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by Jamyang Norbu:
On the surface of it the official Middle Way Approach (MWA) theory that even if Tibet were to become independent most of Kham and all of Amdo would somehow inevitably be excluded from this wonderful development, might seem just pseudo-historical speculation of a particularly simple-minded kind.

But underlying this claim is a false and divisive line of reasoning that is being brought into play to panic Khampas and especially Amdowas into giving up the freedom struggle. At its least mischievous the explanation is that the Lhasa government of the past never bothered about Kham and Amdo. At its vicious worst the argument goes that Lhasa sold out (tsongba ray) these two regions. And this often degenerates into poisonous charges of Lhasa aristocracy exploiting Khampa and Amdowa pilgrims to the Holy City and stealing the intellectual works of Amdowa scholars, in particular “Gedun Chophel’s history”, as readers of this blog will have noticed in quite a few of the comments.

The pre-1950 Lhasa government was certainly anachronistic, weak and often corrupt, but far from selling out Kham and Amdo, it never gave up its claim to these areas. In fact it asserted them in various diplomatic venues and situations, whenever it could.

On the 10th of October 1913 the great patriot and prime minister of Tibet, Lonchen Shatra, in his formal position paper at the Simla Conference, which might be regarded as our diplomatic or international declaration of independence, made a detailed statement of Tibetan independence. Shatra included the regions of Kham and Amdo in this declaration, even specifying the precise traditional frontiers of these regions with China:

“On the North-east by the stone pillar at Miru Gang in Zilling, thence to the East along the course of the river coming from the Mar-chen Pomra mountain until it comes to its first big bend and thence to the South-east at a place called Chorten Karpo in Jingtang … on the North the Kuen Lun Range, the Altyn Tagh Range , the Ba-kang Po-to Range, thence to the North of Tso Ngon-po, including the Ba-nak Kha-Sum country to the border of Kan-su province of China, thence in a Southerly and South-easterly direction including the country of Go-lok, Hor-kog, Nya-rong, Gya-rong, … Chak-la, and Dar-tse-do, thence in a Southerly direction….etc., etc.,” [1]

To support his statement he brought with him from Lhasa “a mass of documents”. Even a fairly unfriendly academic as Goldstein writes that Shatra, in his presentation “… took a very hard line on both the political and territorial issue, demanding the reunification of all Tibetan speaking peoples under the administration of the Dalai Lama including all of Amdo and Kham.” [2]

The Tibetans produced fifty-six volumes of original source materials to back up much of it claims. The documents included: “…census rolls, primary registers of tax revenues, judicial records, land registries, charters naming appointments of headmen, officials, chiefs, lamas and monastic administrators, proclamations, public notices, monastic endowment records, militia service musters, and displays of seals.”[3]

The Chinese, who did not have a single original document to back up their case, were unsettled by the Tibetan presentation, and their leader Mr. Ivan Chen (Zhen Yi-fan) showed “evident signs of panic” according to Sir Henry McMahon[4]. Not withstanding their weakness the Chinese absolutely refused to even consider Tibetan demands and insisted that all of Tibet was part of China. The conference broke down on the question of the Sino-Tibetan boundary, and the Chinese who had initialed the draft did not sign the final convention.

The agreement reached between Britain and Tibet was that the territory held by the Lhasa government would constitute “Outer Tibet” while those that the Chinese held would be referred to as “Inner Tibet”. The Tibetans were unhappy with this compromise, but were forced to accept it. For the sake of this discussion, it should be pointed out that the Tibetans insisted that all of Kham and Amdo be recognized as “Tibet”, even if the qualification, “Inner” had to be added. That was the bottom line for Lhasa. Of course, besides the Sino-Tibetan boundary question, the Conference dealt with other major issues, but those are outside the scope of this discussion.

The 13th Dalai Lama was dissatisfied with the outcome and appears to have issued, quite unfairly, a rebuke of sorts to Shatra, according to Charles Bell. Bell himself when questioned by His Holiness on the “Outer” and “Inner” division of Tibet, explained that though China wanted to treat Kham and Amdo as “provinces” of China, “…We arranged for them to be called Inner Tibet, thus keeping Tibet’s name on them. Later on, if your army grows strong enough to ensure that Tibet’s rights are respected, you may regain the rightful possession of this part of your country. But not if the name (or rather “claim” J.N.) be lost.” [6]

Although of course it wasn’t as simple as Bell represented it to the Dalai Lama, but there was an essential if “crude” truth to Bell’s advice. Diplomatic success is in nearly all instances inherently a corollary to military victory or power. If your armies have smashed the Ottoman Empire in 1918 then you can, as Winston Churchill did in 1921, take a portion of it and create a previously non-existent nation, call it Trans-Jordan (later Jordan), and boast that you did it “…with the stroke of a pen on a Sunday afternoon in Cairo.” Since Churchill was partial to champagne and a whiskey or two with lunch, his afternoon exertions allegedly produced an erratic borderline, the result still visible on today’s maps. The curious zigzag of the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia is euphemistically referred to as “Winston’s Hiccup”.

The 13th Dalai Lama’s generals and officers, who had defeated Chinese troops in Shigatse and Lhasa a couple of years earlier with untrained country levees, knew from their own hard-earned experience the value of military power. In those early years of Tibetan independence they strove to create a modern army. The resounding success of this modern army in 1918 in Kham carried tremendous political significance. For the first time in about a thousand years Tibetan troops had decisively defeated an invading Chinese army. I have recounted this in some detail in the section “The Missing War” in my review essay “Black Annals”, which readers can check if they want to refresh their memory.

It was not as complete a victory as Tibetans would have liked. Once again the British played a double-game with us. But Chamdo, Drayak, Sangyen, Gonjo, Markham, Beyul, Dengkhok, and all of Derge were liberated up to the Rongbatsa line where a treaty was concluded. Most Khampas felt that the 1918 victory was a turning point in their history for they describe it grandiloquently as kalpa sa-ta, or the “The New Age of the Earth Horse.” It was not just a war but a national liberation. The 1918 victory was also clear proof that a trained Tibetan army was capable of defending its own frontier against Chinese aggression.

But in the following years Lhasa’s military ambitions in Kham and even Amdo were not sufficient to its strength and resources. In 1931 the Tibetan administration in Chamdo became involved in a quarrel between two monasteries in Tre-hor, and sent troops across the cease-fire line. Initially the Tibetans were very successful, capturing most of the districts of Kanze and even Nyarong. The Chinese asked for a cease-fire, and if the Tibetans had agreed at this point they might have been able, so Shakabpa tells us, to hold on to this “considerable amount of territory”. But Tibetans had penetrated to within a few days march of Dhartsedo and unwisely decided to reject the Chinese offer. Later that year a massive Chinese counter-offensive pushed the Tibetans back and even took the eastern half of Derge.

The next year a very ill-advised Tibetan advance into Jeykundo, then under the rule of Ma Bufang, the Hui Muslim warlord of Amdo, also ended badly for Tibetans.

As unfortunate, even disastrous, as these defeats were, I am mentioning them to underline the fact that the Lhasa government hadn’t just given up on Kham and Amdo and that its officials weren’t just endlessly partying in the capital, as the anti-Lhasa narrative goes. Many U-Tsang officers and soldiers (and Khampa militiamen) died during these wars. Three generals were killed in action in 1918. The old governor-general (1931-32) Ngabo (not Ngawang Jigme) died, probably of heart-failure from the stress of the conflict (“his wind element became agitated” Shakabpa) . The gossip in Lhasa was that he killed himself by swallowing a diamond in remorse for his defeat.

Tibetan defeat can be to a great extent be explained by the decline of the Tibetan military strength from its peak in 1918, to the beginning of the 1920s when “the ultra-conservative” monastic section of the National Assembly (Tsongdu) led by the monk official Tenpa Dhargay (dronyer-chenmo “Apso”) and supported by Lungshar, conspired to undermine that new power bloc of military officers and officials, led by Tsarong which was “committed to modernization”[7]. In the following years the modern Lhasa police force was disbanded, military spending reduced, army officers degraded, and endowments for monasteries and lamas increased. After the death of the Great 13th, the subsequent rule of two lama regents, both corrupt and reactionary, reduced the Tibetan army to a fraction of its size and effectiveness, before the Communist invasion of 1950.

In a real sense not only the loss of independent Tibet in 1950, but even the break-up of the Tibetan empire in the 9th century and the subsequent loss of Amdo and most of Kham can be be blamed directly on the powerful clerical and monastic faction of Tibetan politics. It is beyond any academic dispute that the assassination of the Tibetan emperor Lhasay[8] Darma (r. 838-842) by a Buddhist monk “…was devastating for the Tibetans, because it gradually led to a civil war and the disintegration of the whole country.”[9]

In an original and remarkable study of this event, the great Tibetan scholar, Samten Karmay, has made a convincing case that contrary to monastic propaganda, the emperor did not persecute Buddhists, but was rather attempting to reign in the extraordinary privileges and political power appropriated by the Buddhist clergy, which had gotten so out of hand during the reign of his older brother Ralpachen, that it weakened Tibetan military power and alienated lay officials and generals. But for his efforts to strengthen imperial rule and secularize his administration, Lhasay Darma was assassinated by a Buddhist monk, and unrelentingly demonized forever-after in Tibetan history and myth.

The fact that this act of murder committed by a member of the Buddhist clergy (probably at the bidding of a monkish conspiracy) was the direct cause of the break-up of the Tibetan empire, though not in dispute, is never raised in any political discussion on why Tibet lost its independence. Samten la, points out that the empire was intact at the time of Lhasay Darma’s reign and even far-flung “… territories such as Dunhuang (in Gansu) were still under Tibet’s rule”. So all of Amdo and Kham were certainly part of Tibet until the assassination of Lhasay Dharma.

The loss of these territories did not, of course, just happen overnight, and Lhasa was somehow able to hold on to varying degree of influence and power that diminished over the centuries that followed. But for this present discussion there is no need to go into a detailed account of this decline.

Suffice it to note that the appointment by the Manchu emperor of an amban (imperial commissioner) at Xining in 1725 over the Mongol banners and Tibetan tribes of Amdo is often cited as the end of Tibetan influence in the region. But in reality the Xining commissioner had little actual power, and in the case of the Golok tribesmen apparently no influence at all, according to a recent study by Paul Nitupski.[10] Furthermore according to the Italian scholar Luciano Petech, Lhasa maintained a parallel organization in Amdo “till about the middle of the 19th century, a commissioner called the sgar dpon, whose functions above all concerned trade and the control of local monasteries.” [11] The sgarpon like the Manchu amban, appears to have had little actual control over regional politics.

But from the late 19th century much of Amdo was gradually occupied by the Hui Muslim warlords of the Ma clan, and only as late as from 1928 to 1949 was Amdo assimilated into Qinghai province and a part of Gansu province.
But even during this late period the relationship between Amdo and Lhasa was held together largely through the extensive monastic network of spiritual, scholastic, cultural and even financial and commercial connections that bound most of these institutions, lamas and their lay congregation together throughout the Tibetan Buddhist world. The Amdo scholar Pema Bhum told me that the people of Amdo always considered Lhasa to be the center of their civilization that they used such traditional aphorisms as “lho-nyima lhasa” “Lhasa the sun of the south” “or when I close my eyes I see Utsang.” to express their feelings for their cultural and historical roots.

The Lhasa government also used whatever opportunity came its way to strengthen its ancient bonds with Amdo. Taktser Rimpoche told me that when he was abbot of Kumbum monastery he received regular correspondence from the Governor General of Eastern Tibet, Sawang Lhalu, especially the year before the Communist invasion.

In 1926 The Tibetan government conferred the official rank of rimshi on the paramount Golok chief Trulku Tendrak of Arkhyong Gongmatsang, chief of the Ri-mang tribes.[12] Another chieftain, Rinchen Wang gi Gyalpo, of the Sershul nomads, was also granted an official title and costume at the ceremony which took place at Dzachukha. Joseph Rock mentions that when he travelled across Golok territory in 1926 he was told that Arkhyong Trulku the chief of the “largest and most important” Golok tribe, the Ri-mang, was absent from his encampment and said to have gone “…to make his submission to the Tibetan government.”[13]

When these and subsequent Golok chiefs visited Lhasa they would wear their ceremonial robes and receive the proper reception and audiences with the Dalai Lama that protocol required. I think it might be pointed out that all Khampas and Amdowas coming into Tibetan government territory did not require an official lamyik (a passport or visa), which all Chinese, Indians and of course Westerners did.

Geshe Sherap Gyatso, vice-president of Buddhist Association of China, with chairman Mao Zedong, Beijing circa 1951
Geshe Sherap Gyatso, vice-president of Buddhist Association of China, with chairman Mao Zedong, Beijing circa 1951
Even when Geshe Sherab Gyatso of Amdo an eminent Buddhist scholar but a known agent of the Guomindang (later of the PRC) attempted to enter Tibet from China in April 1944, with fifty Chinese “students” and a great deal of gifts and propaganda material, the Tibetan government announced that geshe la would, of course, be permitted to enter Tibet, but not his Chinese “students”. Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal, the Communist agent, entered Tibet quite freely without a passport, and in fact received considerable hospitality from aristocrats and people of U-Tsang as he mentions in his autobiography. Even the very conservative kashag accepted his written petition on reforming Tibet.

After the first major uprising in Kham in 1956, when many thousands of refugees from Kham and less from Amdo poured into Lhasa (The Dalai Lama says over 10,000 people) the Lhasa government did not turn any of them back. There was already a food shortage in Central Tibet because we had to feed the Chinese occupation army, but the Lhasa public only showed sympathy and support to the refugees. The Chinese authorities ordered the kashag to use what remained of the Tibetan army and the Lhasa police force to round up the refugees and send them back.

As powerless as it was, the kashag under Surkhang shapé, refused to do so. It may not seem like much to us now, but we should bear in mind that the Vichy government of France did not hesitate to give up its own citizens of Jewish origin, when ordered to do so by the Nazi occupation authority. In fact the French government and police willfully collaborated with the Nazis in rounding up tens our thousand of French Jews and shipping them off to the death camps in Germany. In one case the French police, on its own initiative, arrested 13,152 Jews, including 4,051 children—which the Gestapo had not asked for.

Tsering Shakya la in his accomplished History of Modern Tibet tells us that the Chinese put enormous pressure on the Tibetan government to use its few remaining regiments to “quell the Khampa uprising”, and to even assume principal responsibility for this task. The kashag together with the tsongdu (National Assembly) came up with a deliciously Machiavellian counter-proposal. They requested the Chinese to first allow the Tibetan government to substantially increase the size of its standing army, and further provide it with modern arms and equipment. The Chinese dropped the issue.

With a little more research and some consultation on the international-legal side of things, I think a solid case could be made for Kham and Amdo to be considered inalienable parts of independent Tibet. Without rewriting history or overstating our case we could definitely establish that the Tibetan government had always regarded and treated the people of Kham and Amdo as Tibetans, as its own people, even though for certain periods of time it did not collect taxes or administer most of them directly. In turn we could certainly show that the people of Kham and Amdo regarded Lhasa as the capital of their linguistic, cultural, and spiritual civilization, and that in moments of great crisis, also their political center, as Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang and the thousands of Eastern Tibetan refugees did in the fifties. And of course there is the undeniable historical fact that all of Kham and Amdo had, a couple of hundred years before been indisputable constitutents of the Tibetan nation.

And this is where I want to point this bizarre and absolutely erroneous interpretation of international law and perhaps even the historical process itself that MWA leaders and advocates seem to have embraced. They appear to believe that there is some kind of “statute of limitations”, some kind of cut-off point in the time-line of history (fifty to hundred years perhaps) beyond which a country that has lost its independence can never legally reclaim its previous status. Hence, the MWA argument that if Tibet becomes independent then only the territory under the administration of the Lhasa government in 1950 (63 years ago) would be considered (by the UN, the International Court of Justice, by who? ) to be part of Tibet, but that Amdo and the rest of Kham, not directly governed by the Ganden Phodrang government for some hundred years, would not qualify.

This is, of course, ridiculous. India became an independent nation after 200 hundred years of British rule and another 300 under the Moghuls. And all Tibetans know at least this much about Jewish history that the Jews established an independent Israel after losing their homeland 2000 years ago.

The Scots lost their independence 300 years ago, when a Scottish King married an English princess and his son, James, became king of both Scotland and England. Scottish claim to independence is far less straightforward than the Tibetan one, and Tibetan “Braveheart” fans should note that their hero’s story is just one chapter of Scottish history. But now, when the Scottish National Party wants Scotland to secede from the “Union”, there is of course a great national debate, as there should be, but nobody tells the Scots, “Sorry boys, you’ve left it too long – you’ve passed your sell-by date.” Scottish independence is a real issue. And that is what Tibetans have to do – make of the issue of the independence of Tibet and its three regions, a real and resounding one internationally. That is the first step.

You do not have to have a history of continuous, or near-continuous self-rule in order to claim independence. In fact you don’t even have to have a history at all of being a nation. I think it might be safe to say that many, if not most, of the countries in the United Nations did not have a history of being independent states prior to their being subjugated by Western colonial powers. Most of the countries in the Middle East were just provinces, vilayets, of the Ottoman Empire, before the British and the French carved them up into the present day states of Iraq, Syria, Lebannon, Jordan, etc., for their own purposes.

Even Palestine, whose issue, in one way or the other, is ever-present in the global media, was just a few sanjaks (districts) of the Ottoman Empire. One could go on an on with such examples up to the present day with East Timor and Kosovo. I think I can say with some confidence that if the issue was just about history, then cholkha-sum Tibet has a better case for independence than any of the aforementioned states. But of course, history, though certainly important, is only one factor that ultimately determines whether a nation becomes independent or not.

The right to self-determination is a cardinal principle in modern international law, enshrined in the United Nations Charter, binding on all UN member states, and enumerated as Article 1 of both binding UN human rights covenants. Under self-determination, all peoples have the right to freely determine their political status with no external compulsion or interference. And it was this principle through which nearly every new country after World War II was granted their independence. There are conflicting definitions and legal criteria for determining which groups may legitimately claim the right to self-determination, besides a controversy or two regarding the principle itself, but the fact of it being the cardinal principle in modern international law is not really in dispute. In fact this principle is considered a fundamental, universally-accepted “peremptory norm” (jus cogens) of modern international law.

Hence I think it is important for all of us, especially MWA believers and followers, to remember that the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination was explicitly recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in three Resolutions – 1353 (XIV) in 1959, 1723 (XVI) in 1961, and 2079 (XX) in 1965 – that called on China to respect this right.

The General Assembly … solemnly renews its call for the cessation of practices which deprive the Tibetan people of their fundamental human rights and freedoms, including their right to self-determination.” United Nations General Assembly, Resolution 1723 (XVI), 1961.

And it should be pointed out that the resolution is absolutely clear about whose right to self-determination was being discussed. The resolution in no way even hints that the “people” in question might mean only those Tibetans living under the pre-1950 Lhasa government, nor only citizens of the Dalai Lama’s Ganden Phodrang government. The resolution simply says “the Tibetan People”, the definition of which, as I have pointed out in the first part of this essay, even China has acknowledged as including all people of Tibetan ethnicity in the so called “minority areas”, which would mean all Khampas and Amdowas.

I do not think that there was any misunderstanding in the United Nation on this particular issue. In the UN debates on Tibet and also in the two reports of the International Commission of Jurists (1959 & 60) which were quoted extensively by the discussants, the cases of those Tibetans whose rights were being discussed were from all over the three traditional regions of Tibet. I quote: “Rigong, Amdo”, “Dzongsar, Derge”, “Rawa, near Lithang”, “Nangsang, Ba”, “Jayangshipa and Schachung monasteries, Amdo”, “Doi-Gyatsang, Amdo”, “Datsedo, Kham”, “Dakhang Nangkhe and Chadze, Amdo,” etc., etc., and of course districts and towns in U-Tsang as well.

If you read the proceedings it is clear that the delegates were aware that the territory under the jurisdiction of the Lhasa government was invaded by the PRC in 1950, but that there were Tibetan areas not under Lhasa administration, where the major uprisings against China’s rule had taken place and where “acts of genocide” had been committed by China. For the purpose of the resolution it is clear that when the General Assembly called “for the cessation of practices which deprive the Tibetan people of their fundamental human rights and freedoms, including their right to self-determination” they were referring to the people of all three regions of Tibet.

I think it is also beyond dispute that the people of the three regions of Tibet have clearly exercised their right to self-determination and demonstrated their choice – their rejection of China’s rule – in the numerous armed uprisings from December 1949 in Nangra and Hormukha in Amdo, in February 1956 in Lithang which precipitated the Great Khampa Uprising, and in March 1959 in Lhasa, to name a few major instances. The ongoing self-immolations in Amdo and Kham, which now exceeds 120 cases, clearly demonstrates the people’s rejection of Chinese rule, and clearly voices their call for the return of Tibet’s sovereign ruler, the Dalai Lama, to his ancient capital Lhasa, and for his government to rule over a unified and independent Tibet.

What MWA is asking all Tibetan to do is give up their struggle for independence and voluntarily chose to be a citizen of China and voluntarily live under Communist rule. It is important for all Tibetan especially Khampas and Amdowas, to understand that by doing this they are in effect renouncing the most important legal decision all Tibetans (including Khampas and Amdowas) have obtained to date from the United Nations, in effect giving up their right to self-determination, and in a real sense even giving up their basic human rights, which they will be doing when they make the choice to live voluntarily under the Communist Party.

You may have heard the story of a native American tribe selling the island of Manhattan to the Dutch in 1626 for the equivalent of $24 worth of “beads, buttons and other trinkets,” and according to a scurrilous folk song “throwing in the Bronx and Staten Island for a bottle of booze”. The story is probably apocryphal, made up by some racist inji to demonstrate how stupid the natives were. I wonder what kind of story a future Chinese racist is going to invent to show how easily Beijing fooled these dumb Tibetans into selling away their right to an independent Tibetan homeland for nothing of any substance, not even some bead or buttons, much less a bottle of booze.

[1] Anon. The Boundary Question between China and Tibet: A Valuable Record of the Tripartite Conference between China, Britain and Tibet held in India, 1913-14. Peking. 1940. pp.1-6.
[2] Goldstein, Melvyn C. A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951; The Demise of the Lamaist State. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989. pp. 68-71.
[3] Shakabpa, Tsepon W.D. Bhod Kyi SeDon Gyalrap (Political History of Tibet) Vol II, Sherig Parkhang, Dharamshala, 1976.
[4] Premen Addy, Tibet on the Imperial Chessboard, Academic Publishers, Calcutta Delhi, 1984. p.279
[5] Wangchuk Tsering, was my great-grandfather from my father’s maternal side. He hailed from Amdo and received a Chinese education as a child. Starting off as an assistant he later became one of the two Manchu commissioners for customs at Yatung. He retired in Darjeeling and assisted the Thirteenth Dalai Lama during his exile there. The family still has a letter from His Holiness granting him the governorship of Markham in Eastern Tibet ¬– an honor which Wangchuk Tsering respectfully declined. JN.
[6] Bell, Charles. Portrait of the Dalai Lama, Collins, London 1946. pp 206-207.
[7] Goldstein, ibid.
[8] “Lang” or “Ox” Darma was the derogatory epithet used in subsequent clerical propaganda about the emperor Lhasay or “Heavenly Son” Darma.
[9] Samten G. Karmay, “King Glang Dar-ma and his Rule” The Arrow and the Spindle, Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet, Vol II. Mandala Publications, Kathmandu, 2005. p.15
[10] Paul Kocot Nietupski, Labrang Monastery: A Tibetan Buddhist Community on the Inner Asian Borderlands, 1709-1958, Lexington books, UK, 2011, p. 117.
[11] Luciano Petech, Aristocracy and Government in Tibet, p.13.
[12] Jamyang Norbu, “The Girl and the Golok Chiefs”
[13] Joseph Rock, The Amnye Machen Range and Adjacent Regions, Is.M.E.O., Roma, 1956.

(This was to be Part II of my previous “Catch-22…Part I”, but I realized this post stood on its own and just needed a new title.) .

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