Sikkim Simmers Over Centre's Move to Open 'Sacred' Peak of Kanchenjunga for Treks

The decision to open the peak to foreigners for commercial mountaineering has come as a rude shock and the state government is likely to make an appeal to the ministry of home affairs.

New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government has lifted restrictions – for the first time – on foreigners taking up mountaineering expeditions to 24 peaks in Sikkim, including Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak.

As per a notification issued by the foreigners’ division of the ministry of home affairs (MHA) on August 13, India has opened to foreign nationals 137 Himalayan peaks straddling Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, besides Sikkim.

It said the proposal (from the ministry of tourism) “was under consideration of the government” for some time. Under the new rules, a foreign national will no longer need permission from the MHA and the ministry of defence (MoD) to climb these mountains, and can now directly apply to the Indian Mountaineering Association (IMA) for it. That is, if they apply for a mountaineering visa (MV) to enter the country.

In New Delhi, minister of tourism Prahlad Patel called the MHA nod to his ministry’s pending request a “historic step” to boost earnings through adventure tourism.

However, in far away Sikkim, people are in shock.

“All the mountains of the state, especially the Kanchenjunga, are considered sacred by the Bhutias, Lepchas, Buddhists, by the people of Sikkim. We believe that our deities reside in these mountains. We worship Kanchenjunga as our resident god, our protector. Most hill people consider many things of nature as sacred, we do it too. So we are all understandably upset. We don’t climb Kanchenjunga, not from the Sikkim side,” Tseten Tashi Bhutia, convenor, Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC), told The Wire.

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Tashi said that the latest circular “is being looked by people as a mischievous step by the MHA and its external division”.

“The Centre forgets that Sikkim is not like Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. It is run by Article 371F of the constitution, which protects what people consider as sacred,” he added.

Importantly, the office-bearer of the top most body of the Buddhist Bhutia and Lepcha communities pointed out that the central government circular “was in violation of the “Places of Worship (Special Provision) Act, 1991″.

“Not just Kanchenjunga, all our mountains are notified under that Act passed by parliament. The MHA has issued this circular forgetting that there is an Act as per which these are our places of worship, and they are protected entities,” he pointed out.

Every year in Sikkim, people celebrate Pang Lhabsol, a homage to Kanchenjunga, the resident deity, with a lot of fanfare. “It is to pray to Kanchenjunga to continue protecting Sikkim. It falls on the 15th day of the seventh month of the Tibetan annual calendar. This year, Pang Lhabsol is on September 13,” Tashi said.

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The sacred mountain

He also repeated a story often heard in Sikkim about respecting the sacredness of Kanchenjunga.

On May 25, 1955, when Sikkim was not a part of India and was ruled by the Chogyals, two British mountaineers – Joe Brown and George Brand – led a four-member expedition to the Kanchenjunga from the Sikkim route and stopped short of scaling up to the summit because they had promised the king that they would not violate the local belief. This was an exception granted by the king as climbing the mountain from the Sikkim side (three other routes can be used from Nepal to climb Kanchenjunga; it was first climbed from Nepal in 1953) was prohibited. 

Since then, some mountaineers (mainly from the Indian army) who attempted to hike up Kanchenjunga from Sikkim have respected that practice.

Every year, about two dozen people try climbing Kanchenjunga mainly from Nepal. However, in the mountaineer’s typical to-do list, Kanchenjunga, even though it is the world’s third highest at 8,598 metres, is often not a popular destination. It is because the odds and challenges are far too many and the fatality rate is higher than even Mount Everest.

This past May, following the death of two climbers from Kolkata while scaling down Kanchenjunga, mountaineer Satyarupa Siddhanta told the Indian Express, “Kanchenjunga is three times tougher than Everest. Everest is commercial, a lot of people go there, number of sherpas available are higher in Everest. Helicopters are available and rescue is also easier. Kanchenjunga is a lengthy and tough mountain.” 

Most perish particularly while climbing down the peak. Unlike other peaks, there is a perennial threat of avalanches and snow storms in Kanchenjunga. “We believe that is because our deities live there, it is a sacred abode. It doesn’t like to be violated,” said Tashi.

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Sikkim has a department of ecclesiastical affairs which takes care of the state’s sacred places, including hot springs, caves, holy lakes, etc. On contacted, a department official, who refused to be named here, told this correspondent, “It is a mistake by the Centre. We have appealed to the people of Sikkim to remain calm. SIBLAC has contacted us in this regard. We are writing to the Centre. The state government will request the MHA to revoke the order.”

State government’s position

On August 22, soon after the news spread, state chief secretary A.K. Srivastava told Sikkim Express, “If any notification is issued, it will be discussed and informed (to the Centre about the state government’s policy on it). But in respect to Mt. Kanchenjunga, it is a sacred mountain for the state of Sikkim.” He said the state government didn’t send any proposal to the Centre in this regard. 

Though the Pawan Chamling government, respecting local sentiments, banned mountaineering in all the peaks of Sikkim in 2001, it allowed climbing in some peaks, such as Jopuno, Frey’s Peak, Tinchenkhang, Lamo Angden, etc. in 2005-06 to augment tourism. Srivastava said one can climb those after seeking necessary permission. 

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Meanwhile, the local political parties, such as the Hamro Sikkim Party (HSP), launched by celebrated footballer Bhaichung Bhutia, have demanded “immediate withdrawal” of the notification.

In a press statement issued this August 23, HSP said, “The circular is surprising because the government of Sikkim had banned climbing of these peaks on religious grounds in 2001, based on the demand of the Sikkimese people. This notification comes across as a blatant disregard to the will of the common people who had wanted the ban, as well as an imposition by the central government in contravention of people’s wishes.”

The local unit of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad too has joined the chorus against the central order. Calling it “an insult to the Hindu-Buddhist religious sects of the state”, the outfit held “an emergency meeting” in Gangtok on August 23.

The Wire has sought a response from Saheli Ghosh Roy, the joint secretary at the foreigners’ department at the MHA for a response. It will be added if or when it comes.