THE ENDURING LEGACY OF INDO-NEPALESE MILITARY TIES

by Editorial

Every time diplomatic relations between India and Nepal come under some strain, it is the cynics who have a field day. The latest spell of acrimony, accentuated by a provocative cartographic ‘aggression’ initiated by Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, has given prophets of doom the chance to once again sound the death knell of the Indo-Nepal relationship. But little do these naysayers know that it requires more than just political or diplomatic divergences to permanently obliterate the centuries-old close bonding and bonhomie shared between the people of both countries.

Amongst the various issues that the current tension has generated, one concerns the future of the existing practice of Nepalese nationals serving in the Indian army. Some feel that with Oli encouraging hyper-nationalism and promoting anti-India sentiments amongst his people, New Delhi needs to be wary about recruiting Nepalese Gorkhas into the Indian army. Those who belong to this school of thought contend that the ongoing propaganda against India in Nepal would impact the psyche of its nationals due to which their loyalty towards India would be questionable.      

Nationalistic feelings do affect the outlook of people, but one needs to guard against overplaying this factor by considering it in isolation. Gorkhas from Nepal have a long history of traditional and cultural affinity towards India, especially when it comes to the armed forces. It is largely believed that the British had been the first to recruit Gorkhas from Nepal, for military service in the Bengal Army of East India Company in 1815, after seeing their prowess on the battlefield during the Anglo-Nepalese war. However, the military association of Gorkhas with India precedes their British connection by at least six years.

It was in 1809, when the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh clashed with the Gorkhas in Kangra [Himachal Pradesh] during the Gorkha-Sikh War. Though the Gorkhas were vanquished by the Sikhs, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was so impressed by their fighting abilities that he decided to employ them in his army. The Gorkhas fought alongside the Sikhs in the 1822 Afghanistan campaign and during the First Anglo-Sikh War [1822], out of the four infantry battalions of Sikh army’s elite ‘Fauj-e-Khas’ [special forces], one was entirely composed of Gorkhas. Since Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court was in Lahore, Gorkha soldiers serving in the Sikh army got the moniker ‘Lahure’ [pronounced ‘Lahoray’] – an expression used for Gorkha soldiers even today!

Returning to the issue of Nepalese Gorkhas serving in Indian army, a distinguished record of exemplary military service spanning more than two centuries of soldiering with the Sikh, British and Indian armies speaks volumes about the loyalty and dedication of Gorkhas from Nepal. If, today, they are renowned for being one of the most ferocious and dependable breeds of soldiers in the world, it is due to their unparalleled gallantry and enormous sacrifices made in the line of duty. The enduring ‘Lahure’ saga of bravery, which is an inseparable part of Nepalese folklore and hallowed canons like ‘Kafar Hunu Bhanda Marnu Ramro” [Better to die than live like a coward] is what makes Gorkhas the indomitable fighters they are.

So, while casting aspersions their loyalty merely on unsubstantiated speculation is bad enough, the unkindest cut is when academicians and activists with little or no exposure to ground realities attempt to label Gorkha soldiers of Nepal serving in Indian and British armies as ‘mercenaries’. Coming from those who claim to be the learned ones, such gross misinformation is despicable as it’s invariably contrived to mislead the gullible. Whereas a mercenary is one who is ready to serve the highest bidder and switch loyalties for pecuniary gains without any qualms whatsoever, the Gorkha soldier from Nepal serving in the Indian army [just like all his compatriots irrespective of their colour, caste or creed] remains steadfast since he fights for ‘Naam, Namak, aur Nishan’ [Honour – of his own and that of the outfit to which he belongs, implicit loyalty to the organisation he serves, and pride in the flag of his unit].

Furthermore, this is not the first time that Nepal is experiencing an upsurge in anti-India sentiments. Readers may recall that as early as 1996, Maoists had demanded the closure of all non-Nepalese army Gorkha recruitment in the country. In 2012, the government led by Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai had even attempted to put an end to the recruitment of Gorkhas by other countries in their armies through a document titled, “Nepal’s Foreign Policy in the Changed Context, 2012,” prepared on its behalf by the Nepal Constituent Assembly Committee for Foreign Affairs.

However, with more than 30,000 Nepalese serving in Indian army and over 1,25,000 pensioners and widows of former soldiers, besides the humongous financial implications, discontinuing recruitment of Nepalese citizens in Indian army is also a highly emotive issue for ‘Lahures’. No wonder the 2012 proposal didn’t make any headway and Nepalese citizens continued to enlist in the Indian and British armies as hitherto fore in accordance with the Tripartite Agreement of 1947 between India, UK and Nepal that formalised recruitment of Nepalese Gorkhas in the Indian and British armies and laid down the terms and conditions governing the same.

In February, the Nepalese government approached the UK to consider reviewing this agreement, but it didn’t make a similar request to New Delhi even though Nepal Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali had said that this agreement was “redundant.” However, not taking up this issue with India was not out of any love or affection for India but for reasons that are completely different. Oli’s move has been largely seen as an attempt to placate those opposing the recruitment of Gorkhas in foreign armies by giving them an impression of him going ahead and walking his talk on ending the recruitment of Nepalese citizens in foreign armies as well as keeping Beijing in good humour.

As per the Tripartite Agreement, India and UK were required to ensure that there would be no discrimination in pay, allowances, working conditions and facilities between their own nationals and Nepalese citizens serving in their respective armies. However, while India has scrupulously ensured this right from the beginning, the same isn’t the case with the UK where there was a wide disparity in pay and pension of Gorkhas vis a vis their British army counterpart till as late as 2007. Though equivalence was finally implemented thereafter, this issue hasn’t yet been fully resolved in its entirety and, thus, discontentment continues to simmer within the rank and file of Gorkhas serving in British army.

On the other hand, being treated as equals has enhanced the self-respect of Nepalese citizens serving in the Indian army while extension of health related and other schemes to retired Nepalese personnel, their dependents and widows of deceased soldiers has made quantum improvement in their quality of life. Frequent interaction between serving officers of the Indian army and veterans facilitates the formulation of a timely and proactive response to the requirements of the gallant Nepalese who had served in the Indian army.

Being treated at par with its own citizens while in service and their needs being taken care of even after retirement rightly make Nepalese citizens who are serving [or have served] in Indian army a proud lot. Hence, terming their occupation “dishonourable” or referring to them as ‘mercenaries’ in an attempt to demean doesn’t really upset or unnerve them! Similarly, since they fully understand that the Oli government is only promoting hyper-nationalism and raising anti-India ante to mollify Maoist factions and appease Beijing respectively.

Tailpiece: Ever since 1950, both India and Nepal have been following the tradition conferring the honorary rank of General of their respective armies upon each other’s army chiefs and this reflects the vibrant defence associated bonhomie that exists between the two countries. With Nepal President Bidhya Devi Bhandari scheduled to confer the honorary rank of General of the Nepal Army upon Indian Army chief General M.M. Naravane at an investiture ceremony next month, reading too much into Oli’s political posturing would amount to making a mountain out of a molehill. Because at the end of the day, hyper-nationalism may influence thinkers, poets and romantics, but certainly not our blue-blooded soldiers from Nepal!

The writer is an Army veteran, who is a keen Pakistan watcher. After retirement, he is gainfully spending his time pursuing his favourite hobby of writing and is a regular contributor to newspapers, journals and various think-tanks.

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