September 17, 2009
In Buddha’s Warriors, my history of the Tibetan freedom fighters, I wrote about the 1974 demise of Tibetan armed resistance at Tinker’s Pass from the Tibetan point of view.
A few weeks ago, however, I posted a never-before-published photograph (by Lisa Choegyal) of the Tibetans’ leader, General Wangdu, taken a few weeks before his murder at Tinker’s Pass. (Click here for article) The article had the unexpected result of correspondence received containing many new details about the Nepal Army’s role in nailing the endgame of Tibetan armed resistance – moreover, from primary sources – Nepalis who either took part in the 1974 NA operation or who are descendents of NA officers.
One man in particular came forward with an enormous amount of information, now declassified, but long overlooked. He is now retired Lieutenant Colonel Madan J. Sijapati, who, at the time of the Tibetan defeat was stationed in Jomsom, Mustang. He was a young man in 1974, but served as Second-in-Command (2IC) of Narayan Dal Company, an attach Independent Infantry Company (COY). (The Narayan Dal Company commander was Major Lok Bahadur Thapa (later retired as LTC.)
KAISANG: The Secretive Khampa HQs in Mustang
LTC Madan J. Sijapati was stationed in Jomsom at the time of the final showdown with the Khampa warriors, who had been running their base of operations in Mustang since the early 1960s. The Narayan Dal Company, of which Sijapati was second-in-command, was separated from Kaisang by four hours of very high terrain; Kaisang was General Wangdu’s Headquarters. Sijapati described the Kaisang location (11,500 feet above sea level) as impossibly inhabitable. He also remembers a 17,000 ft. plateau where there was a runway-like structure used as an airstrip – or perhaps an airdrop used by the C-130s, which the CIA Tibetan Task Force, in earlier years, sent to drop in supplies to the freedom fighters. The Narayan Dal Company had been stationed in Jomsom for seven years prior to the offensive.
In 1974, when the Khampas Disarmament was set into action, a total of 9 different Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) units were mobilized from Pokhara. All the equipment was carried on horseback and/or walked from Pokhara, since an airport had not yet been built in Jomsom. A fraction of officers and soldiers were chosen from these units. The main infantry units to be mobilized were: Narayan Dal COY, Indra Dhoj COY, & SriNath Battalion (BN). Other units that contributed soldiers/officers included the artillery unit Raj Dal BN, signals unit Ganesh Dal BN, and Engineer BN – again, representatives from these units were deployed, not the entire units. There was also one battalion stationed in Lette as a reserve force. (Lette is on the way to Jomsom from Pokhara.) The total number of RNA troops present in Jomsom to carry out the offensive was between 1000-1200.
The over all field commander was LTC Satchit SJB Rana (who later became Chief of Army Staff -- COAS). The Brigade Commander (and also the Operations Commander was Brig Gen Singha Pratap Shah (who also later became COAS).
Prior to the offensive, LTC Sijapati was assigned the task of carrying out intelligence on the way from Pokhara to Jomsom. He traveled in disguise: He was dressed up as an Aviation Dept's engineer carrying huge signal communication gears as he traveled the route. Everywhere his team stopped for some tea and snacks, they would be asked casually about their identities and their business for traveling to Jomsom. He would answer that they were the Aviation Dept Engineers going to Jomsom to collect data in order to build an air strip/airport. He was chosen for the task because he was from the Infantry Signal Comms & Engineering Section of the Army & could explain the technical aspects properly should any knowledgeable person inquired.
In the meantime, negotiations between the government and Wangdu were taking place, off an on, in Kathmandu. But in Mustang, RNA troops had slowly started setting up posts and patrolling in and around Jomsom. This significantly blocked the communication link between the Tibetan sympathizers and the Khampas warriors. Also, blockades were set up at intervals to block the main Pokhara-Jomsom route that the Tibetans used to ferry food and other essentials – an effort the government hoped would force the Khampas to surrender even before negotiations were completed.
What the government was offering those who surrendered was refugee status, interest-free loans, allocation of some land, and education for the Tibetans’ children. Khampa distrust of the government stymied negotiations.
Simultaneously, Baba Gen Yeshi, who had served as the original commander of the Mustang freedom fighters, but was booted because of corruption and embezzlement of funds, had joined forces with the king’s government. Baba Gen Yeshi (and his loyal followers) provided extremely vital intelligence to the Nepal government. What he was actually paid for his betrayal of the freedom fighters has never been substantiated.
Apparently, the government was not entirely certain of Baba Gen Yeshi’s loyalty either. The RNA deemed it wise to back up Gen Yeshi’s information with its own intel. RNA reconnaissance teams were sent out to study Khampa positions in the Kaisang area, a natural fortress. Kaisang was in between the bases of Mt. Nilgiri (23,100 ft) on the east and Mt. Tilicho (23,400 ft.) to the west. 3000 ft. directly above Kaisang was a cliff and a naked hill, which the reconnaissance team would scale at night and wait until dawn to observe Khampa activity. Sijapati remembers that, “the Khampas were definitely tough, highly trained, skilled, aggressive, and high-altitude guerilla fighters. Thus, caution had to be taken by us while dealing with them.” Baba Gen Yeshi was flown to different Khampa camps in the region where he talked to the freedom fighters and described the benefit of surrendering to the government.
Further NRA pressure was exerted on the Khampas by the firing of rounds of Howitzer 25/75 guns, causing small avalanches around Kaisang.
When the deadline for peaceful disarmament had passed and it became clear that Wangdu would never surrender, the NRA began their offensive. From Jomsom, they mobilized toward the Kaisang at 10 pm. Most of the unified BN advanced towards the hills that lead to Kaisang and other troops moved towards surrounding areas. Additional troops were mobilized in Jomsom and nearby areas. By 4 am the next day, according to Sijapati, “The troops that had moved towards Kaisang had made a cordon around the camp and were in full position. Of course, they had with them local people who had good knowledge of the terrain, the government administrative people, and the police. Nobody knew what the intention of the Khampas was: whether they would defy the government's order to surrender and engage in a battle or simply surrender.”
The troops waited and watched. There was no movement within Kaisang that indicated that they were battle-ready. Nobody came outside the camp and no troops entered the camp. Finally, at 4 pm, the order came for the NRA to move inside the camp. The RNA troops ordered the Khampas to surrender or to face the consequences. The troops also warned them that they would be approaching their camp as mandated by the government and not to fire on them or else they would be fired upon. The Khampas finally agreed to lay down their weapons.
The first Nepalis to enter the camp were administrative personnel: police, and RNA officers. After they were satisfied that the coast was clear, the troops entered. A search of the camp was conducted for General Wangdu. Only then did the Nepalis realize that Wangdu, along with a group of loyal soldiers – approximately 18 in number – had already escaped.
It was not until two or three days had passed that a group of RNA officers and soldiers -- including Sijapativ -- were sent out in search of the escaped general. Sijapati recounts that, “there was a trail behind the camp in the direction of the base of the mountains and a high plateau passing through very rough terrain. This was the only way Wangdu could have escaped as all the other routes were blocked by our troops. So we followed this route carefully and reached Ghami, a small, high-altitude small village beyond Kagbeni and Jharkhand. In Ghami, we found fresh blood and the fur and bones of a yak: Wangdu’s team had killed a Yak and had carried its meat as food for them.”
The RNA troops were not dressed for the high altitude chase that awaited them. Nor did they have the proper gear. Nor were they sufficient in numbers to split up: They realized at Ghami that there were several routes in different directions that could have been taken by Wangdu and his men. They had no choice but to descend -- all of the troops returning to Jomsom except for Sijapati, who was ordered to return to Kaisang where his company remained for seven months.
When they returned to Kaisang, they saw that, “all weapons, ammos, radio sets, different stuff were being taken under the control of the Army. The weapons and radio sets and other technological things were all foreign made and advanced and sophisticated by the standards of that era. Even the RNA did not posses some of the weapons that they had - this can be verified by visiting the Nepalese Army museum at Chuanni where the weapons seized form the Khampas are at display.”
Sijapati’s Narayan Dal Company was selected to remain in Kaisang along with the disarmed Khampas. The Company set up a perimeter around the camp and guarded the Khampas. “The Khampas were not allowed to exit the camp: They were like the modern-day cantonments in Nepal set up for the Maoist combatants. We remained there until the resettlement process was carried out. Not a single shot was fired in Kaisang. It was one of the most successful operations in the history of the RNA.”
But meanwhile General Wangdu and his men were crisscrossing Tibet and Nepal while trying to make their way to Tinker’s Pass where the borders of 3 countries -- Nepal, India, and Tibet converged – and where, it would later be discovered, Indian Para Commandos were waiting to take the Wangdu’s group on to safety.
But the Nepalis had no idea where Wangdu might have gone and the entire RNA was on high alert. It wasn’t until Wangdu’s team attacked and looted some weapons in a small police post in Simikot (Humla district), that Wangdu’s escape route was discerned. It would prove to be Wangdu’s fatal mistake. The police in Simikot radioed to Kathmandu what had happened. The RNA was now in a position to track all possible routes Wangdu's team might travel to get to India. Unusual movement by Indian Forces at Tinker confirmed the RNA’s speculation that Wangdu would attempt to cross Tinker sooner or later.
The RNA Operations Commander in that area was Brig Gen Aditya SJB Rana. But Tinker’s Pass came under the direct command of a Subedar of Aridhman Company. It was the Subedar who conducted the ambush.
Two Tibetans scouts were the first into ride into view of the concealed RNA troops. They were allowed to enter Tinker’s Pass without being shot. But they were captured. Then came the majority of the eighteen Khampas. The RNA troops, who had been well placed for an ambush, carried out the offensive. All of the Khampas were killed. Now the problem was that no one knew what Wangdu looked like. So, they had to fly in Baba Gen Yeshi from KTM and have him identify Wangdu’s body.
I met Baba Gen Yeshi a year or so before his death. This was in 1999. He was by then reclusive and very frail. He emerged from his prayer room in full monk’s robes with a worn mala (prayer beads) dangling in one hand.
I asked him if he regretted anything. He told me there were not enough hours in the day to make amends for the life he had lived.
Special thanks to Avinit Sijapati.