Mustang (Nepal)-India’s window into Tibetan autonomous region?
Colonel Satish Singh Lalotra
‘The first step in good reporting is good snooping-‘–Matt Drudge.
The Asian landmass gaining ascendance by way of towering peaks of Himalayas, Karakorum, Hindu Kush, Hinduraj, Kuen lun &Muztagh Ata reaches its pinnacle at the famous ‘Pamir Knot’, the epicenter of central Asia.
If looked conversely from ‘Pamir Knot’ all these mountain ranges radiate in all directions taking into its fold countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan ,Turkmenistan, Nepal, part of India and off course the Chinese Turkestan .
Incidentally this huge landmass also has the distinction of harbouring maximum number of ‘Eight thousanders’ peaks (more than 26,500 feet) in the world. Nestling in a remote corner of Nepal and abutting one of the ‘Eight thousander’ peak i.e ‘Dhaulagiri’ sits the northernmost area of Nepal going by the name -Mustang.
From Mustang off late there have been emanating some very ominous as well as encouraging news for the Indian Geo-strategists having the potential of changing the way we engage our northern neighbour, China. Local media of Nepal at the end of February reported about the Nepalese government’s preparation to allow India to set up a ‘Buddhist college’ in the restricted area of Mustang, which borders Tibet/China.
On the contrary the Hindu kingdom has rubbished these reports made by the former PM of Nepal KP Sharma Oli much to the relief and discomfort of both India as well as the locals of Mustang respectively who have pinned high hopes on its southern neighbour to end their deliverance from ignorance & apathy.
‘Mustang’ a very uncommon name for a Nepali district is equally uncommon in its vitals when taken into account its USP. It is the same place where during the great ‘Tibetan resistance movement’ against the Chinese occupation in the late 50s/early 60s, thousands of ‘Khampa rebels’ armed and trained by the CIA to springboard into TAR (Tibetan autonomous region) for sabotage and raids congregated under the Tibetan controlled king.
As per the former PM of Nepal this attempt of India to open a Buddhist college in the Mustang restricted area tantamount to turn the country into a playground for foreigners. Further he says that sovereignty of Nepal will be threatened by this act of India.
As if this was enough, the former PM slammed the ruling party of betraying china by accepting India’s proposal of opening an institution on Buddhist studies in this remote Himalayan region bordering TAR. The Nepalese reports claim that a handsome amount of about 700 million rupees has been set up for this unique institution by India.
The above three statements emanating from a respected person in the form of Nepali ex PM shows the level of obfuscation and subterfuge indulged and being fed into the psyches of the Nepali masses to turn the public opinion into his favour overlooking dangerous expediencies of such actions at a later stage. It stands to logic that a thorough verification of facts concerning the vexed issue should have been done by the ex PM of Nepal before going on airwaves.
A reality check of the issue at hand throws such facts which may embarrass the high and mighty of Nepal to no end. It is primarily a request made by the ‘Barha Gaun Mukti Chettra rural muncipality’ – the local body of the Mustang restricted area that had sent the request to the Indian government via the Indian embassy in Kathmandu for the funds to construct which is yet to pass the muster, an entirely private request and not from the Nepal government as such.
Moreover it was the ‘Mustang Sakya Buddha Sangh’ that took the initiative to open the college, arrange the land for it and then requested the Indian side to do their bidding.
Irrespective of the filibuster engaged by the ex PM of Nepal on the issue, there are some very strong lessons for the Indian Geo-Strategists and foreign policy experts to adopt to come up to the expectations reposed in them by the Indian countrymen.
But before that the importance of Mustang in northern Nepal and how does it fill into the vacuum felt by the Indians to peep into TAR so as to ascertain the Chinese moves in one of the most opaque areas of the world .
A cursory look of Nepal’s geographical map shows a thumb like portion jutting out from its northern boundary into the Tibetan autonomous region, which is buffeted by the districts of Dolpa in the west, Manang in the east, and Myagdi / Kaski in the SW &SE. This area is called as Mustang district.
Way back in the mid- 50s & early 60s Mustang had shot up in prominence for being the cynosure of the eyes of Tibetan resistance fighters and spy agencies actively supported by the CIA/US covert agencies in terms of arms and ammunition training and logistics support to be parachuted deep into the Tibetan region.
The Tibetan freedom fighters army also known as ‘Chushi Gangdruk’ ,many taken from eastern Tibetan region were allowed to set up their resistance bases in Mustang as stated above against the Chinese PLA.
Surrounded by three sides by the Tibetan region, Mustang was run by an autonomous local king who was a Tibetan. The Tibetan fighters who had returned to India in 1959 along with HH Dalai Lama were joined by other fighters coming directly to Mustang from Tibet.
Over the next several years Mustang fighter base became a thorn in the flesh of PLA so much so that China had to divert its traffic from the famous ‘Tibetan highway ‘to another highway 180 kms away.
In 1961 this resistance fighter base scored the biggest anti-communist intelligence coup since the Korean war, capturing over 1600 classified documents of the PLA from a PLA commander.
In 1963, the Mustang fighters helped 5000 more Tibetans escape to India, Nepal, Bhutan or Sikkim. The last CIA airdrop into Tibet was in 1965; however since the fighter base couldn’t meet the metrics of the spy agency of establishing more resistance bases in Tibet, the US financial support dried up over a period of time.
Be that as it may, though the role of Mustang base having dwindled over the period of time with reference to its formation; its relevance to India has grown all the more when seen in the light of Chinese hegemony across the Himalayas .
All along the northern frontier /LAC the Chinese since the 1950s have increased their presence in terms of its vast road network, massive infra build up, and pushed its westward nibbling of territory.
The above has resulted even in the notified grazing areas of our border villages being under the Chinese control thus leaving very little space for the Indian army /int agencies to snoop across the TAR to ascertain the Chinese intent.
Under the Chinese state policy of making co-terminus the local cause of the border people of TAR with the national policy of redevelopment of Tibetan settlements and coaxing them to occupy these grazing areas along the LAC the Chinese have upped the ante.
Conversely our border villages have earned the notoriety of being called as the ‘Ghost villages’ with max number of them all along our frontiers being vacated by the able bodied persons under the lure of a better life in the metros.
This cartographical variation has led to the differing perceptions of the LAC leading the two Asian giants to hedge their fortunes and hence many face-offs in the bargain.
Since the area in question is sparsely populated there is a dire need of ‘Humanint” (Human intelligence) to overlap the already available int from highly technical sources to arrive at the latest picture of an evolving situation.
Since the changed dynamics owing to the ‘Galwan valley clash’ in May/june 2020, compounded with the GOI’s orders of banning Chines apps like the ‘We Chat’ the sole method of information/exchange of talk between the Tibetan diaspora living in India and their parents or relatives in TAR has been snapped. Whatever little info is getting across the Tibetan plateau is riding the airwaves of RFA (Radio free Asia) beamed from Washington, USA.
Thus a sudden blackout of information incoming from TAR has made India hamstrung creating a big vacuum in the planning parameters.
Though India in the past had patched up with the US/CIA to snoop around in the Tibetan plateau in the 60s, but the results were not concomitant to the efforts put in and hence abandoned.
By way of planning to establish a Buddhist college right under the nose of the Chinese in Mustang restricted zone of Nepal India has gone upfront in its ruse cum alibi to achieve twin aims i.e to snoop around the forward limits of Mustang and even across the Nepalese border for Geo-strategic reasons as also to carry out direct and stated aim of Buddhist studies in the general area thus solidifying its image in the Himalayan kingdom of being a true neighbour.