Saturday, February 7, 2015

Borders versus Border People

Geopolitical realities have no respect for traditional linkages, but people should

The news report about how the Dokpas of Muguthang in North Sikkim have been snowed in this winter is about much more than just a seasonal hardship. Read about their situation and it becomes clear that they are being imperiled not so much by the snow, as by the march of time which is fast pushing their lifestyles to extinction and by changed political situations which have conspired to deny them survival practices which had evolved over centuries of living in the cold desert. The Dokpas themselves give their traditional lifestyles just another decade. A unique way of life is in the final flickers of being extinguished, and while even the Dokpas will not want artificial life support, it is important for Sikkim, and in fact the world at large, to understand what conditions are playing the villains in conspiracy here.
Borders are inconsiderate towards the people who live along it; contemporary geopolitical realities, unfortunately, having no respect for traditional linkages. Where earlier, borders were porous enough to accommodate the lifestyles of border people, the situation has changed now. The conditions and denials are similar across countries and along all borders, nowhere more so than in the story of the Dokpas of North Sikkim. Dokpas, the yak herders of the Trans-Himalayan corridor, part of which also marks Sikkim’s northern border with Tibet, have traditionally followed a semi-nomadic lifestyle, freely roaming three treeless high valleys of Cho Lhamu, Lhonak and Lashar in North Sikkim bordering Tibet during spring and most of them moving to Tibet in winters since the snow was always much heavier in the Sikkim valleys. This movement also allowed the pastures in Sikkim to get replenished. The Chinese takeover of Tibet and the Sino-Indian war of 1962, however, changed everything even for them. Although no battled were fought on the Sikkim-Tibet border in 1962, Sikkim, because it was still a protectorate of India at the time, saw the shutting down of its borders with Tibet as well. The more famous of this heightened Sino-Indian hostility was the closure of the Tibet Trade over Nathula and Jelepla, but the unnoticed and definitely more damaging human cost was exacted in extreme north Sikkim. The Dokpas would spend six months in Sikkim and move into Tibet during the snow-bound harshness of North Sikkim winters. But that was the scenario at one time; conditions imposed by our need to secure our borders have forced a cruel situation on them, constricting their nomadic travels to a very limited, impractical area within Sikkim. The six month sojourns on either side of the international border was important, because as much as it allowed the grasslands on the Sikkim side to recuperate while the Dokpas were away, it also allowed the Dokpas access to founts they drew their culture and traditions from, allowed their yaks to acquire fresh genes from the wild yaks of Tibet and played an important social role – Dokpas got their wives and made their prayers in Tibet. It was tough live, but one they had chosen for themselves.
Geopolitical situations of very recent make have however hardened the international border that runs right through the heart of Dokpa land, cutting them away from traditional linkages and land use patterns. The older Dokpas have not changed much, but everything around them has. They know they are last of their kind in Sikkim. What the creation of a hard border along a watershed that has traditionally sustained the semi-nomadic, pastoral lifestyle of the Dokpas has done is that it has given them army detachments for neighbours and forced them into impractical compromises which has convinced most of them to give up and move away. The border was closed in 1962 after centuries of free access, and within months, a lifestyle evolved over centuries ended. And with this started the process which brings us to the present unfortunate times when four decades of a patrolled border which has barb-wired their traditional haunts, has eased in extinction – of a people and of a lifestyle that is so organic to the hostile land that the cost of this loss will probably not be realised until it is too late. There is still time though to build wider consensus on how the Dokpas should be provided what they desire and hopefully of powering through political will at the national level which allows them to relive their traditional practices even if only for the very few years that are left for such pursuits…

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