Two new books on conflict and conservation


Sam Cowan’s Essays on Nepal: Past and Present deserves a more creative title. But being a retired Colonel Commandant of the British Brigade of Gurkhas, the book’s name seems to mix a Nepali’s understatement with a laconic Brit. All the 19 chapters are written with military precision in detail and accuracy, and are a tour d’horizon of recent (and not so recent) Nepali history with a special focus on security matters.

These pre-published articles range from the recruitment of Gurkha soldiers, how Chinese influence has changed the Tibetan rimlands in Nepal, a historic account of the visits of two of Nepal’s rulers to London, treks, earthquakes, and a recent case study of blatant corruption.

The most exciting essays in the book are the ones dealing with a Khampa raid from Tsum Valley on the Chinese army and a Chinese raid on a Nepali police unit in Mustang, the fate of Nepali soldiers in the Indian Army taken prisoner by the Chinese, and an account of the battles of Khara and Pili in western Nepal during the Maoist conflict.

Sam Cowan’s in-depth understanding of Nepal stems from his long association with the British Gurkhas, his frequent visits not just to Kathmandu but to the hinterland. Being eye-witness to the changes Nepal has been though in its recent history, and because of his diverse interests, the book spans both time and space. Being an outsider gives Cowan the advantage most Nepalis may lack because they are too immersed in Nepal’s day to day socio-political dynamics, and cannot see the forest for the trees. Cowan sees both the forest and the trees.

The book begins with the start of Cowan’s own career with the British Army in Malaya in the 1960s during which he got to know Gurkha soldiers up close and personal. He rose up the ranks to head the Brigade of the Gurkhas, and in that position visited Nepal many times, meeting kings and their subjects.

Cowan traces the genesis of Nepal as the nation state expanded to increase revenue, and how it needed more territory to fund an ever-larger military. The Gorkha expansion brought Kathmandu in direct collision course with Calcutta, and the Anglo-Nepal War with Sugauli Treaty of 1816 laid the basis of British India’s influence in the royal court in Kathmandu, fulfilled its strategic interest to confine Nepalis to the hills, and allow the recruitment of Gurkhas into British Indian Army.

Feudalism persisted in Nepal, thus perpetuating the contradictions that lay at the roots of the Maoist uprising. Four of Cowan’s chapters are about the 1996-2006 insurgency, and the General writes knowledgeably about the strengths and weaknesses of the guerrillas and the security forces. He dissects three specific battles which should be required reading in military academies.

Cowan then turns his attention to the Nepal Police and Royal Nepal Army detailing how they fall into the classic trap of committing human rights violations during a guerrilla conflict. He says: ‘It is the state and its security forces that must set a higher standard of behaviour based on operating within the law.’

Royal Nepal Army generals took this argument and his later writings on the iconic Maina Sunar rape-torture-murder at the Panchkhal Base to prove that Cowan was a Maoist sympathiser. For his part, Cowan believes that the lack of closure, the absence of truth and justice is one of the reasons for the state of impunity in Nepal today.

One crucial angle missing from this analysis and many other writings on the insurgency is the initial involvement of hardliners in the Royal Palace in supporting the Maoists to launch their armed struggle, and the later collusion of Indian intelligence in providing training and safe haven in India to rebel leaders so they could keep tabs on them. But perhaps that should be the subject a whole new book.

In an addendum to one of the chapters, Cowan recounts his meeting with King Gyanendra in 2002 during which he told him that the monarchy was in peril in Nepal’s triangular power struggle between the palace, the parties and the rebels: ‘It was imperative that he form an alliance with one of them, preferably by a long way, the political parties, otherwise he would find himself isolated, as the other two parties would inevitably, at some stage, form their own alliance.’

Needless to say, King G did not heed this advice, and continued to consolidate power, leading up to the 1 February 2005 coup and the king’s eventual capitulation in April 2006 after the People’s Movement spearheaded by the seven parties plus the Maoists.

Sam Cowan’s essays are full of revelation and new interpretations that add important new perspectives to the corpus of Nepali history.

Pioneer naturalist

How did Nepal become a global success story for conservation? Despite its development challenges, how did the government manage to set aside one-fifth of the country’s area for nature protection? How did one of the poorest countries in Asia become a model for innovative approaches in combining people’s livelihoods with environmental protection?

Most of the answers can be found in Hemanta R Mishra’s new memoir,  On His Majesty’s Service that recounts the early days when scientists began to understand the incredible biodiversity of the Nepal Himalaya and the need to protect it not just for Nepal, but as a world heritage.

A young forestry graduate, Mishra threw himself into the deep end,  learning quickly to navigate Nepal’s feudocracy, bureaucratic obstacles and turf battles. As the title of the book suggests, a large part of the credit for Nepal’s environmental protection efforts went to hunter-turned-conservationist kings.

The subtitle of On His Majesty’s Service is an unwieldy but revealing list of all the other protagonists that Mishra interacted with during his career: Royals, Hippies & Hustlers, British Film Makers & Tibetan Khampa Guerrillas, United Nations and American Peace Corps, Mt Everest Summiteers and Battles for Conservation in the Himalayas. Whew.

As with his previous books, The Soul of the Rhino, The Bones of the Tiger and Nepal’s Chitwan National Park: A Handbook, Mishra has taken the editing help of his long-time publisher friend Jim Ottaway Jr who is credited with convincing Mishra during a trek to Mustang in 2010 to start working on this memoir.

Mishra’s own family history evokes the stark reality of life in Nepal in the last century: his mother (‘a prolific breeder’) gave birth to her first daughter at age 13 and had 16 children by the time she was 36. Only seven survived, two of them boys.

Educated in a Jesuit school, Mishra’s command of English landed him his first job as a liaison officer for a British film crew that actually turned out to be something else. He ten accompanied U.N. consultants to Langtang, the KhumbuChitwanBardia, Kosi Tappu and Sukla Phanta to explore their biodiversity. It was this research that led to all of them being declared national parks or nature reserves by 1976.

The book is full of anecdotes about each of the sanctuaries. How locals believe Sukla Panta to be jinxed because of the heart attack King Mahendra suffered during a hunt just as a tiger jumped out of the tall grass. King and tiger both lived. Then the accidental near-fatal shooting of Queen Ratna by her son (we don’t know which one) during another hunt.

We find out how it was prince Bernhard of The Netherlands and also Chair of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) who suggested that Nepal declare the Mt Everest region a national park at the Fund’s conference in Bonn in 1973. Mishra accompanied Prince Gyanendra to Bonn where the widely-acclaimed announcement was made.

Mishra was sent to the Khumbu to find that local Sherpas were against the park. One angry Sherpani even told him to pack up and go back to Kathmandu, but he managed to elicit the help of the Tengboche abbott and Edmund Hillary.

Gurung villagers in the Annapurnas also opposed a national park, and the concept of ‘conservation area’ came up as a way to blend the needs of local people with environmental protection, with eco-tourism income paying to protect the ecosystem and improve livelihoods. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) became a model for other inhabited nature reserves in Nepal and elsewhere.

Mishra found a promising young student, Mingma Sherpa to head ACAP. During a trip to the East West Centre Hawaii Prince Gyanendra met Chandra Gurung, and told Mishra: “Hire him. He is an excellent catch.” Mingma Sherpa and Chandra Gurung were among 23 killed in the tragic helicopter crash in 2006 in Ghunsa that wiped out an entire generation of Nepal’s conservation pioneers.

Among the sanctuaries he was instrumental in protecting, Mishra regards Chitwan National Park as his most important work. While doing a helicopter-borne census of rhinos in Chitwan in 1968, Mishra discovered that a jungle that teemed with 1,000 rhinos in 1950 had only 110 left. The prediction that rhinos could soon be extinct in Nepal led to the hunter-king Mahendra passing an edict to declare Chitwan a national park so the necessary laws could be passed. By then, Mishra had moved on to Kosi Tappu to protect the habitat of Nepal’s last remaining herds of wild buffaloes.

Mishra worked with three kings: Mahendra, Birendra and Gyanendra and remembers getting a puzzling order in 1978 from the palace to kill a rhino. It turned out to be for a royal tantric tarpan ceremony to ensure peace and prosperity on the land. An elderly rhino was hunted, its innards removed, and Birendra sat inside the rhino’s open abdomen to offer its organs up to his ancestors.

Mishra, a self-proclaimed monarchist, writes that the ritual did not save Birendra and his clan from the royal massacre of 2001, nor the monarchy from being abolished in 2008. Nepal became a republic, and the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Consveration was changed to the National Trust Nature Conservation.

In an emotional epilogue, Mishra rues: ‘Nepal’s national parks were resurrected after the deadly civil war and the end of the monarchy … now I wonder whether these protected areas will withstand the political gridlock of today’s Nepal and survive in perpetuity.'

Hit and Run Film

Sam Cowan’s Essays on Nepal has a chapter devoted to the intriguing story of a British tv crew that organised and filmed a raid by Nepal-based Khampa guerrillas on a Chinese army convoy across the border in Tibet in July 1964. Cowan uses newly declassified Foreign Office documents from the UK National Archives to piece together the entire sordid saga. The account mentions a young Nepali student serving as liaison officer for the film crew.

That student turns out to be none other than Hemanta R Mishra, who was 19 at the time. Four of the chapters in Mishra’s memoir On His Majesty’s Service are about how the film-makers hoodwinked everyone in Kathmandu. This was similar to the story of another expedition in western Nepal in which British climbers were working for Indian intelligence.

The team consisted of pro-Tibet activist George Patterson, who had spent three years in Kham as a missionary and believed he had a divine mission as a Christian to stop the spread of Communism by the creation of a Himalayan Confederation of Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim and Tibet. Cameraman Adrian Cowell went on to make other notable films such as the award-winning Amazon documentary, The Tribe that Hides from Man. And there was Chris Menges, who later won an Oscar for cinematography in the The Killing Fields.

The rest of the cast of characters included Mishra himself, Prime Minister Tulsi Giri, Foreign Minister Kirtinidhi Bista, Chief of Protocol Prakash C Thakur, Foreign Secretary Padam Bahadur Khatri, Narayan Banskota of the Department of Information, and King Mahendra.

Patterson had come to Nepal to join and film a Khampa raid in Tibet to re-ignite Western interest for the Tibetan cause. Much later he would tell an interviewer, “I was a spy for the Khampas”. The CIA had been training Tibetan guerrillas and parachuting them into Tibet. The Americans were using Indian military bases to ferry supplies to Khampa camps in Nepal, and since the Brits did not get permission to go to Mustang, they opted for the Tsum Valley. The CIA operations were not going very well, and the Chinese were gaining an upper hand. Preoccupied with other crises, Washington was losing interest in Tibet.

Mishra had been deputed as interpreter as the crew filmed King Mahendra inaugurating various projects near Kathmandu. Patterson used his wife’s connections to get Tulsi Giri’s permission to make a documentary on Buddhism, arguing that the film would counter claims that the Buddha was born in India. Although Narayan Prasad Banskota did not trust Patterson, he had his orders and appointed the adventure-minded 19-year-old Hemanta Mishra to be liaison officer.

Mishra’s book is a dramatic account of the march up the Budi Gandaki River and the British film crew meeting mysterious Tibetans. In Chokang, the Brits slip away over the 6,000m Khojang Pass to the Dzongkha-Kerung highway. The head of the Khampa unit was Tendar, who helped with Chris Menges’ Bolex camera for the 'shoot'. Finally a convoy of four Chinese lorries came down the highway and a brief firefight ensued in which a dozen Chinese soldiers were killed and two of the trucks were blown up.

The team trekked back to Kathmandu at the peak of the monsoon, evading detection of their precious film at the Indian checkpoint in Setibas. They got the film out on a flight to Dhaka in then East Pakistan.

In Kathmandu, Patterson decided to tell all to the new British Ambassador Antony Duff who then told King Mahendra about the film of the raid. King Mahendra’s reaction to Ambassador Duff: “This film will be a big headache for us and for you.”

Indeed, no one except hardcore Tibetan nationalists wanted the film out, not even the Dalai Lama who had instructed the Khampas to stop crossborder raids and take up farming. All hell broke loose in Kathmandu after Mahendra called Foreign Minister Bista to give him a dressing down. Bista hauled his foreign Secretary Khatri over the coals, who blamed everyone down the line. Two of the Brits and Mishra were arrested at Birganj while on their way to Calcutta and their harmless films confiscated. This was obviously delayed over-reaction in Nepal’s feudal system to royal displeasure. Patterson himself was detained at Kathmandu airport, and later allowed to leave the country.

Raid Into Tibet was finally aired in Britain’s ATV in May 1966, and although it won awards and was praised, it was no successful in getting the Americans and British to resume military support for the liberation of Tibet.

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).