Road to Mansarovar via Dharchula

Part 15

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani

The best detail on checkposts at Dunai and at Jomsom, and the best from any foreign traveler for any checkpost, comes from an unlikely source. In early 1963 Major Malcolm Meerendonk was the senior education officer at the Training Depot, the Brigade of Gurkhas, at Sungei Patani in northwest Malaya. He was responsible, along with other work, for Nepali language training of British officers joining the brigade. Apart from Nepali, he had a practical working knowledge of both Chinese and Tibetan, and had been attached to a Nepal Army unit during his war service in India. In 1949, he wrote a “Basic Gurkhali Grammar” (in Roman script), and in 1959 he published a pocket book, Basic Gurkhali Dictionary, described in 2013 by James F. Fisher, an anthropologist renowned for his work in Nepal, as “the best pocket dictionary of Nepali.”

In the summer of 1963, Meerendonk did an epic 50-day trek from Pokhara to Dolpo and back. He published an account of this in two parts in Torch, the journal of the Royal Army Educational Corps Association: Part 1 in the May 1964 issue and Part 2 in the November 1964 issue. He took 30 days to get from Pokhara to Shey Gompa following the route that Peter Matthiessen describes so graphically in his book The Snow Leopard. Matthiessen did the journey with George Schaller in 1973, so by ten years Malcolm Meerendonk was the first foreigner to reach the heart of Dolpo by the very difficult route they followed. From Shey he went on to Saldang, Tarap, Chharka, Jomsom, and back to Pokhara. It was clearly not done for the good of his health, particularly as the army had already medically downgraded him. The only clue he gave in his 1964 articles was that on his way to Saldang he met a messenger saying that Nyima Tshering was expecting him. Meerendonk remarks that he had business with Nyima Tshering and later recounts that he had many audiences with him in Saldang. It is clear from the text that Meerendonk had read Snellgrove’s book before going on this trek, and would have greatly benefitted from doing so. Indeed it would have been essential reading for him. The significance of Nyima Tsering as “the big man of Dolpo” who was the key informant on all that had recently happened in the district and all that was currently going on, comes out very clearly in Snellgrove. Meerendonk knew, therefore, that Nyima Tshering was the man in Dolpo he needed to contact to get the intelligence he sought. But what information was he seeking? An officer serving with Meerendonk at the time told me recently that on his return to Sungei Patani, “He would only say that he had been to a very remote area, gathering intelligence, but would not elaborate on the location or the task.”

In 2011, while searching through Foreign Office files in the National Archives in London for information on Khampas, I came across references not just to a secret report written by Major Meerendonk as a result of his trek in 1963, but direct quotations from it. However, of the actual report there was no sign and various Freedom of Information requests failed to locate it. Fortunately, this secret report is now available for all to read thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Birch, a retired Brigade of Gurkha’s officer and long-time stalwart of the Britain-Nepal Society, and currently the editor of its journal. The secret report was published in the 2012 issue.

The report is at Pages 7 to 18 and Gerry Birch’s introduction to it, and the opening paragraph of his introduction on Page 2, gives its provenance. What he does not say is that what was handed over to him by Malcolm Meerendonk’s widow was a flimsy, barely legible carbon copy that required many hours of work to decipher and type into the form we can now read. It is clear that the trek had high-level approval from some Nepali authorities in Kathmandu, and most certainly from the top ranks of the Nepal Army. His mission was to find out if there had been any Chinese Army activity in this part of the northern border following the 1962 Sino-Indian War. It is also clear that a subsidiary task was to find out what information he could about Khampa activity in Dolpo and Mustang. Based on what we know now, Meerendonk was a little mixed up about “the Dalai Lama’s soldiers” and the Khampas in lower Mustang, but in the circumstances of the time this was understandable. It is a very interesting report, even though it covers just the Dunai to Jomsom part of his 50-day walk.

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani - The Record
Part 16

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani

From his conversations with Nyima Tsering and his grandson we learn that the checkpost at Dunai had originally been located near Saldang, “with a company of Nepalese soldiers to deal with Khamba bands who were making a nuisance of themselves, but that due to the intense cold winter and to the impossibility of obtaining food in Dolpo, the post had been withdrawn to Dunai on Nyima Tsering’s offer to undertake to deal with the Khamba nuisance himself and to render reports if necessary.” Meerendonk writes: “As the acknowledged unofficial link between the people of Dolpo and the central government, a source of info and influence for good, Nyima Tsering is a man of unusual importance in a region where powerful foreign influence and disturbing elements are so close at hand, while the central government is far away and its authority or influence for the good of the people as yet nowhere apparent.”

The report gives revealing detail about the checkpost at Dunai and what life was like in these lonely outposts. Much of it is worth repeating:

“[a] The establishment was for five Indian police officers, of whom one was on leave in India and one in India sick. Met the OSP, an elderly Sikh who was to retire in 6 weeks time and had been four years in check posts. He was most amiable, and did all he could to make me welcome: he was assisted by a ASP (a Brahmin) somewhat younger with similar service in check posts, and a Brahmin wireless operator.

They appeared to have nothing whatsoever to do and were entirely concerned with minor domestic economy and efforts to provide for day to day needs, including various hobbies to pass the time such as running a tiny school for the local children, in a place where there were no amenities, no rations supplied, and very little obtainable locally to supplement the meagre stores of rice and flour brought from India by members of the post returning from leave. They did some arrangement whereby reports of any unusual movements or events reached them from Dolpo, where the check post used to be but was proved untenable. They sent or received Sitreps from the Indian embassy by radio about twice per week. They received a course in Gurkhali and Tibetan in Delhi, before they were posted to check posts.

[c] Describing themselves as there purely for the protection of the Indian officers were a Nepalese Army naik and a section of H. R. Company. There was also a section still there whom they had relieved, with orders from the C-in-C to remain till I had gone and to detach men to accompany me to Dolpo should I require it. I politely declined the offer.

[d] The relations between the Indians, Nepalese soldiers and local people were the most amicable and intimate. Nothing and no-one passed without their coming to hear of it. Significant of this ‘intelligence’ system was that the OSP and officers were all waiting to greet me a quarter of a mile from the check post when I arrived unexpectedly along the path over which there was no observation possible from the post, and that they knew of my arrival in Tarakot the day before. . .

[e] Owing to the unexpected number of signals from Army HQ about me before my arrival (six days late) all were intensely intrigued about my mission and personal importance. They turned out the Guard for my inspection on arrival. They did not however bother me with pointed questions, though they were particularly interested to know if I was looking for Khambas. They appeared to know nothing about Khambas themselves which was not surprising, as it turned out, for I met none myself in the part of Dolpo with which they were concerned. On the morning of my departure the ASP left before daybreak to meet the Nepalese liaison officer with the Austrian Dhaulagiri Expedition; Lt Krishna Bom Rana, somewhere in the Tarakot direction.”

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani - The Record
Part 17

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani

Much of Meerendonk’s detail on the checkpost at Jomsom is also worth repeating:

“[1] The post was manned by a complete company (No. 4 H. K. Company) under Capt Lalita SJB Rana, an amiable simple type who slept when he had nothing better to do. His sentries had their rifles chained to their waists. He greeted me warmly, was not in the least inquisitive but having received advance notice from the C-in-C of my arrival took me for granted. He arranged rations, accommodation, detailed a L/Cpl to guide me to Kaji Govindra Sher Chan’s house in Tukcha next day, and gave me dinner in his quarter. He did not take me to meet the Indian officers who lived in separate quarters, but we all met up by chance in the evening and chatted about nothing in particular. He told me that he had been stationed with a platoon in Mustang last year but that there was now no-one there. He had also been detailed to take a section and register the numbers and needs of Khamba refugees in the mountains on the way to Tsarka off the main route, but had found the way blocked by snow and the Khambas not co-operative. While investigating reports of Khamba raiders north of Tukcha a few months back they had been fired on while returning to camp by Khambas armed with machine guns. They had no further trouble and were confined to barracks pending any need for operations against marauding Khamba gangs. Their job was to prevent the unauthorised use of the main road by gangs going south or north. This was apparently the Nepalese Government’s effort to control Khamba activities, but as somebody was supplying them with arms and ammo it was difficult to do more, since they were elusive and untraceable in the mountains. He had no idea who supplied the arms or how, but thought it was easy enough to accomplish.

[2] The Indian police officers of the post were on the same establishment of five as in the case of Duniahi, with two on leave; they were inquisitive to the point of suspiciousness, and their OSP, a Rajput, asked me point-blank if I had been looking for Khambas, and what I had seen, and did I know where they got their arms from? It is possible that they quite honestly did not know, and were trying to find out if it could possibly be the British who were behind it. I was able to tell them no more than they could see with their own eyes. No-one knew anything about air-drops. [Note: There had been two CIA airdrops by this stage, both just north of the border. The weapons and supplies were brought back into Mustang by prepositioned Khampas.]

[3] The relationship between the Nepalese, the Indians and the local people was obviously friendly though by no means as cordial and intimate as at Duniahi. The only apparent reasons were:

(a) The Nepalese troops had their own officer and refused to introduce me to the Indian OSP on my arrival. They kept me waiting half an hour until their own OC was available.

(b) The local people are not Nepali but Lo-pa, Thak-pa and mutually suspicious Tibetan groups.”

George Patterson, 1964


Patterson arriving in India after crossing Tibet in mid-winter, 1950. Image: Unknown

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani - The Record
Part 18

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani

In 1964, George Patterson and a small film crew arrived in Kathmandu intent on getting to Mustang. His aim was to persuade some Khampas to carry out an armed raid into Tibet so that he could film it to prove to the outside world that Tibetans were still resisting the Chinese armed invasion of their country. He was told that it was impossible for him to go to Mustang, but by chance he heard about a small Khampa band in the remote area of Tsum. He managed to obtain a trek permit to travel from Kathmandu to Pokhara. On reaching Arughat he headed north up the Budhi Gandaki on the trail that leads toward Nubri and the Tibetan border. After passing through the small village of Setibas he knew that the way to Tsum broke away from the river to head northeast up a long and steep trail. In his book A Fool at Forty, Patterson reveals that he knew there was an Indian checkpost in Setibas and that there was no way to avoid it. He wrote: “This was our most critical test since leaving Kathmandu. We not only had to be unsuspected here, we had to be so lily-white that they would not think of radioing news of our presence to Kathmandu.” In the event all went well. He states: “The officer in charge was a friendly Indian with two junior officers—one a Nepali—and a few soldiers. We stopped at the post for an hour, drinking tea and exchanging items of information. The officer-in-charge had spent twelve years in the Himalayas in various check posts, and we gathered that there had been an increase in the number of refugees crossing the border—thousands in this area alone, according to reports reaching the check post.” Characteristically, Patterson could not resist giving his views on the utility of deploying such checkposts: “While the idea of wireless communications from the remote snows to the capital of Kathmandu was excellent in principle, in practice it was a feeble, almost completely useless, precaution. There were only ten of these remote check posts in less than 800 miles of gigantic mountain, valley and forested frontiers. What went on in the next valley was unknown to them, let alone what was taking place five days’ journey northward to the border.”

Patterson did manage to persuade the small Khampa band to carry out an ambush across the border and it was with some trepidation that he passed through Setibas again on his way back to Kathmandu carrying the precious film of the ambush. Fortunately for him, he reached the checkpost during a storm with torrential rain falling and was able to report that those in the checkpost were “as unsuspicious and friendly as before.” He reported that they spent some time in the Officers’ Mess “drinking tea, and we gave to the Mess a welcome gift of several packets of cocoa. After we had signed the Registration Book we said that we must get further down the trail that night—and the friendly officers even offered us the services of a guide.” (For a full account of Patterson’s activities at this time, read my article “Raid into Tibet.”)

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani - The Record
Part 19

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani

Duncan Forbes, 1956

In his book The Heart of Nepal, Duncan Forbes, an officer in Britain’s Brigade of Gurkhas, describes a trek he made in 1956 to the border post at Rasuwagadhi during a visit to Nepal to attend King Mahendra’s coronation. When he arrived at the village of Timure, which lies a few kilometers from the frontier, he found “a small body of Indian police who were maintaining a signal station, and we accepted their hospitality for the night.” On returning from visiting the frontier post he stopped overnight at Timure and had what was clearly a jovial evening with the Indian detachment. He said: “They seemed to be very much a group of exiles in this foreign land, being at the extremity of a long, thin line down to Kathmandu, and then to Delhi. They said they had been long periods out of touch with their families, and without leave. In fact the Inspector, who was shortly to be relieved, could almost have been described in Air Force parlance as ‘round the bend’. He sought to forget his exile by flying kites and saying his prayers, and it was to the accompaniment of an incantation ‘Hari-Ram-Sita-Ram-Hanuman-Vishnu-Narayanji’ that we dozed away.”

Everest Story, 1953

Another group of foreigners who encountered an Indian checkpost were members of the 1953 British Everest Expedition under the leadership of Colonel John Hunt. In his book The Ascent of Everest, he writes that when the team arrived in Namche, “We were surprised to find a small wireless station manned by Indian Government officials. Characteristic of the kindness of the Indian Ambassador in Kathmandu were his instructions to Mr. Tiwari, who was in charge of the post, that he should assist us by handling urgent messages. We had reason to be most grateful for this concession on several occasions during our stay.”

The Times newspaper was a major sponsor of the expedition, and, to the anger of many other journalists deployed to Nepal to cover the story, it laid down very strict conditions to ensure that it had exclusive rights to all news from Colonel Hunt and his team. A journalist from The Times, James Morris, was embedded with the expedition as a Special Correspondent. In 1972, she changed from living as male to living as female and became Jan Morris. She has earned a well-deserved reputation as an outstanding travel writer and historian of the British Empire. In 1958 she published Coronation Everest, a very well reviewed account of her time on Everest. It is an excellent read. This part of my article draws heavily on many details from it.

Another journalist from The Times, Don Hutchinson, was based in Kathmandu. His job was to receive Morris’s dispatches, interpret them and add to them where necessary, and to get them safely and quickly transmitted to London from the cable office. The messages were delivered to him by runner from the expedition’s base camp. There was no shortage of foreign journalists in Nepal who wanted to break the monopoly of The Times by using any means necessary. It was obvious that news of a successful ascent would be the ultimate prize for any journalist. Morris and Hutchinson gave considerable thought to how they would protect the privileged position of The Times. It was impossible to encode complete descriptive passages, but code words were drawn up to cover personal names, key events, places, and altitude. The particular words selected meant that a message would read as nonsense, and obviously coded to cover something important. The trustworthiness of the runners was achieved by paying them well with an attractive bonus based on the number of days they took to get from base camp to Kathmandu: typically, from six to eight. The British ambassador, Mr. Summerhayes, readily agreed that Foreign Office secure communications to London could be used to transmit the message announcing success or failure of the expedition.

Morris traveled with the Rear Party some ten days behind the climbing group. Major Jimmy Roberts was in charge. The party’s main job was to bring further supplies of oxygen that would be needed higher on the mountain. On the evening of the first day’s walk out of Kathmandu, the British defence attaché drove up in a large station wagon and told Roberts that John Hunt had sent a radio message from Namche asking him to check all the oxygen cylinders because tests on some with the main party indicated that there might be a problem. There was not, but this was the first time that Morris heard that there was a radio so comparatively close to base camp. Later Roberts went ahead of the rear party to meet John Hunt, so Morris entered Namche to be greeted by: “Good day, Mr. Morris, Major Roberts told us to expect you, said the voice. I looked around to see an enormous bearded Sikh, in some sort of uniform topped by a fur-lined jacket. ‘Please! Come this way, Mr. Tiwari would like to see you’. . . . We entered and climbed a flight of stairs, and there in the dark recesses of an upstairs room was a wireless transmitter. It looked quite a powerful one, and near it was a contraption like a stationary bicycle used to generate its electric power.”

Mr. Tiwari was the Indian police officer in charge of the detachment. He explained that he had been given instructions by the Indian embassy to transmit any urgent messages for the expedition. He communicated with Kathmandu twice a day and invited Morris to send a short message there and then. He explained that it would be received by the Indian embassy and would be delivered to Mr. Summerhayes. Morris obliged but he noted that Tiwari inspected it carefully before asking the operator to transmit it. Morris explains that the detachment was there to cover people coming and going over the Nangpa La, the principal gateway from Tibet into this part of Nepal, with a special responsibility to be alert to Chinese infiltrators. That night, reflecting on Tiwari’s actions and general demeanor, Morris drew up a new code system that would simply communicate that Everest had been climbed and by which members of the team. He knew that if he sent the message “in clear,” the whole world would know its contents long before it reached London. He also knew that Tiwari would be reluctant to pass a message that he could not understand. What was needed was a system of designation that would allow Morris to convey the news in a way that looked intelligible but would mean something different from what was written to the person who held the code. The new code was dispatched to Kathmandu by runner the next morning.

Hillary and Tenzing summited Everest on May 29, 1953. They arrived back at advanced base camp, well above the icefall, in the early afternoon of May 30 to give the news of their successful summit to John Hunt and most of the rest of the climbing team. By chance, Morris had come up to the camp that morning and was able to hear the news at first hand and join in the celebrations. Later that afternoon, along with a member of the team, Mike Westmacott, he left to descend through the icefall to return to base camp. Morris had done little climbing before the expedition, and, as the light faded, he found it increasingly hard going. At one stage he asked Westmacott to go ahead as he needed to rest. He was pulled back to his senses by the sharpest of retorts from Westmacott: “Don’t be so ridiculous!” Morris arrived back in his tent at base camp worn out. He took some time to recover from his exertions before he typed out in code the most important message of his life: “snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned on May 29 stop awaiting improvement stop all well.” The next morning, May 31, he gave the message to one of his runners with instructions to make best speed back to Namche. It was handed to Mr. Tiwari at the checkpost on the morning of June 1 for transmission by Morse code to the base station in the Indian embassy in Kathmandu on the afternoon radio schedule. Late that afternoon a message was delivered to the British embassy, signed by the vice consul at the Indian embassy, Mr. G. R. Joshi. The heading said: “Copy of a Message received from COL HUNT, NAMCHE BAZAR on June 1, 1953.” The message read: “snow conditions bad hence expedition abandoned advance base camp on 29th and awaiting improvement being all well.” (The Indians, either at Namche or in the embassy, added the bolded words presumably to make, as they thought, the message clearer.)

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani - The Record
Part 20

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani

In the British embassy, Ambassador Summerhayes deciphered the message using the code, which had been handwritten by Morris on The Times–headed notepaper at the camp above Namche after he had first met Mr. Tiwari. The ten words transmitted to the Foreign Office in London by secure telegraph are given in italics with the code in capitals: Mt Everest climbed [SNOW CONDITIONS BAD] 29 May by Hillary [ADVANCED BASE ABANDONED] and Tenzing [AWAITING IMPROVEMENT] All well. The information arrived in The Times newsroom in time for the afternoon news conference. The layout of the next day’s paper was suitably planned. That evening the news was delivered to the Queen and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace. The final midnight news bulletin of the BBC Home Service reported the news and every newspaper in the United Kingdom immediately changed its front page to carry the story.

Hillary [“Advanced base abandoned”] and Tenzing [“Awaiting improvement”] on Everest, 1953. Image: APThus, on the morning of June 2, 1953, the day of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation at Westminster Abbey, the news was on the streets to much rejoicing. That same morning, having breakfast at a rest stop below Namche, as he headed back to Kathmandu as fast as he could, James Morris caught a BBC news bulletin that declared that Everest had been climbed and that “the news had been first announced in a copyright dispatch in The Times.” John Hunt and most of the team arrived back at base camp during the afternoon of June 2. That evening in the mess tent the youngest member of the team, George Band, who two years later with Joe Brown was to make the first ascent of Kanchenjunga, tuned in to All India Radio to hear that the news had been announced the previous evening and that the Queen and prime minister had sent telegrams to the team via the ambassador in Kathmandu. There was much rejoicing that the news had indeed reached London in time for the coronation. In his book, John Hunt, with typical understatement, wrote: “Another jar of rum was called for”!
In their early days the Indian checkposts were probably reasonably effective in gathering low level intelligence, but between 1950 and 1970 much changed in the field of intelligence acquisition and particularly in the technique of aerial surveillance. Over the last few years of their existence they became an embarrassment to Nepal and of increasingly limited use to India, of more political and psychological value than anything else. In sum, they had served their time. In stark contrast, unlike in 1969 when a peremptory demand from the prime minister, Kirti Nidhi Bista, gave Nepal what it was seeking on the checkposts, no such direct approach is likely to work to Nepal’s advantage on Lipu Lekh and Kalapani. Nor will engaging China prove to be of much help. Whatever it might say now, China’s position on Lipu Lekh is badly compromised by all the MoUs and agreements it has signed unilaterally over many years with India, and not just on trade, with no regard to Nepal’s interests or sensitivities. On Kalapani, China’s consistent position has been that it is a matter for Nepal and India to resolve.

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani - The Record
Part 21

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani

India must know that no Nepali government is ever likely to accept what is perceived to be India’s arbitrarily established border east of Lipu Lekh, but presumably it considers Nepali rancor and continuing protests on this as a price to be paid to secure its position on Kalapani. Given the history and the evidence from the maps, Lipu Lekh does look a difficult case for Nepal to sustain, but even a concession on this is unlikely to improve Nepal’s chances of regaining Kalapani. In India’s mind, both issues are indissolubly linked and intimately tied to its larger unresolved border dispute with China. Therefore, for India, the relative strength of Nepal’s case on both issues is of no consequence. This is what makes the disputes so complex and intractable. The prospect is for a long drawn-out process that is unlikely to give Nepal what it seeks, though some form of palliative words may be agreed at a future stage of negotiation.

On a lighter note, the final word goes to the man, now a woman, who achieved one of the greatest scoops any journalist could ever aspire to. Sitting in his tent at base camp, recovering from his exertions through the icefall, as the words formed in his head, James Morris was well aware that the series of dots and dashes the wireless operator at the Indian checkpost at Namche was shortly to transmit to his embassy in Kathmandu would resonate round the world: “I extracted my typewriter from a pile of clothing and propped it on my knees to write a message. This was that brief dispatch of victory I had dreamed about through the months. Oh, Mr. Tiwari at Namche and Mr. Summerhayes at Kathmandu! Oh, you watchful radio men in Whitehall! Oh, telephone operators, typists and sub-editors, readers, listeners, statesmen, generals, Presidents, Kings, Queens and Archbishops! I have a message for you!”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to ‘a 1960 Nepal map’. This was an error and has been corrected.
I am most grateful to Subhak Mahato for permission to use his photo of the Tinker Pass and to Jamie McGuinness for permission to use his spectacular photo of the Urai Lekh Pass. My thanks also to Jim Fisher for permitting me to use his photo of Malcolm Meerendonk and Dor Bahadur Bista.

Cover photo: Looking north toward Nubri over the village of Setibas, the location of one of the Indian checkposts. The three passes from Nubri into Tibet—Gya La, Lachen, and Lachung—are located a five- to six-day walk away. Sam Cowan

Sam Cowan
Sam Cowan is a retired British general who knows Nepal well through his British Gurkha connections and extensive trekking in the country over many years.

The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani - The Record