Road to Mansarovar via Dharchula

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The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani



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Kalapani is first mentioned on Day 11 (or Page 8) of the blog when the pilgrims stop briefly for a meal on their way to Nabhidhang, which is the last camp before they cross the Lipu Lekh Pass early the next day. On Kalapani, I quote, “Also this is the first and the only time when we cross River Kali and go on the other side. Apparently this part of land has been taken from Nepal on lease by the Govt. At Kalapani we go through Indian emigration and while we have breakfast our passports are stamped and returned back to us.” Note also the traveler’s remark, to be elaborated on later, that “Kalapani . . . is supposed to be the origin of River Kali.” The pilgrims have to get close to Lipu Lekh shortly after first light as they cannot enter Tibet until the previous cohort of pilgrims exits, and this is complicated by Chinese time being two and half hours ahead. On the Chinese side, four-wheel-drive vehicles can now reach very close to the pass and busses can be driven to within a few kilometers of it. Pilgrims therefore only have a short distance to walk before traveling in comfort to Taklakot. The photos and the images from Google Earth on this and other blogs are helpful in showing the trail and geographical layout. It is worth noting, and this is particularly clear from Google Earth, that from Nabhidhang, as the valley narrows and becomes steeper, the trail goes higher above the west side of the river to approach Lipu Lekh. A ground reconnaissance would be needed to confirm the exact place of the source of the river. From Nepal’s point of view, this should be done jointly with India. But to quote from a recent article by Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, “Even the Joint Technical Level Nepal-India Boundary Committee, which worked for 26 years up to the end of 2007, never ventured into delineating the source of the river Kalee, because it needs a political decision.” A necessary prelude to any “political decision” would be a decision by China and India to start demarcating their long border, and this remains a distant prospect.




The latest public airing of the dispute over Lipu Lekh came on June 9 this year when Nepal’s parliament raised serious objections to the twenty-eighth point of a joint communiqué issued after the Indian prime minister’s visit to China. It stated that the two sides agreed to hold negotiation on augmenting the list of trade and commodities, and expanding the border trade, at the Lipu Lekh Pass. It is worth noting just how limited and restricted this trade is. The commodities are limited to what can be carried on pack animals and, for 2015, the period stipulated is from June 1 to October 31. For the rest of the year the pass is covered by deep snow.

Equal status with India and China over Lipu Lekh, and even for its recognition as a tri-junction, is now a difficult case for Nepal to make for a number of reasons. In contrast to official silence from Kathmandu, India, from the date of its independence, has assumed and acted on the basis that the trail to Lipu Lekh fell exclusively within its territory and that control and ownership of the pass was a matter exclusively between it and China. There is ample proof that China accepted this last premise. A copy of an extract of “The Sino-Indian Trade Agreement over Tibetan Border (1954),” dated April 29, 1954, can be found here. Article IV states: “Traders and pilgrims of both countries may travel by the following passes and route: (1) Shipki La pass . . . (6) Lipu Lekh pass.” China initially insisted that the wording should be “the Chinese Government agrees to open the following passes” and India claimed that the final wording indicated Chinese acceptance that “the use of these six passes did not involve ownership because they were border passes.”





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The 1962 Sino-India War ended trading, and much else, but during Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988 both countries agreed to resume border trade and to sign fresh agreements to make this possible. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) on “Resumption of Border Trade” was signed in December 1991 during Premier Li Peng’s visit to New Delhi. In an effort to strengthen border trade through the mutually agreed trading routes, India and China further signed a “Protocol of Entry and Exit Procedure” for border trade in July 1992. Lipu Lekh Pass was mentioned in both these agreements as a mutually recognized border trading point. Subsequently, both countries agreed to expand border trade in 2003 but to add the Nathu La as an additional entry and exit point to those agreed in the December 1991 MoU. Again, on April 11, 2005, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, and his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, signed an agreement aimed at confidence-building along the Line of Actual Control, Article V of which stated: “Both sides agree in principle to expand the mechanism of border meeting points to include Kibithu-Damai in the Eastern Sector and Lipulekh Pass/Qiang La in the Middle Sector. The precise locations of these border meeting points will be decided through mutual consultations.”


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The cover of the May 15, 2005 issue of Nepal magazine.

The signing of this last agreement prompted the redoubtable Sudheer Sharma to write a long article in Nepal, dated May 15, 2005, with the eye-catching and significant title of “Kalapani: China’s gift to India.” The article argued that the new agreement had effectively stamped China’s endorsement of the Indian occupation of the Kalapani area and that this was linked to China recognizing Sikkim as part of India. An image of the front cover of this issue of Nepal can be seen above. The image shows Kalapani camp as it was some years ago, the valley leading north to Lipu Lekh and the title of Sudheer Sharma’s feature article. The text in the bottom right hand corner is a short extract from the April 11, 2005 agreement. This article was published during the absolute rule of King Gyanendra, but there is no record of him or his ministers uttering a single word of protest about the agreement at the time, or later. Part of India’s case, which puts the spotlight on China’s role, is that if China saw Lipu Lekh as a tri-junction or as part of Nepal, it would not have signed these exclusive MoUs and agreements with India.




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Tri-junctions of international borders cannot be fixed when, as in this case, two of the three countries, China and India, have not demarcated their border, nor have even agreed to do so. What divides the two countries at present is what is called a Line of Actual Control (LAC) of 4,057 kilometers in length. The term is a misnomer. Despite the two sides having signed three much-lauded border-related accords in 1993, 1996, and 2005, there is no mutually agreed line of control, never mind an actual line of control. The line that exists is disputed at numerous points. Prospects for resolution are well summed up in these lines from a recently published book, Beijing’s Power and China’s Borders: “In recent years the broadening of the Sino-Indian border talks into an all-encompassing strategic dialogue has been an unmistakable reminder that negotiations stand deadlocked. Yet neither side wants to abandon the apparently fruitless process.” (Brahma Chellaney, “Sino-Indian Border Dispute,” in Beijing’s Power and China’s Borders, Elleman, Kotkin, and Schofield). Until this deadlock is broken, there can be no progress in fixing the western tri-junction of India-Nepal-China nor the eastern tri-junction of Nepal-China-Sikkim. By way of another example, the exact location of the China-Myanmar-India tri-junction also remains in dispute, despite the signing of a Sino-Burmese Boundary Treaty on October 1, 1960. China supports Myanmar’s case, but there is general recognition between the parties that a settlement of the dispute must await a final settlement of the Sino-Indian boundary.


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Detail of a map of Uttarkhand, India showing Lipu Lekh Pass.
©Rajiv Rawat/uttarkhand.org



How is Kalapani linked to the argument over Lipu Lekh? At the heart of the dispute over both Lipu Lekh and Kalapani is the origin of the headwaters of the Mahakali River, as the Kali River is known in its lower reaches. Though there was no map attached to it, there is general agreement that the 1816 Sugauli Treaty between the British Raj and Nepal stipulated that “the Kali river” would mark Nepal’s western border. A glance at the map above, which shows a river flowing down from Limpiya Dhura (below Lampya La), makes clear that with such a delineation, Nepal’s case for control of Lipu Lekh and all the territory immediately south of the pass was indisputable. Maps originating after the treaty was signed confirm the acceptance of this river as the Kali and as the international border. Nepal’s claim to the Lipu Lekh pass remains unflinchingly based on the Sugauli Treaty. It maintains that it has never concluded any treaty with British-India or with independent India that supersedes the Sugauli Treaty. Strictly speaking, this is correct, but successive rulers of Nepal—Rana maharajas, Shah monarchs, and political leaders—have by their actions and inactions weakened Nepal’s case. After 1860, most British maps show the border to be the line of the river that flows down from Lipu Lekh. There is also an 1879 map that shows the frontier further to the east, following a ridge that runs down from near the Tinker Pass. Trade was a great obsession in the British colonial mind, and presumably Britain realigned the border to gain exclusive control over trade across the Lipu Lekh Pass and the traders using it.




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As part of this shifting of the border, and to give legitimacy to it, the river flowing from Lipu Lekh, which previously did not have a name, was designated by the British as the Kali and the river that formerly had that name became the Kuti Yangti, as it flows down near Kuti village. This change meant that Nepal lost some thousands of hectares of territory north of the river running down from Limpiya Dhura. It also meant that the historic trail to Lipu Lekh now fell exclusively on the west or British-India side of the river. One Nepal source has called this shifting of the border and renaming of rivers as “cartographic manipulation with a sinister motive.” (Nepal-India Boundary Issue: River Kali as International Boundary, Mangal Siddhi Manandhar and Hriday Lal Koirala.) Britain at the height of its colonial power was certainly capable of such actions, and worse. See as one example the action of Sir Henry McMahon at the Simla Conference of 1914, the record of which shows “responsible officials of British India to have acted to the injury of China in conscious violation of their instructions; deliberately misinforming their superiors in London of their actions; altering documents whose publication had been ordered by Parliament; lying at an international conference table and deliberately breaking a treaty between the United Kingdom and Russia.” (Dr. A. P. Rubin quoted in India’s China War, Neville Maxwell, 42.) Integral to all the actions listed was the attempt by McMahon, secretly and by sleight of hand, to shift a historic international boundary by the stroke of a pen on a map, “by the judicious use of a little extra red ink” (The McMahon Line, vol. 2, Alastair Lamb, 530). McMahon explained to London that his objective had been to secure a strategic watershed boundary and with it access to the shortest trade route to Tibet.




The Rana usurpation of the power of the Shah kings started on September 14, 1846, when Jung Bahadur Kunwar (later to change his name to Rana) massacred his rivals and quickly moved to establish the political system that bore his adopted name. It is unclear whether this change in the frontier was made with or without the agreement of the Rana maharaja. Addressing an audience in Kathmandu on August 13, 2015, a retired Indian Army Major General, Ashok Mehta, asserted that the Lipu Lekh issue was resolved by Maharaja Chandra Shumsher Rana, and that he had in his possession the map which the maharaja handed over to the British. Chandra was the maharaja and ruling prime minister with absolute power from June 27, 1901 until his death on November 26, 1929. Even by Rana standards, his rule was notably repressive but he was notorious for working assiduously and obsequiously to gain British support for his position. The map, therefore, that Ashok Mehta claims “the Maharaja handed over” could be based on a case of British force majeure which Chandra was, as ever, given sufficient inducement, ready to accept. Nepal has asked the Indian authorities to produce any reliable documents pertaining to the disputed claims, but nothing has yet been handed over.

Whatever the sequence that led to this new border being imposed or agreed, or whatever date it occurred, maps prepared in Nepal during the Panchayat regime are identical to the post-1860 maps in showing the border as following the line of the river that flows down from below Lipu Lekh. Again, this indicated an acceptance, whether consciously or not, that the traditional trail to the pass fell exclusively on the Indian side and that the border agreed as part of the Sugauli Treaty was no longer valid. Also unhelpful to Nepal’s case is that the China-Nepal Boundary Treaty, formally signed by King Mahendra in Beijing on October 5, 1961 makes no reference at all to Lipu Lekh. The opening lines of Article 1 state: “The Chinese-Nepalese boundary line starts from the point where the watershed between the Kali River and the Tinkar River meet the watershed between the tributaries of the Mapchu (Karnali) River on the one hand and the Tinkar River on the other hand.” (Emphasis added.) This roughly corresponds to the border shown on the 1879 map and the one claimed by India today. Article 3 of the China-Nepal Boundary Agreement of March 21, 1960, required the two countries to exchange maps and to set up a joint committee to start the process of delineation and demarcation. The map Nepal submitted has not been published.

Nepali sources point to continuing strong Indian influence in Nepal’s affairs during this period of the early 1960s and resolutely maintain that no treaty or agreements have been concluded between Nepal and India or British-India that supersedes the Sugauli Treaty as regards Nepal’s western border. However, all western and eastern borders must end at some point, north and south. King Mahendra’s signing of the 1961 treaty seems to indicate, at the very least, an acceptance of a northwestern junction point to the east of Lipu Lekh. Since the stated purpose of King Mahendra’s visit to China was to sign this treaty, one must assume he knew what he was doing, and, in particular, that the boundary proposed was the outcome of the work of the joint committee and took account of the map submitted by Nepal. The China-Nepal Boundary Protocol of January 20, 1963 reported that the permanent boundary markers had been established by the two parties “as numbered 1 to 79 in serial order from west to east.” The protocol had “detailed maps” attached to it, but to my knowledge these have not been published.

A further major complication for Nepal is that India rejects the claim that the river from Lipu Lekh is the renamed Kali River. It asserts, and claims that it has maps and diagrams to prove it, presumably based on the 1879 map, that the river Kali begins from the junction of the river that flows from Lipu Lekh and a stream that flows from springs in Kalapani. Hence, the earlier quote from the Indian pilgrim that “Kalapani . . . is supposed to be the origin of River Kali.” Nepali sources are united in claiming that the stream from within Kalapani camp originates from a manmade pond and that the channel connecting it to the river from Lipu Lekh has been artificially created. Sudheer Sharma strongly and very graphically spelled out this argument in an article in a July 1998 issue of Mulyankan, which was reproduced in the June 8, 2015 issue of Esamata. The translated title is: “Kalapani: Why and how has India encroached upon the border?”







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A working translation of the relevant lines is: “India dug an artificial spring for the Kali (river) at the artificial Kalapani to give ‘legitimacy’ to its encroachment. There they collected the water which flows from the mountains into a small pond; a channel connects this to the Lipukhola (Lipu river). They have made the laughable claim that this very pond is the source of the Kali.”



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Pillar No 1 at Tinker Pass, seen from the Nepal side looking north into Tibet.
Image: Subhak Mahato

The date on which this Kalapani stream first appeared on maps is disputed, but, whatever the maps show or do not show, the ground reality is that Indian security forces occupy the area of Kalapani to the east of the river, which traditionally has been regarded as the Nepali side. What is the value of doing so? There is evidence that the Indians first used Kalapani simply because it was the only piece of flat land in the area to establish a rudimentary camp to cover the approach to Lipu Lekh. At a later stage they must have come to realize that under the complexities of Riparian water rights their claim to control the headwaters of the Mahakali River would be strengthened by their occupation of Kalapani. At the military and security level, answers can only be speculative, but presumably the thinking is that an Indian security presence there helps to balance the Chinese security force presence in Taklakot just a short distance away over Lipu Lekh. There may also be an intelligence advantage. It is clear from the photos of the Indian pilgrims that they are under strict orders not to take photos of the main buildings and installations on the site.





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There is one other significant consequence of India’s occupation of Kalapani. As the map shows, India has used its argument on the origin of the Kali river, and its occupation of the site, to claim a frontier line which corresponds to the 1879 map, in following a ridge line (“Kali river watershed” on map) that runs from just south of Kalapani to a point slightly to the west of Tinker Pass, which is about 5 kilometers east, southeast of Lipu Lekh. Tinker Pass is the location of Pillar Number 1 of 79 marking the Sino-Nepal Border. Nepal maintains that the tri-junction should be at Lipu Lekh, where Pillar Number 0 should be placed. However, for the present, the reality is that the India-Nepal-China tri-junction is de facto just to the west of Border Pillar Number 1. The following two screenshots from Google Earth should make this clear.




The top red line, which follows the river up from Kalapani to Nabhidhang toward Lipu Lekh, shows the border that appeared in maps after the 1860s and in the Panchayat era. The lower red line, which follows a watershed from Kalapani to a tri-junction on the main ridge to the north, indicates India’s view of where the border runs. An 1879 map shows this border, as does a map produced by the Government of Nepal in 1960.
This shows in more detail where India considers the India-Nepal-China tri-junction should be, just to the west of the Tinker Pass. Lipu Lekh is 5 kilometers further west along the ridge.
Nepal’s case for Kalapani has been badly undermined by long years of silence on the issue by the country’s leaders. Some key related questions make that clear. When did India first occupy Kalapani? Who in Kathmandu knew what, and when? What did they do about it? Received wisdom on the start of Indian occupation stems from the views of Bhuddi Narayan Shrestha, which have been endlessly repeated in just about every article written on the subject. His June 27, 2015 article, referred to earlier, restates his view:

“If we have a look on the history of Sino-Indian border dispute, there was a brief but fierce fighting border war from October 20 to November 21, 1962. During the border war, in the Western sector, the Chinese forces marched up to the borderline shown in the Chinese maps dating back to the Manchu Dynasty. India’s option was to defend on the McMahon Line as its northern boundary-line. After the Chinese carried out an all-out counter-attack along the entire Sino-Indian border. So Indian forces were compelled to retard back after a heavy attack of the Chinese army. The Indian military, when pulling back, came to realize that the Lipulekh Pass could be a potential strategic point, given that it is located at 5,029 metres in the Nepali frontier. They established a camp at Kalapani area. The camp, which is outfitted with underground bunkers, is near about ten kilometers west of the Lipulekh Pass.”

No reference has ever been given to support the contention of Kalapani first being occupied by the Indians in November 1962, and for the reasons described. However, we know emphatically that the Chinese did not conduct “an all-out counter-attack along the entire Sino-Indian border.” The fighting was confined to the western and eastern sectors (Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh) with the central sector, including north of Lipu Lekh, seeing very little action. Soldiers from both sides would have been deployed near the border in this sector but very few shots, if any, were fired. Toward the end of November, snow would have been falling on Lipu Lekh and any Indian Army soldiers in observation posts there would have pulled back a short distance down the valley, almost certainly to prepared winter accommodation in Kalapani as there is a weight of evidence that Indian security force personnel occupied this flat and sheltered spot well before 1962. For example: “Official sources in India claim that the administrative and revenue records dating back to 1830s (available with the UP state government), show that Kalapani area has traditionally been administered as part of Pithoragarh district. A State Police post was established by the state government at the now disputed site in 1956 and operated from here till 1979. Since 1979, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) have been manning a post for surveillance over the area.” More information here.





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An earlier date than November 1962 is also confirmed by Nepali sources. An article in the Annapurna Post dated August 5, 2015, written by the journalist Syam Bhatta, stated that “though it is commonly accepted that the Indian Army encroached upon Kalapani in 1962 at the time of the India-China war, an elected member of the National Panchayat from Byas, Bahadur Singh Aitwal, says that Indian security forces were present in Kalapani from 1959. Aitawal also says that he formally informed the government about this border encroachment in 1974/1975 (BS 2031).” (Note: Byas is a Village Development Committee in Northern Darchula. Bahadur Singh Aitwal was appointed as assistant minister on July 16, 1973, in the wake of Kirti Nidhi Bista’s resignation as prime minister.)




Sudheer Sharma’s Nepal article from May 15, 2005, referred to earlier, states: “While conducting the border survey with China four decades ago the Nepalese side had already found out about the presence of an Indian platoon in Kalapani. In Asar month of 2056 B.S [June–July 1999], Retired Major Shambhu Sumshere Jung Bahadur Rana of the Royal Nepalese Army, who had also worked under the Border Commission, revealed in public that, ‘In the year 2018 B.S [1961/1962] itself, the Indian army were stationed in Kalapani.’” (Note: 2018 B.S. ended on April 12, 1962, which is seven months before the 1962 war started.) The article also addresses the key question:

“Why was the Indian army’s presence in Kalapani so grossly overlooked? When Budhabar (Shrawan 13, 2055 – 1998), a weekly newspaper, posed this question to Rishikesh Shah, he said, ‘During that time King Mahendra was there. Yes, I was in the Council of Ministers, but I was not the foreign minister. I asked the King about this, but he told me that this was not a matter concerning me or my ministry, so I should shut up. As far as I understand, during that time King Mahendra’s thinking was that India should not be annoyed in any way.’. . . After the Border Administration Office had been set up below Kalapani at Changru in the year 2034 BS [1977], the office used to send reports and information about it to Kathmandu every year. The District Administration Office used to inform the Home Ministry about it in a timely way but people at the top did not show much interest in it. This issue remained a topic not to be discussed during the entire Panchayat era.” (Note: Rishikesh Shah was finance minister from December 1960 to August 1962 at which point, for just two months, he became foreign minister. He retained a status equivalent to ministerial rank for another year.)

Sudheer Sharma’s July 1998 article in Mulyankan dates Rishikesh Shah’s interaction with Mahendra to very shortly after the monarch’s coup on December 15, 1960. A working translation of the relevant lines is: “It has been said that King Mahendra received information about the encroachment at Kalapani right when it happened. Rishikesh Shah, who was Finance Minister in the government which came after the 1960 coup, said: ‘We had known a long time back that the army had been staying in Kalapani. And in my status as a minister, I reported this matter to King Mahendra. His Majesty said in fact—India is quite angry with me, let’s not anger them further right now. Let them stay in Kalapani for now.’”

In his book, Buddhi Narayan Shrestha makes the same point on why Mahendra refused to act on information received about Kalapani: “Nepalese officials, especially the Chief District Officers of Darchula have reported to the center time and again mentioning that the Nepalese territory of Kalapani has been encroached on by the Indian army men who have erected some constructions there. But it was ignored during the Panchayat era to sustain the Panchayat system in Nepal. At that time Nepal was not in a position to protest and oppose India for the sake of Panchayat regime.”





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King Mahendra’s coup against the democratically elected government of B. P. Koirala on December 15, 1960 showed that what ultimately mattered to him was the preservation of the monarchy and the Shah dynasty in its absolute form. This was also demonstrated when he authorized the signing in New Delhi of the secret Arms Supply Accord on January 30, 1965, the details of which were finally made public in 1989. For Mahendra, national interest was always placed below what for him was the vital interest of preserving his regime. His inaction over Kalapani exemplifies the same order of priority despite all the talk throughout the Panchayat period of nationalism and protecting territorial integrity. The same can be said about his successor King Birendra who, during his period of absolute rule, never allowed his ministers to utter a word on the subject. It was not until 1996, six years after the collapse of the Panchayat system, that Nepal officially for the first time raised the issue of Kalapani with India at the time of signing the Mahakali Treaty. A joint technical committee was eventually formed in 2002 to address the issue. It would take another article to elaborate on all the bureaucratic and political maneuvering that has gone on subsequently, all to achieve little progress. Nepali politicians of all shades have been reluctant to press India strongly on the issue; like their Rana and Shah predecessors, despite much talk, their actions have shown that they also placed getting Delhi’s personal recognition and support ahead of other considerations. An article in The Kathmandu Post of January 6, 2015 had a heading of “Nepal aims to settle boundary dispute with India in 4 years.” In the course of a few lines it said that a new field survey with India would not include Kalapani but doing so was “now under consideration at the top bureaucratic level.” We must await developments, which are likely to be long drawn out. Any meaningful process to resolve the issue must await India and China agreeing to start the demarcation of their long border—and that day still looks some way ahead. Until then, India can only stall, as they have adroitly been doing, with Nepal’s covert connivance, for many years.




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The historic trading pass of Urai Lekh looking east, with Nepal and the Seti gorge on the right and the trail into Tibet on the left. It is the site of Border Pillar Number 2. Wignall and his companions used this pass when illegally entering Tibet in the late autumn of 1955. They were forced to return by the same route in winter. Image: ©Jamie McGuinness/Project Himalaya



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The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani

Foreign travelers and the checkposts





Sydney Wignall, 1955

The last part of this article returns to the subject of the checkposts and the accounts given by some notable foreign travelers who stumbled upon them in various remote locations. These throw interesting light on the checkposts and none more so than Sydney Wignall’s account of meeting a detachment of the Indian Army in Dhuli village, north of Chainpur in Bajhang district, in December 1955. In 1996, Wignall published the story of how this came about in his excellent book, Spy on the Roof of the World. The title gives the clue to the adventure. During the planning for a small expedition to climb Nalkankar in northwest Nepal, he was approached by an intelligence officer based in the Indian High Commission in London. This operative persuaded Wignall to cross the border into Tibet to climb Gurla Mandhata, from the slopes of which he would have a good view of Chinese military activity in the Taklakot area. On October 21, 1955, Wignall, his friend John Harrop, and a young Nepali liaison officer entered Tibet having climbed through the Seti Gorge and crossed the Urai Lekh Pass. Shortly afterwards they were arrested by the Chinese and imprisoned in Taklakot, during which Wignall and Harrop were subjected to some harsh interrogation. In December they were released by the Chinese after international concern had been expressed about their disappearance. By far the most convenient and safest way back to safety was to cross the Lipu Lekh Pass into India, but the Chinese, with the intention that they would not survive to tell the story of their imprisonment, insisted that they go back over the Urai Lekh Pass and descend the Seti Gorge, something that locals considered impossible to do in winter. The gripping chapter describing how they managed this descent is worth the price of Wignall’s book alone. A good summary of the book is given in this Nepali Times article.
In the opening chapter of his book, Wignall describes how in 1936 the Austrian mountaineer Herbert Tichy made an attempt to climb Gaurla Mandhata having ridden from Austria to India on a Puch motorcycle and crossed the Lipu Lekh into Tibet dressed as an Indian religious mendicant. This underlines the earlier point that sometime after 1860 the British had shifted the border to the river that flows down from Lipu Lekh. The briefings Wignall received from two Indian intelligence officers before departing on his adventure indicate that after independence the new rulers in Delhi had no doubts on the matter. In London he was advised to return over the Lipu Lekh Pass into India as the Urai Lekh Pass would be difficult after October and the Seti Gorge was far from safe even in summer. He was told, “Whatever happens we will have men stationed on the Indian side of the Lipu Lekh.” He was also told that moves were afoot for India to participate in forming Nepal’s foreign policy and to place Indian Army detachments at key strategic places close to the Nepal-Tibet border. In Delhi he was told that India was getting intelligence from an agent in Taklakot “who is posing as an Indian trader, and continually crosses and recrosses the Lipu Lekh between India and Tibet.” He was again warned about the dangers of getting trapped on the Tibetan side when the winter snows set in, “but India was now sending army patrols into Nepal and with luck we might have a military post established in your area before you come out of Tibet. If we do, then that detachment will be equipped with a radio transmitter and any intelligence you can bring out of Tibet will be sent to our HQ here in Delhi very quickly.”

After surviving the descent of the gorge on his return into Nepal, Wignall describes how the first locals they met passed on the news that since they last passed through Dhuli village on their way into Tibet, a checkpoint with a radio had been set up staffed by two Indian Army officers and a number of Indian Army Gorkha soldiers. Shortly afterward, the two officers came to see them and expressed surprise that they had not returned to safety by crossing the Lipu Lekh Pass into India. Later the three survivors arrived at the accommodation that housed the detachment. The Indian and Nepali flags flew above the house, and, as they approached, the Gorkha soldiers formed up and presented arms to greet them. Wignall had managed to gather some vital intelligence, but the commanding officer told him that the detachment’s radio had “packed up.”





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The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani


Malcolm Meerendonk, 1963




It is striking that David Snellgrove, who passed through Dunai and Jomsom in 1956 on his epic journey across a number of the Tibetan-speaking areas on the northern border (memorably recounted in his Himalayan Pilgrimage) makes no reference in his writings to Indian checkposts. However, there are indications that he was being discreet, presumably because the first edition of his book was published as early as 1961 when there were still considerable national sensitivities about the existence of these foreign-manned outposts on Nepali soil. When in Dunai he refers to having a farewell meal with “officers of the Frontier check-post,” but his silence about the checkpost in Jomsom is more revealing. He remarks that “the people were very friendly and Professor Tucci who was here before me was very well remembered.” Tucci’s second visit to Jomsom was in October 1954 when he commented specifically: “Here there was another involuntary stop. At the guard house Indian soldiers and Nepalese officials were stationed to keep watch on the caravans descending from the north. They came to meet us, shook hands with us and invited us to take tea with them. . . . The controls are very strict on both sides of the frontier; Indian soldiers to the south and Chinese soldiers to the north keep watch.” (Nepal: The Discovery of the Malla.) Tucci had also passed through Jomsom in 1952, and in his book Journey to Mustang made no reference to Indian soldiers.

The Mustang checkpost played a significant role in an incident that caused a major diplomatic rift between Nepal and China. British Foreign Office files in the National Archives give exhaustive detail on it. They record that on June 26, 1960, the radio at the checkpoint was used to transmit a request from the raja of Mustang for 500 army reinforcements to deal with the sudden appearance of over 1,000 Chinese troops on the border. It was not clear if an incursion had taken place. An order was passed the next day to the Nepal Army commander attached to the checkpost to send out an unarmed party to verify the raja’s report. (The boundary agreement signed on March 21, 1960, stipulated that no armed personnel were permitted to operate within 20 kilometers of the border.) On the evening of June 28 information was transmitted to Kathmandu that one member of the unarmed group sent to act on the order had been killed and another wounded after Chinese troops opened fire on the party 300 meters inside Nepali territory. Others in the group were taken prisoner. The incident generated a number of tough diplomatic exchanges. The two prime ministers, Chou En-lai and B. P. Koirala, sent personal letters to each other: the former’s exuding his famous charm; the latter’s polite but impressively robust. Some details are disputed, and both sides never budged from where they said the firing occurred, but B. P. Koirala, under pressure from all sides, emerged as the hero of the hour, forcing the Chinese to make a qualified apology and pay the demanded 50,000 rupees as compensation. A future article will give a full account of the incident and its diplomatic aftermath, but this extract of a statement by the home minister, S. P. Upadhyaya, to the Nepal Senate on July 1, 1960 exemplifies Nepali sensitivity on the checkposts:

“He refuted the propaganda that the reports of the Chinese attack had come from ‘Indian check-posts.’ He made it ‘absolutely clear once more’ that there were no Indian check-posts in Nepal; all the check-posts were Nepalese and reports of the incident came from Nepalese check-posts in Nepalese code. There might be Indian technicians working on the radio-communication system at the check-posts just as there were foreign technicians and experts in other departments of the Government of Nepal.” (China–South Asian Relations, 1947–1980, vol. 2, ed. Ravindra K. Jain.)



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Malcolm Meerendonk, left, with Dor Bahadur Bista and Captain Krishna Raj Pant, the householder, in Bijeshwari, Kathmandu in 1963, prior to departing on his secret mission to Dolpo. Image: Jim Fisher, used with permission



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