New Delhi, June 16: The first batch of pilgrims for the annual Kailash Mansarovar Yatra through the new Nathu La route was flagged off on Tuesday by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who declined comment on the Lalit Modi controversy.
Attired in a pink sari, Sushma Swaraj flagged off the event at the Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan here at 10.30 a.m. She made a brief speech and posed for photographs with the yatris. Only photographers were allowed in, not the accompanying journalists.
She pointed out that the motorable Nathu La route would enable even the elderly to go on the pilgrimage.
In all, 250 yatris would travel via the Nathu La route, in batches of 50 each. Eighteen batches of 60 people each would go through the old route through the Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand.
Kailash Mansarovar is believed to be the seat of Hindu god Shiva. Pilgrims travel at high altitudes of 19,500 feet. The traditional trekking route is inhospitable and rugged.
Hundreds go on the pilgrimage every year, a part of the journey overseen by Chinese authorities.
This year, the pilgrimage will be conducted between June 8 and September 9.
India and China signed on September 18 last year a bilateral agreement on the alternative Nathu La route for Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimage.
250 yatris would travel via the Nathu La route, in batches of 50 each
Addressing the gathering, Sushma Swaraj said that people-to-people contact was an important aspect of diplomacy, especially in religious tourism.
"Those going on the Kailash Mansarovar yatra will be thanking the Chinese government in their minds for making the yatra possible," she said.
Later, asked about the ongoing controversy over former Indian Premier League chief Lalit Modi, the union minister quipped, "no comments".
Meanwhile, the Congress continued to press its demand for the sacking of Sushma Swaraj over the Lalit Modi episode and alleged the Narendra Modi government was out to save the former IPL chief who has been charged with financial impropriety.
"The BJP, the external affairs minister and the entire government have come out to save an accused of the Enforcement Directorate. The 'suit-boot ki sarkar' (government of the suited-booted) is doing everything to save an economic offender," Congress spokesperson Ajoy Kumar told reporters here [PM protecting Lalit Modi; Swaraj must go, says Rahul Gandhi]
The party demanded that Sushma Swaraj should be sacked as minister for her "immoral and illegal" work in helping Modi procure travel documents to Portugal last year.
He said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should speak out on the issue in his next 'Mann ki Baat' radio address.
Sushma Swaraj has maintained she helped Lalit Modi, who has been living in London since 2010, with travel documents to go to Portugal for the treatment of his cancer-afflicted wife on "humanitarian grounds".