Appear strong when you are weak and weak when you are strong.
– Sun Tzu, Art of War
Humbled by the 1792 war with China, Jung Bahadur Kuwar was looking for an opportunity to regain the lost glory of Nepal. He was cunning, calculative, smart, and keenly watching the developments of events in China and Tibet. China's Manchu Qing Dynasty was engaged in a bloody civil war with the Hakka-led Taiping Heavenly Kingdom since 1850, known as the Taiping Rebellion. It was the bloodiest civil war in world history and the largest one in the history of China. Latest Chinese study estimates about 71 million people died in that war. Jung Bahadur found it a favourable situation for Nepal to advance his goal in Tibet. He initiated it by forwarding complaints to the Tibet government about Nepali traders being manhandled and beaten in Lhasa. He also complained of border encroachment at Kuti and threatened dire action if it was not settled in time. The government of Tibet did not respond. This was justified excuse for Jung Bahadur to deploy a huge force along the northern passes from Olanchung Gola in the east to Simikot in the west, and declared war against Tibet in 1855.
General Krishna Dhoj Kuwar was appointed sector commander of Jumla, Simikot and Mustang axis.
Captain Amar Dhoj Kuwar was deployed in Mustang axis as operation commander with about 300 troops. Mustang was new territory for the Gurkhas, annexed in 1795 without armed confrontation from the king of Mustang. It was a territory across the Himalayas never visited by government officials earlier. It was part of Tibet before the local General Amepal occupied it in 1340 as a part of the Kingdom of Mustang.
Though politically under Nepali control, topography-wise and culturally it was part of Tibet. Upon declaration of war against Tibet, troops were mobilised without any knowledge and information of the terrain, routes, topography, enemy disposition and their strength. Beyond Dhana, a village, it was stiff, narrow and inaccessible with difficult passes. It was a Herculean task for the troops to negotiate through such terrain and battle against the unknown enemy.
Mustang was an isolated kingdom, and there was no communication with the rest of the country. The average height of Mustang district is above 7,000 feet.
It was not possible to negotiate and move down south from the 'Badar Jung' pass and vice versa. The only contact they had was with Dolpa in the west through a pass above Tukuche. However, Gurkhas succeeded in landing and deploying themselves along the Kali Gandaki Valley at Kobang, Thak Khola, a small habitat of the Thakalis. It was cold, windy and frosty. The terrain was covered with snow and ice, making visibility poor even during day time.
Troops suffered high altitude sickness at times.
Communication was restricted with the locals due to language barrier. Movement was slow due to lack of transport and communication, logistics, supplies and human resources. The only favourable and positive aspect was the friendly, cooperative and hospitable local population, the Thakalis. They followed Buddhism as their faith and Bon as the culture.
They were simple people.
They lived on animal husbandry and farming. They spoke only Tibetan or 'Tamang kai' dialect. So, how were the Gurkhas to fight the enemy in such an adverse condition? It was an offensive war with the purpose of extending the territory beyond the border.
It looked like a lost case and was an unexpected challenge for the Gurkhas.
In any war, local support is vital. Despite all the drawbacks, including communication, the locals were ever ready and eager to help and cooperate with the troops. They provided intelligence reports, interpreters, guides, information, co-ordination and help in locating the enemy, which greatly helped maintain the morale of the troops on the battlefield.
The locals also helped in supplying arms and ammunition to the front, ration during the break, manpower when needed, building camps and providing advice to the commander to launch an attack against the enemy. Besides this, the local young men also joined the Gurkha army, fought the enemy together and defended the country when attacked. Accustomed to the terrain and weather, the local youths were handy and bold enough to take an aggressive posture. They were deployed at the forefront and led the attacks. Among them was a dashing young man, Subba Bal Bir Thakali, who mobilised the local population in different roles and assisted the Gurkhas apart from his role as a soldier.
The local youths had knowledge of the terrain, roads, bridges, built-up areas, vegetation and obstacles, which was a plus point in forwarding the operation as planned. They knew the enemy well. The war progressed rapidly towards the north across the border up to the Korala Pass.
In the absence of the local Thakalis in Thak Khola, who showed sincere, earnest, and true love for their land, the outcome of the war could have been different.
The service rendered and the role of the Thakalis in the Mustang sector was highly acclaimed when the war came to a successful end. Any community or nation, big or small, can contribute or play a vital role in nation building should the need arise. The Thakalis did just that. Such selfless service to one's land does not go unnoticed.
The Tibetans were subdued everywhere and agreed to sign a treaty known as the 'Treaty of Thapathali' in 1856.The goal of regaining the lost glory was achieved by imposing an indemnity on Tibet of Rs 10,000, though a small amount, annually to Nepal. All the territory captured in the war was returned to Tibet as agreed in the treaty.
Prime Minister Jung Bahadur, though some portrait him as being ruthless, was a man of vision and conviction by the way he handled the war and brought victory to the nation. He knew how to hit hard when the enemy was weak.
In any war, local support is vital. Despite all the drawbacks, including communication, the locals were ever ready and eager to help and cooperate with the troops. They provided intelligence reports, interpreters, guides, information, co-ordination and help in locating the enemy, which greatly helped maintain the morale of the troops
A version of this article appears in the print on August 31 2021, of The Himalayan Times.