A proposed Buddhist college in a district bordering China creates heated debate in Nepal’s political sphere

Former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli dubs the proposed Buddhist college in Mustang as a “deceitful move against China”. The government assures investigation into the issue.

A view of Varagung Muktichhettra Rural Municipality | Photo: Municipality website

NL Today

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Kathmandu: On 2 March, Kantipur Daily published a story regarding Indian proactiveness to open a Buddhist college in Nepal’s Mustang, a district bordering Tibet of China. 

The area is restricted to any movement of foreign nationals given the sensitivity and geopolitics. The area is considered sensitive as the Chinese Khampa refugees had waged war against the Chinese government some four decades ago. Now, the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu has asked for permission from the Nepal government to build “Mustang Bauddha College” in the same area, according to the report by Jagadishor Panday of Kantipur daily. 

The report mentions that Varagung Muktichhettra Rural Municipality had sent a request letter to the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu following the initiative from the Mustang Sakya Buddha Sangh to open the college.  On January 25, the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu sent a letter to the Ministry of Finance requesting for approval to open the college. 

Following the story, a fresh debate started in Nepal’s political sphere over the intention of the move. 

The deceitful move against China: KP Oli

Chairperson of CPN-UML and former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli dubbed the issue as a ‘deceitful move against China’. On 4 March, Oli heavily criticized the government for acting at the behest of foreign power centers. 

“University in Mustang is apparently an act to appease foreigners, it is an attack against nationalism, and a deceitful act against friendly country China,” he said. Referring to the Khampa revolution back in 1960, he said that the move is an attempt to repeat the 1960 incident in a new form and bigger volume. 

Oli said that the proposal to open the Buddhist college in Mustang also indicates that the country’s sovereignty has been denied. The intention of the move is not to operate a university in Mustang, they want to do something else, he alleged. “It is an attempt to convert the country into the playground of foreign power centers,” Oli said. He suspects that it may be an attempt to capture uranium from the area. 

It is quite surprising to know that a university is proposed in an area where there is no human settlement. “It is a clear attempt to settle paid persons. It is a dangerous move.”

We need to oppose the move. We need to stand in favor of the country’s interest. But those who are in the government, they do not have shame, he added. 

Government denies 

Following the fierce criticism from the UML chair Oli, the government issued a formal statement on 5 March. The statement issued by Rekha Sharma, Minister for Communication, Information and Technology, who is also the spokesperson of the government, has categorically denied such a move. “Attention of the government has been drawn toward the remark by UML chair and former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. The remark is completely delusional,” read the statement. 

Meanwhile, it has been revealed that the chairperson of Varagung Muktichhetra Rural Municipality Ringjin Namgel Gurung had written to the Indian embassy requesting financial assistance to open a Buddhist college in Mustang.  In an interview with nepalkhabar.com, Gurung, who was elected the municipality chairperson from CPN-UML, admitted to writing such a letter to the embassy. 

On Tuesday, writing a clarification letter to Kantipur, Rinjing Namgel Gurung, chairperson of Varagung Muktichhetra Rural Municipality claimed that the area does not fall in the restricted land. Similarly, Khempo Tenjing Sherpa Songwa, president of Mustang Sakya Bauddha Sangh, has clarified that the proposed college is not meant for Tibetan refugees, but instead for students who want to learn Buddhist philosophy. 

What is the Khampa revolution?

The younger generation of the country is not familiar with the Khampa revolution. But the older generation of Nepalis is familiar with it. 

After China’s takeover of Tibet in 1960, some Khampas started to settle down in the adjoining areas of the Himalayan border in the northern region of Nepal and started to operate anti-China activities from Nepali territory. Prem Singh Basnyat, Brigadier General (Retired) of Nepal Army, has written in his book Royal Nepalese Army in Khampa Disarming Mission that the Khampas operating from Mustang were not only conducting anti-China activities but were also found involved in raping locals, killing people, killing and eating yaks, goats, and sheep, plundering, setting shops on fire among others.

The government of China had requested Nepal to control Khampa terrorism. China promised to provide necessary cooperation to Nepal to contain Khampas. “King Birendra himself had issued an order to peacefully disarm Khampas settled in Mustang, bring them near Pokhara, and prohibit them from proceeding toward China,” Basnyat writes.  

Then the Royal Nepalese Army, led by lieutenant colonel Satchit Samsher Rana, was mobilized to conduct a disarming operation against Khampas in 1974.  In a few months, the Nepal Army completed the mission. According to the book, Gey Wangdi, the leader of Khampas, and several other Khampas were killed in the operation.

Can the local government ask for foreign aid?

Part of the controversies related to the move stems from the fact that local and provincial governments are not allowed to lobby for foreign aid, grants, and loans by the constitution. Schedule 5 of the constitution of Nepal has exclusively reserved the rights and powers related to “foreign grants, aid, and loans” and “foreign and diplomatic affairs, international relations and United Nations related matters” as the jurisdiction of the federal government. Provincial and local governments have not been granted such powers by the constitution.

“First of all, our constitution has not allowed powers related to foreign aid, grants and loans to the local and provincial governments,” said Gopal Khanal, the author of the book Bhurajniti [in English “Geopolitics”], who also served as the senior foreign affairs expert to former Prime Minister K P Oli, commenting on the issue. “Besides, Nepal as a country that lies in a sensitive geopolitical location should not allow any activities that could potentially jeopardize Nepal’s relations with neighboring countries such as India and China and friendly nations such as the United States,” he said. “Nepal simply cannot afford to do that.”