China axes Indian pilgrim batches over Olympic torch relay (Lead)

May 20th, 2008 - 6:55 pm ICT by admin  

New Delhi, May 20 (IANS) The first two batches of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra have been cancelled, with China indicating that it would not be ready to “receive” pilgrims as long as the Olympic torch is in Tibet. Official sources said the Indian government had known about the possibility of China not allowing foreigners in Tibet during the Olympic torch relay as early as March but had hoped to convince the Chinese authorities to change their mind.

Serious negotiations with China to allow Indian pilgrims had begun only about two weeks ago, when China turned down India’s request.

Surprisingly, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) announced May 7 that the pilgrimage will go on “as scheduled” from June 1, adding that the “government has begun preparations for this year’s Yatra along with China”. It had conducted the lottery to choose the 960 pilgrims April 25.

But after the Lhasa riots in March and the consequent protests worldwide, the Chinese authorities were not comfortable in having groups of foreigners during the Olympic torch relay that will reach Tibet June 2.

“The Government of People’s Republic of China conveyed to the Ministry of External Affairs that on account of domestic reasons they would not be in a position to receive pilgrims before June 21, 2008,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Navtej Sarna Tuesday.

The first two batches have now been cancelled, and the Yatra will begin June 13 from here with batch number three. According to the previous schedule, batch number one was to leave May 29, followed by the second group June 4.

“The Ministry is continuing its efforts with the Government of People’s Republic of China to accommodate the pilgrims of the Batch numbers 1 and 2 in later batches,” added Sarna.

Officials said that while they had known about the possibility of cancellation of the yatra, they were also waiting for the Olympic torch relay-route details to be fixed.

The route was finally decided after the Olympic torch was brought down from Mount Everest, but still Indian officials did not give any prior warning to the pilgrims about the possibility of cancellation.

The Kailash Mansarovar yatra is conducted for four months between June and September, when 16 batches with 60 Indian pilgrims each travel to the remote mountain and lake, inside Tibet, which is worshipped by Hindus as the abode of Lord Shiva.

The 26-day-long pilgrimage began in 1981, with the government providing security, escort and medical assistance to the yatris. India had been pressing China to open an alternate route through Ladakh, but the proposal is still to be accepted.

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