The recent slide in relations between India and Nepal triggered by the border stand–off has been unprecedented. Nepal’s claim on the Indian territory of Kalapani (around 400 sq km), which has been the subject of dispute for decades, has beenunanimously passed by both the Houses of the Nepalese Parliament and signed by the President as part of the country’s Constitution. ‘In doing so Nepal has etched its territorial claim in stone which would make any concession by this government or any future government of Nepal virtually unthinkable.’(Shyam Saran: IE, 12 June 2020).The relationship has turned bitter after the statement of the Foreign Minister of Nepal Shri Pradeep Kumar Gyawali during a webinar on 31 July this year (2020) that the Tripartite Agreement has become redundant. The Gorkha fraternity of the Indian Army, collectively called the Gorkha Brigade, has been dumb– founded and at a loss to grasp the significance of the recent happenings. While the Indian Government has officially responded to the cartographical aggression by Nepal as ‘untenable and illegal’, it does nothing to assuage the sense of disbelief amongst veterans of Gorkha Brigade who treat their counterparts in Nepal as extended family.
The border dispute with Nepal has turned the spotlight on the Gorkha Regiments, which have been such an integral part of India’s national security. The relationship of the Indian Army with its Nepali Gorkha soldiers, which has been tested and forged in line of fire for more than two centuries (including the British Indian Army) has been so strong as to be unbreakable and any rupture in that relationship is unthinkable. After Independence, Gorkha soldiers of the Indian Army have fought in all its wars with loyalty and distinction and have been decorated with innumerable gallantry awards and unit awarded ‘Battle Honors’, which are symbolic of their fidelity to the Regiment, steadfastness in battle and Gorkha honor– ‘KafirHunu Mornu Ramro’, meaning ‘Better to Die than be a Coward’
A section of people in Kathmandu valley have often arguedthat the Gorkha Regiments of the Indian Army are mercenary force. Nothing could be farther from truth. Nepali Gorkhas are recruited in the British and Indian Armies in accordance with terms and conditions of the Tripartite Agreement of 1947 signed by the Governments of Britain, India and Nepal that divided the Gorkha Regiments between British and Indian Armies. There are several points in the Agreement which both Britain and India are obliged to adhere. One of the important stipulations is to ensure full integration of Gorkha soldiers into the Army to which they are recruited and under no circumstances are they to be considered mercenaries. Protocol 1 of 1977 ‘Additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions’ contains the only internationally agreed definition of mercenary. This definition excludes anyone who is a member of the Armed Forces of a party to the conflict, thereby effectively excluding Gorkhas of the Indian and British Armies.
Yet, another argument peddled by anti-recruitment lobby in Nepal is that it is against Nepal’s national honour for Nepalese nationals to form part of a foreign army. The question of Gorkha recruitment has come up in public debate in the past as well. Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai’s Government tried to put an end to Gorkha recruitment in the Indian Army in 2012 following recommendation by the Nepalese parliament but failed due to public outcry. The contrary view that for a poor country like Nepal working in foreign armies and security organisations was no different from working in foreign companies abroad.Employment opportunities in Nepal are virtually non-existent.The number of Nepalese working abroad, mainly unskilled, is around 3 million (this could be as large as 5 million by now.) This figure does not include the population working in India which is more than 3 million. 80 % of Nepalese migrants are working in the Middle East and Malaysia. Nepal Government’s Department of Foreign Employment data of 2014 shows that majority of migrant Nepali workers are engaged in work that are dangerous, difficult and quite often unsavory. Very fewimmigrant Nepalese workforce has found employment in managerial position. Nepali migrant workers in foreign countries are working in vulnerable situation without any legal protection by the Nepalese Government or the countries they have chosen to work in. Despite this bleak working conditions, migrant workers contribute hugely to Nepal’s economy. Nepal received 5.5 billion US Dollars in remittances during fiscal year ending mid July 2014 as reported in ‘Economic Journal of Development Issues’, Vol19-20,No1-2,(2015). Contrast this with the life of Gorkha soldiers in the Indian Army for whom it is as much about assured employment as about pride, dignity, assured pension for life and camaraderie of their Indian counterpart, which is manifested in regimental reunions at the regimental centers at regular intervals. It may be argued that the huge remittances brought in by migrant workers in foreign countries will more than make up for the loss of revenue should recruitment in the Indian Army is stopped. This line of reasoning fails to factor the long term negative social consequences, which could destabilize the Nepalese society and pose unpredictable consequences for millions of Nepali migrants working in India.
One of the major stipulations in the Tripartite Agreement requires Gorkha soldiers in British and Indian armies should receive same rates of pay and pension as their British and Indian counterparts. There is no discrimination in pay, allowances, pension and post-retirement medical and welfare entitlements between Indian and Nepali Gorkha soldiers in the Indian Army.The Indian Government has even sanctioned three polyclinics at Kathmandu, Pokhra and Dharan as extension of Ex-servicemen Contributory Health Scheme (ECHS) for Gorkha veterans in Nepal.
Gorkha veterans of the British Army had been representingthat Britain had put in place discriminatory policies in remuneration, mainly in pension. The British Government after prolonged negotiations (including legal battle in the British court) reviewed the pension policy which was a fraction of pension provided to British soldiers. British Army Gurkharetirees’ pension have been revised in line with their British counterparts. British Gurkha soldiers who retired after July1997 are now allowed British residency. Indian Gorkha soldiers face no such difficulty in residency in any part of India after retirement. Although both India and Britain signed the Tripartite Treaty in 1947, the strength of Gurkhas in the British Army has reduced drastically over decades with the shrinking of the Empire. British Army has amalgamated the four Gurkha regiments it inherited into a combined Royal Gurkha Rifles (RGR) of just two infantry battalions. The choice of British residency to post 1997 Gurkha retirees may have benefited Gurkha soldiers, it has shrunk the remittances to Nepal from UKas most retirees choose to continue to live in Britain with their families. The difference in numbers of retirees of Gorkha soldiers from British and Indian Armies are so huge that any comparison on their effect on Nepal’s economy and societywould be unrealistic.
The financial impact of recruitment of Gorkha soldiers in the Indian Army is substantial. There are around 32,000 Nepali Gorkha troops in the Indian Army and 1,27,000 pensioners; out of this total, 90,000 are defense pensioners, the balance 37,000 are para-military and central and state government pensioners. A sum of INR 2500 crore equivalent to NR 4000 crore (estimated to rise to INR 3000 crore equivalent to NR 4800 crore by FY 2018-19)) was paid to pensioners in the FY 2016-2017. At a conservative estimate 32,000 Nepal domiciled serving Gorkha soldiers remit to their families in Nepal approximately INR 1000 crore equivalent to NR 1600 crore per year. The grand total of all the above (NR 4800+NR 1600) NR 6400 crore is almost equivalent to 63% of total foreign grant in aid (NR 10689.64 crore) received by the Government of Nepal from all donor countries for the FY 2016-2017 and greater than its own defense budget of NR 3601 crore for the same financial year. Equally unique is the relaxation to citizens of Nepal to seek employment in central and state government departments except IAS, IPS and IFS. The Indian Army is proud to have officers in its rank who are citizens of Nepal; some of them have held rank of General officers. There is an element of realism in the observation made by a senior Gorkha officer, “No amount of pension or welfare can truly repay the debt India owes to its loyal Gorkha soldiers.”
The Indian Government and the Army, particularly the Gorkha Brigade, see relations with Nepal in different ways. The Indian Army’s relationship with Gorkha soldiers is illumined byshared experiences of war and peace, of blood and toil; for Gorkha officers and soldiers their regiments are second home. Officers and men of the regiments have spent more time in company of each other than with their families. The government on the other hand emphasizes how economically advantageous India’s relationship with Nepal has been. It is rarely seen to grasp the psychological dimension of the relationship manifested in closing the border for free movement of goods ordeferring the resolution of boundary question for decades. This pitfall in India-Nepal relations can be explained largely by hubris of Indian officials. To quote an example, there are floods in parts of northern Bihar every year, but there has rarely been an occasion, when the chief minister of Bihar has led an Indian delegation to Nepal to resolve the management of water flowing from the rivers in Nepal and flooding the plains of north Bihar.
India’s troubles with Nepal has not come suddenly. Rather, they have crept stealthily over decades. Our Embassy in Nepaland the External Affairs Ministry in India secure in their belief that the bonds between India and Nepal were historic and eternalbased on shared cultural values, religion and people centric (Beti Roti ka Rishta) failed to observe and analyse the dark clouds hovering over the countryside and its long term consequences. I wonder if the Indian establishment had anticipated the Maoist insurgency and its pan Nepal spread. One of the 40 odd demands of Maoists was to discontinue Gorkha recruitment in the Indian Army. The Indian Army, on the other hand, failed to discern that the Nepalese Government did not see Gorkha soldiers of the Indian Army in quite the same way as we do. During a reunion with Gorkha veterans in Butwal (Nepal) in April 2019, attended by nearly 50 retired Gorkha JCOS and NCOs, I was introduced to a lady, daughter of a veteran, who was the only personamongst the veterans in Butwal who held an elected post. It was obvious that Indian Army’s veterans were not welcome in Nepalpolitics.
The recent happenings and bitterness in the relationship between India and Nepal has shocked the Gorkha community of the Indian army. Many Gorkha veterans have responded with dismay and disbelief while many have been outraged. Three former ambassadors to Nepal wrote newspaper articlesexpressing their dismay at the turn of events. They are instructive. Ambassador Shyam Saran wrote (IE,June 12, 2020), “…Narendra Modi Government needs to shed its fond expectation that Nepal’s affinity with India because of its Hindu heritage is sufficient to consolidate political relations with that country.” Ambassador Ranjit Rae (Economic Times, August 13, 2020) commented on the recent statement of Gyawali suggesting review of the Tripartite Treaty and wrote, “ Discussing terms and conditions of recruitment and service is one thing, but a possible argument that Nepali Gorkhas should not be deployed during conflicts with countries friendly with Nepal is quite another matter.This would clearly be unacceptable.”Ambassador Manjeev Singh Puri was forthright (The Tribune; August 13, 2020)“If the Nepalese Government plays truant, the size of the Indian Gorkha should allow for the Gorkha Regiments of the Indian Army to be largely sustained.”
Nepal is existential to our national security. It is in our national interest to continue to have friendly relationship with Nepal. The recent face-off and loss of dominant Indian influence to an ascendant China in Nepal is a major setback and failure ofIndia’s diplomacy and politics. But to respond to the proposed demand of Nepalese government to review the Tripartite Agreement in anger or to call it as the betrayal of the centuries old friendship is to play into the hands of Chinese. Our national interest lies in countering the Chinese influence in Nepal. The immediate response suggesting that there are enough Gorkhas in India to sustain the Gorkha Regiments is both controversial andprovocative and ill serves our interest. A signal may have been conveyed to Nepal by forming the Gorkha Battalion in 2015manned exclusively by Indian Gorkhas. Our interest lies in continuation of recruitment of Nepali Gorkhas: They and their families and the pensioners are our greatest asset to counter the Chinese influence. India should continue to reinforce that bond even if the relations between the two countries are renegotiated.
The Indian government spends large amounts of money every year through its Embassy in Nepal on welfare of Gorkha ex-servicemen. It is unclear if any audit has ever been carried out to assess the benefits accrued to the targeted population and how the welfare measures have been received by the recipient villages. The Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, on the other hand, has recently given NR 12.7 lacs to a Nepalese NGO, Chinese Study Center, to explore the reasons why Nepalese youth are attracted to join the Indian Army. To the best of my knowledge neither the Indian strategic community nor the Indian Army has done any empirical study on the changing dynamics in the Nepalese society. For example, Gorkha soldiers retiring from the Indian Army are no longer going back to their villages in the mountains, but prefer to settle down in Terai, which is more developed and has infrastructure comparable to border towns in Bihar and UP. The internal migration has brought ‘Madeshi’ and hill people in conflict situation.
The world has changed and so has the Indian subcontinent. India must find new ways to advance its ties with Nepal. So also, the Indian Army as part of the overarching review look anew at the orientation and motivation of the present generation of Nepalese youth. Over time India’s security in Nepal has been hallowed out. Rather than responding to Nepal’s China card and fret about it, India should welcome Nepal’s initiative to renegotiate all bilateral issues including the 1950 treaty, the open border, the status of Nepali citizens in India, trade and transit arrangements. The renegotiated relationship based on mutual interest, trust and age-old traditions may force Nepal to evaluate the existing relationship pragmatically and will be beneficial to both.