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.