While in Sikkim on election duty, I had the unique opportunity to visit the Nathula pass where some of the highest Indian and Chinese border posts are situated. The pass is located at the height of 14,400 sq. ft. above the mean sea level. The famous Chinese ‘Lantern post’ is located here and only a small barbed wire separates India from China. Soldiers on both sides wave and talk to each other. Of course most of the Chinese soldiers barring officers do not speak English, so too much conversation cannot take place. Recently the pass has been opened to tourists by both the government of India and the Government of China. Seven to eight vehicles of tourists come to the Pass every morning between 8.00 and 11.00 a.m. From the Indian side a permit has to be obtained from the Tourist Department to go to the pass. A fee of Rs.50/- is leviable for each individual visiting the pass. I understand that equal number of tourists visit from the Chinese side also.
The pass is located only 54 kilometers from Gangtok but it takes hours to reach there, as the journey is very arduous. One has to also cross three or four army check posts. The road in the upper reaches is very narrow and one has to drive very carefully. As you proceed towards Nathula you see that the entire area is under the control of the army. You come across a lot of army camps which have been set up in makeshift tin sheds. Field conditions are very difficult for both the soldiers & the officers and you realise in what unfriendly circumstances they live and work. The Pass and the surrounding areas are under the protection of the Punjab Regiment. One of its battalions, namely, 21 Punjab is located here. As you approach closer, you see the slogans of the battalion written on the hill side to keep the morale of the soldiers high. The motto of the Punjab Regiment is ‘Sathal Ve Jal’ (land and water) and the motto of its 21st battalion is ‘Chadtikala’ (moon in its ascending phase) symbolising progress.
A little later you see a board on the road which says, ‘Shahido ki chitao per Lagenge Har Baras Male vatan par mitne walon ka yahi baki nisha hoga'(on the funeral pyres of martyrs festivals will be held every year and that will be the remembrance of those who died for the nation). There are other heart-warming slogans, ‘life is tough but we are tougher’ or ‘veer Punjabi’ (brave Punjabi) or Jan hai to Jahan hai, Jahan ke liya Jan hai (If life is the world, then life is for the world). There are six companies of the 21 Punjab located in the vicinity, two at the pass and four just below it. At the pass we met the young and handsome Lt.Tariq Khan of 21 Punjab. He had arrived last year from Lucknow. As soon as we arrived he welcomed us with a warm smile and a hot cup of tea. At 14,400 sq.ft. above sea level the oxygen in the air is only 50% and one can easily get breathless. We had to climb another 200 meters to reach the barbed wire which separated India from China. After climbing a few steps I felt breathless. I used the age-old technique of taking deep breaths and breathing through my mouth. After a while my breathing stabilized and I managed to go up slowly while holding on to Tariq’s arm. We got acclimatized within the next ten to fifteen minutes and after that there was no problem for the next two hours which I spent there.
When we arrived there it was foggy, but soon the sun came up and we were able to see the Chinese side of the terrain or what was once the sacred kingdom of Tibet before China usurped it. It is more rugged from the Chinese side and the nearest town is hundreds of miles away. I could see some soldiers moving about on the Chinese side. I waved to one of them. He came to the fence to shake hands with me. He was young and innocent looking almost like my son, so I gave him a good hug and got photographed with him. There are a lot of people of Tibetan origin related to each other living on both sides of the fence. They keep in touch with each other with the help of letters. Hence, the mail is exchanged at this point once in a week. I understand that the exchange of small gifts, watches, eats, etc., also takes place now and then between the soldiers & tourists and it helps in relaxing the atmosphere. There is no tension. The atmosphere is that of Hindi Chini Bai Bai.
After the Kargil war it was heartening to see peace and harmony on another equally sensitive and high altitude border. Hopefully Nathulla may open new frontiers of friendship between India and China with the tourists from the entire globe meeting there.
Last week I mentioned about my visit to Nathula Pass which I visited while I had gone for election duty to Sikkim. At the very spot where a barbed wire divided India from China to my great joy I met the personnel of ‘Madras Engineers’. In fact they were eagerly waiting for me. They had already read in the newspaper that one of the election observers was arriving from Tamil Nadu and would be visiting the pass and were expecting me since then. They were delighted to see me and gathered around me to speak in Tamil. There are 30 persons belonging to the ‘Madras Engineers’ at Nathulla. Madras Engineers are one of the oldest and the best ‘Engineering Corps’ in India. They are involved in construction activity at Nathula. On that day of my visit they were clearing some ground near the newly built conference hall. This conference hall is their greatest achievement and is the pride of the place. It is posh and beautiful and is made of local stone and wood.
According to Raju Mohan the Junior Commanding Officer of the Madras Engineers they have created some sort of world record by constructing the conference hall at the highest place in the world. What is noteworthy is that they built it in just six months. Raju got it opened for me and showed me around. It was a well designed hall with a beautiful wooden roof, a lovely conference table and velvet drapes. The army and regimental flags stood at the head of the table. This hall has been constructed for holding the meetings between the Indian and the Chinese Officers. A small conference hall, not as grand as this, exists on the Chinese side also. The first conference between the army officers of the two nations had taken had just taken place on the 15th of September 1999. Another was likely to take place on the 25th of September 1999 to discuss a proposal to install a telephone booth which could be operated both by a Chinese and an Indian telephone operator for the benefit of the tourists visiting the Nathula Pass.
I was really full of admiration for the Madras Engineers who are away from home in a very cold climate compared to that of Tamil Nadu and would continue to work there through the winter when the entire area will be under the snow for over six months in a year. They are brave and optimistic in spite of the fact that they are not able to get their type of food like Sambar, rasam, rice, etc. They are right now staying with the Battalion called 21 Punjab were they mostly have to live on chappatti and dal. Once in a while they cook for themselves and manage to eat some thing more homely. I also felt that they needed more woollens, long coats and jackets, boots, blankets, etc., to tide over the cold working conditions. The living conditions of the soldiers at the Nathula Pass has also to improve. Most of our soldiers are living in tin sheds and make shift accommodation. On the Chinese side one feels soldiers have better accommodation and better clothing. All the pathways on the Chinese side are in the shape of underground tunnels which protect them from the cold and snow, at the same time their movements also remain unseen by the Indian side. On our side also we need to undertake this type of improvements to provide a better deal to the soldiers who live and work in extreme weather conditions. The experience of Kargil should give us some insight to give top priority to our army personnel.
Raju’s family lives in Coimbatore where his wife works as a school teacher. His house is at the foot hills of Mardhamalai temple He has not been home for a long time. I have promised Raju that I will try to look her up when I visit Coimbatore the next time.