Nepal-China ties: Irritants of the 60s and 70s

After establishing diplomatic relations in 1955, two incidents had nearly spoiled the relations between the two countries. What were those incidents? Here is a detail.

Photo: OP Jindal Global

Laxmi Basnyat

  • Read Time 6 min.

Nepal and China established diplomatic relations in 1955 to bury the hatchet of the past and take the relations between the two countries to a new course, based on new needs and new realities. Indeed, since 1955, Nepal and China stayed like friends in need to a large extent but two unwanted incidents had nearly derailed our relations. 

Nepal-China relations, fraught with at least three wars in history and near breakdown of communication from 1911 (when Qin dynasty fell) to 1940s (when China was in communist revolution that ultimately integrated Tibet into China), however, began to normalize right in the early 50s.  By that time the political system in Nepal had also changed. With over a century of family rule by the Ranas coming to an end, there was a hope and expectation for changes on several fronts including in international relations. So, after establishing diplomatic relations 1955, Nepal-China relations, it was thought, would see no rough patches. But a couple of unpleasant incidents occurred. It is worth mentioning those incidents. 

Death of Bam Prasad 

A very serious incident took place in the Mustang area of Nepal-China border in 1960. Nepal Army’s Subedar (warrant officer) Bam Prasad Baskota Upadhyaya was shot dead by the Chinese soldiers. Some of Nepal Army soldiers and other personnel were taken captive.

This is how it all came to happen.

Back in those days, there were 18 Indian check posts along the Nepal-China borders in the north.  They were Indian army posts. In the meantime, as Brigadier General Kedar Bahadur Singh, who took part at the Khampa Disarming mission told this author on August 7, 2022 during the interview, Tibetan Khampas, the Dalai Lama’s armies, also were conducting activities along the Nepal-China border areas—from Olangchung Gola in the east to Lipu Lek in the west. The Khampa’s intention was to conduct mobile activities rather than being stationed in a particular place. However, they established their headquarters at Kaisang, Mustang district of Nepal.  The Khampas were acquiring military intelligence to conduct raids, ambushes, small scale attacks, and looting vulnerable points of the Chinese army’s posts and other important places.

Two neighboring countries sometimes have conflicts, misunderstandings and even wars. But when they are bound by geography, history and culture, they are bound to become friends again.   

It should be noted that till then the exact border demarcation between Nepal and China was not made and carrying out the armies’ patrols in border areas from Nepal and China was difficult work. The movements of Khampas, Nepali armies, Chinese armies, other traders and pilgrim trips were always suspicious to the border checkpoints.

In the meantime, the King of Mustang had been transmitted by radio from the Indian check post in Mustang asking for 500 army reinforcements to counter the sudden presence of Chinese troops on the border. On June 27,1960, the day after Chinese troops appeared at the border, an order was passed to the Nepali Army’s commander Subedar Bam Prasad Dahal in Mustang to carry out a patrol to verify Mustang king’s report. According to Brigadier General Kedar Bahadur Singh, in the morning of June 28, 1960, an unarmed patrol team consisting of 17 members started on horseback. The team included a customs officer, some residents, including a village headman who was familiar with the position of the traditional frontier. All were in civil dress and unarmed due to border code conduct between Nepal and China. On June 28, 1960, while approaching the frontier, within 300 yards of the border, they came under fire. Subedar Bam Prasad was killed, another soldier was wounded and six of them escaped from the scene. Grishma Bahadur Devkota has written in Nepalko Rajnitik Darpan (Vol II) that after a while 10 persons of Nepali patrol team and a dead body of Subedar Bam Prasad were taken into Tibet under PLA’s control.

Actually, all this had happened due to the misunderstanding of the Chinese side since they mistook Nepali patrol for the Khampas.

By that evening, full details of what had occurred had been sent to Kathmandu via the Indian army’s check post’s radio communication. On June 29, 1960, Prime Minister BP Koirala made a diplomatic protest to the Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-Lai. Grishma Bahadur Devkota has written that the Chinese Prime Minister responded immediately on June 30, 1960. A long discussion and negotiations took place between the two prime ministers. Finally, China admitted the mistake and was ready to provide compensation of Rs 50,000. Nepal PM expressed thanks for the promptitude of the Chinese government in remitting a sum of Rs 50,000 which Nepal had demanded as a token compensation for the man and material damages caused by the border accident in the Mustang.

Related: Nepal-China relations: Era of confrontations from 1788 to 1855

Disarming of Khampas 

Another incident that could potentially have created tensions between Nepal and China happened in the mid-1950s.  But there is a long context to it. In October 1949, it was reported that 80000 strong Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) was moving to control Tibet. This was communicated to the Dalai Lama. It was not possible for the 8500 Tibetan army to face 80000 Chinese troops. So the Dalai Lama thought it proper to leave the country and take refuge in India. He reached New Delhi in 1960 from the Indian border of Sikkim accompanied by his aides. He met the then Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru and President Dr Rajendra Prasad. 

People of Tibet, militia and non-militia alike who had not been able to follow Dalai Lama, began to settle near the Tinkerlipu, Byas valley in the far west, and Olanghung Gola, Rasuwa Gadhi and Kesang Pass in the east on the bordering places of the northern region of Nepal. Many of them settled at the Kesang Pass of Mustang. Some of them eventually entered Nepal and started to settle there as refugees. They started to launch campaigns against the Chinese Army from Nepali soil. Tulasi Ram Vaidya and others have written in Nepalko Sainik Itihas that the Khampas, militarily trained in India and the US, started arriving in Nepali northern border areas. Tibetan Khampas were collecting Chinese intelligence from Olangchung Gola in the far east to Lipu Lake area in the far west of Nepal. According to Prem Singh Basnyat’s Shahi Nepali Senara Pradhan Senapatihharu, the reasons behind the movement initiated by the Khampas in Nepal were mainly two: To capture the Mustang district of Nepal and make it a guerrilla base to discourage China through terrorism to recapture Tibet and to fight with Nepal if Nepal took steps to disarm the Khampas. 

The alien powers had extended cooperation to the Khampa tribes living within and outside Tibet by distributing clothes, food grains, money, arms, and ammunition to them. These provisions were airdropped at a spot called Tangebhyu by constructing helipads and dropping zones. According to the then Commander-In-Chief Nir Samsher Rana, the American Embassy in Nepal was in top and second was India the list among those alien powers. Special Frontier Force (SFF) that is also known as ‘Establishment 22’ in Chakrata, of Dehradun of India was one of the training centers after Colorado. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) set up a secret base in the Colorado Rockies to train Tibetan guerrillas in mountain warfare. These trainees used to enter the Chinese land from time to time and sporadically carry out terrorist activities such as raping, massacring people, killing and killing yaks, goats and sheep, plundering, setting shops on fire, etc. 

After these activities increased, the Chinese government corresponded with Nepal government and an agreement was signed between the two governments for solving the Khampa’s terrorism against China. According to the agreement, if Nepal was prepared to annihilate the Khampas, the Chinese government would provide support. Subsequently, Nepal Army conducted the “Khampa Disarming Mission”—not an offensive military operation unless in self-defense. On July 15, 1974, after proceeding from Pokhara, they reached Jomsom. The actual disarming work began in Mustang from August 1, 1974. Many hundred weapons, ammunition, and radio communication sets were confiscated from Khampas.  The Khama Army’s leader General Gey Wangdi, along with some other Khampas, horses and mules, were killed at the same ambush. Some Khampas committed suicide. Two Nepali soldiers lost their lives due to altitude sickness and falling from a cliff during the operation. 

Learning and reflections 

Two neighboring countries sometimes have conflicts, misunderstandings and even wars. But when they are bound by geography, history and culture, such conflicts and misunderstandings do not last for long and the friendship is finally restored. This is what has happened in Nepal-China relations.

Related: Relooking early phase of Nepal-China relations

Military relations form the bedrock of Nepal-China relations. From 1782, well up to 1960, Nepal and China used to have some issues—including diplomatic disputes and military confrontations—now and then. Killing of Bam Prasad Dahal by the PLA and Tibetan Khampa disarming mission carried out by Nepal Army are two important episodes in military relations between the two countries. But they have not been much researched into by the academia. Further research into these episodes, by finding unpublished documents, interviews with related persons and field visits at the battle areas, will surely bring out more interesting facts about the Nepal-China military relations. 

Laxmi Basnyat, an MPhil scholar at Tribhuvan University, is researching Nepal-China Military Relations.