base of Mount Kailash and the Kangtise Range originate the four main rivers of South Asia — the Indus, the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), the Sutlej and the Karnali. The Tibetans have named rivers in their own inimitable style. The “horse’s mouth” river, Tamchok Khambab, flows east to become the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra). The “lion’s mouth” river, Senge Khambab, flowing north into Ladakh, is the Indus. The “peacock’s mouth” river, Mapchu Khambab, flowing south, becomes the Karnali of Nepal. And the fourth, the “mouth of the elephant” river, Langchan Khambab, heading west, is the Sutlej of Punjab. Yes, the waters of Tibet flow into India from the east, west and north, but that doesn’t make any difference to the locus of Kailash Mansarovar.

Surely, therefore, the external affairs ministry will handle all the foreign-related issues raised by other ministries in the future. Having said what’s fair and objective, going by this writer’s view, on Kailash Mansarovar, one wonders how on June 6, 2019 two Chinese fishing vessels (followed by eight), with 200 crew members, got caught by the Indian Coast Guard off the Ratnagiri coast — deep inside the Indian territorial waters of the Arabian Sea, far away from Chinese ports.

What is surprising is that when India’s ministry of culture put up a proposal on Kailash Mansarovar for the consideration of the UN, it finds its way to the media headlines. However, when Chinese vessels come far away to do “fishing”, and seek shelter for “rough weather”, are we to take it that India’s territorial waters, south of the Mumbai naval command and north of the Goa shipyard and naval air station, are centres of super-rich marine resources? That, while 200 Chinese “fishermen” discovered and operated for more than three months in and around Indian waters, how come Indian fishermen were yet to “discover” it in their own backyard for decades?

Thus, Kailash Mansarovar and India’s territorial waters stand as two sharply contrasting issues. Indians are high on theory and emotions and sentiments around culture and religion. The Chinese are on high ground, working clinically — cold, calculating, penetrating. Their “fishing” vessels and “men” sail far away from Chinese shores to fulfil their “assigned mission”. The Chinese manage to keep their designs away from the media’s glare, operating silently at sea. Indians get counter-pressured and usually (remain) grounded by the swiftness of the Chinese in economics, geography and strategic goal fulfilment. It’s time India wakes up to its power, potential and prospects — it should not take diktats from an overbearing alien in its own land and territorial waters lying down. How long will foreigners bully and batter India like in the past? Can the external affairs ministry do something to save Indian citizens from ignominy in the 21st century?

Tags: kailash mansarovar, india-china