After the Indian defeat in the war of 1962, China took in over 3,900 Indian Prisoners of War (POW). But among them, about 700 Gorkha POWs were singled out for different – ‘perhaps better’ – treatment, sought to be indoctrinated against their Indian officers, and told that Chinese and Nepalis are ‘brothers’. China even made a direct offer to Nepal to take back Gorkha POWs, an offer Kathmandu declined.
This was seen as a part of an effort to infiltrate Nepal with ‘agents’ – the fear of which alarmed the UK, whose diplomats in London, Kathmandu, Delhi and then Peking kept a close track of the episode. Chinese intentions also worried Nepal – but it kept those fears to itself because the royal regime wanted to portray to Delhi that it was closer to Beijing than it actually was.
These are claims made in a research article based on diplomatic correspondence between British diplomats (now available at the National Archives in London), and more recent press reports by a former British four-star general, Sir Sam Cowan. HT has exclusive access to the as-yet unpublished piece. While there have been earlier indications of differential treatment, the direct Chinese offer to Nepal as well as the high interest in London was not known so far.
On April 3, 1963, China announced its decision to release and repatriate all captured soldiers. The release process started the following week. In mid-May, there were press reports in Delhi that none of the Gorkha POWs had been released.
To figure the reason, Cowan quotes a cable by JAG Banks, the British High Commissioner in Delhi to his bosses in London earlier in April. The Nepal desk officer in the ministry of external affairs (MEA) had told Banks that China had been in touch with Nepal, ‘suggesting that as the Indian Gorkhas they had captured were Nepalese subjects, the Chinese government would be willing to release them directly to Nepal’. The Nepal government had replied saying it was ‘far from true that all Gorkhas lived in Nepal’ and rejected the offer. It was only on June 15 that PM Jawaharlal Nehru confirmed that Gorkha POWs had been returned to India.
On June 21, Guy Clark, the British ambassador to Nepal gave London an account of the treatment of a Gorkha POW based on a testimony provided by one such person at a British Gurkha depot. The dispatch quotes him to say they were ‘very well-treated’, were given a short pep talk each day on the ‘virtues of communism, told that Chinese and Nepalese were brothers, and that before long, India, Pakistan, Nepal and other small countries would become a part of communist China’. The ex prisoner had told the British that they had treated this as a ‘joke’ and did not intend to turn against their Indian officers.
Cowan however takes this with a pinch of salt and says, “We cannot be sure exactly how the Chinese treatment of Gorkhas POWs might have influenced their behavior, either immediately, or perhaps more particularly, many years later.” He throws up an intriguing possibility. The places which were the hub of Nepal’s radical left, and later communist movements, were also epicentres of Gorkha recruitment in the Indian Army. Did anyone influenced by his time in China help spread revolutionary consciousness in Nepal after retirement?
The then Nepal government was alive to these fears, with both the chairman of the council of ministers Tulsi Giri and police chief P S Lama, telling the British that they were well aware of Chinese plans to infiltrate agents. The Chinese military attaché had even sought to bribe Lama. But Nepal kept these fears to itself – for its entire approach with Delhi was to play up its warmth with Beijing to dilute Indian opposition to palace rule in Nepal.