We had just crossed Upper Kawa and were walking along the steep banks of the Mahakali when we saw four Indian policemen approaching us. We were still in Nepal, so we weren't worried. The sight of the Indian security was a sign we were nearing the disputed Kalapani region on Nepal's northwestern tip, where the borders of China, Nepal and India meet.
The terrain flattened out, and some distance away was a hut covered in a black plastic sheet. A man in civvies was watching us intently. Along the eastern bank of the Mahakali, a red warning flag was fluttering in the breeze. As we approached, we also saw a sentry post and a pipe painted red between two boulders at what looked like a checkpoint.
Strange, we thought. The disputed part of Kalapani was still another five km away where the river bifurcates. We stepped over the checkpoint and walked on and spotted two paramilitary policemen were climbing up to us.
"Where are you going?" they asked in Hindi angrily. We said we were going up to the border and tried to move on. They stopped us again and asked for IDs. We said we were journalists and they snatched our IDs and camera. By this time seven more soldiers had arrived and were firing questions at us, not even waiting to hear our answers.
"Didn't you see the flag? Why did you cross the checkpoint? Why are you really here? How many Maoists are on that side? What kind of weapons do they have?" A uniformed senior official then accused us of being Maoists and tried to scare us by telling his runner to have blindfolds and red hot iron rods ready at their camp.
This was getting serious. Just then another senior-looking fellow in civvies from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police approached and asked us who we were and why we were there. We told him. He pointed to a barren mountain to the east and explained that was the border. He finally let us go, but not before one of his assistants had exposed the film in the camera.
Later after comparing maps and talking later to officials in Darchula, it was clear that now the Indians don't just regard the east bank of the Mahakali as their territory. They don't even regard the smaller tributary that comes down from Lipu Lekh as the border, and nor even the small stream that feeds into it. What is the de facto 'line of control' where we were stopped is now 600m southeast of the stream on a bluff overlooking the river, which is supposed to be right inside Nepal (See map.).
In Kathmandu, no one we spoke to in the government was aware of this.
The vacuum created by the withdrawal of all border police posts along Nepal's western border with India in the past two years has been filled by the Maoists. The Indians set up the sentry in Nepal six years ago when leftist students marched to Kalapani in a much-publicised attempt to "liberate" Nepali territory. They seem to have stayed on ever since. The Indian officials here told us this was now the new border.
When Nepal signed the Sugauli Treaty with British India in 1816, Nepal's western border with India was supposed to be the main channel of the Mahakali River. For 150 years, Nepal maintained that the real Mahakali was the one that flowed down from Limpiadhura. But in the 1962 Sino-Indian War it was a strategic necessity for India to control the passes that came down from Tibet through the Nepal side along the trijunction. By 1998, Girija Prasad Koirala as premier was telling parliament that Nepal accepted the much smaller tributary flowing down from Lipu Lekh as the Mahakali.
Even so, records of censuses as far back as 1961 and elections before that show villagers of Kuti, Garbyang and Gunji all voted and were counted as Nepalis. These villages along the east bank of the real Mahakali are now in India. But even if Nepal has accepted the much smaller tributary that flows down from Lipu Lekh as the border, Indian border police is now manning a checkpoint another 600m on the Nepali side.
After the police moved out of Chharung, the Maoists set up a platoon here. A Maoist flag flies on the Nepali side of Sita Pul, not the Nepali flag. Platoon leader Barun surveys the Indian security patrols across the river in Garbyang though binoculars (pic, above right). Earlier, we had seen the Indians doing the same, peering at the Maoists in Nepal. Barun says the Maoist presence here is for "propaganda purposes" and to "keep an eye on the Indians".
But there seems to be another motive. The Tinkar Lipu Lekhu track to Mansarobar and Tibet is a notorious conduit for wildlife trafficking. Between 1990 and 2000 alone, more than 500kg of tiger skins, tiger bones and parts, musk deer pouches and yarsagumba have been seized. Maoist Platoon Commander Ramesh told us the rebels charge Rs 35,000 tax on each kg of yarsagumba transported through his region. This would put income this season alone at about Rs 35 million. There is a separate tax on wildlife, and this year alone 250 tiger skins and bones have gone across from India to China. Explains Ramesh "As long as they pay the tax, it is our duty to give the traders safe passage."