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SOURCE:  The Tribune

ARMY Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane’s recent visit to Nepal was the first formal high-level tour from India to the neighbouring country in nearly a year. While the Covid-19 pandemic played a role in this prolonged ‘social distancing’, political actions by Nepal in the foregone months had contributed to the ‘chill’.

India-Nepal ties are characterised by a roti-beti relationship and institutional bonds, including an open border. Of special value are the linkages between the Indian Army and the Nepal Army, which is a key national institution in Nepal. The visit of the Army Chief was part of the long-standing and customary friendship between the Indian and Nepal armies and allowed for renewing these strong bonds.

India-Nepal Army ties are epitomised by a unique tradition of conferment of the honorary rank of General to each other’s Chiefs. All Indian Army Chiefs have been so honoured except General JJ Singh, whose tenure coincided with turbulent times in Nepal and the abolition of monarchy. General Naravane received his insignias from the President of Nepal during the visit. He also called on Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who is also the country’s Defence Minister. Furthermore, he addressed the Nepal Army Command and Staff College and did the ceremonial honours by laying a wreath at Bir Smarak.

Cooperation between the two armies encompasses nearly all facets of military activity. Indian equipment is widely in use in the Nepal Army with further assistance being provided in its modernisation efforts. Indian training facilities are regularly made available to the Nepalis along with holding of joint military exercises, assistance in times of disasters, participating in adventure activities and hosting bilateral visits. Officers from the Nepal Army attend training courses in Indian Army institutions. including the prestigious NDC course which was also attended some years back by the present Chief of the Nepal Army, General Purna Chandra Thapa. The Indo-Nepal battalion-level joint military exercise Surya Kiran is conducted alternately in India and Nepal. The 14th Surya Kiran exercise was held in December 2019 in Nepal.

During his visit, General Naravane gifted medical equipment for two field hospitals of the Nepali Army. The equipment included X-ray machines, computed radiography systems, ICU ventilators, video endoscopy units, anaesthesia machines, laboratory equipment and ambulances. He also gifted additional ventilators to the Nepal Army as Covid-related assistance. Earlier in July, the Indian Army had provided ventilators to the Nepal Army. Since the pandemic started, the Government of India has provided about 25 tonnes of essential medicines, medical supplies and equipment.

Another unique feature of the India-Nepal defence cooperation are the Gorkha regiments of the Indian Army that are raised also by recruitment from Nepal. Currently, about 32,000 Gorkha soldiers from Nepal are serving in the Indian Army. Moreover, an estimated 2 lakh veterans of the Indian Army are settled in Nepal and receive their pensions from the Indian embassy in Kathmandu and its two pension paying offices in Pokhara and Dharan. There are also 22 District Soldier Boards in Nepal which cater to the welfare needs of ex-Gorkha soldiers and their families. Interestingly, Nepalis serve as officers in the Indian Army going through the same recruitment process as is the case for Indian citizens. A most interesting case in recent years is that of a Nepali family where one brother rose to the rank of Lieutenant General in the Nepal Army while another served as Major General in the Indian Army.

The civilisational closeness between India and Nepal has many positives but also comes with its own challenges. A critical one is identity politics in Nepal with anti-India positioning being resorted to by political leaders of all persuasions. Playing of the China card vis-a-vis India has also been part of the Nepali political playbook. In recent years, with a large proportion of its population overseas (and not just in India), Nepal has benefitted from huge remittance inflows and experienced globalisation giving rise to a feeling of expanded options, especially beyond India, by far the biggest economic and societal partner of Nepal.

In 2018, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and the Nepal Communist Party came to power riding the crest of shrill nationalism with a clear anti-India undertone. However, as 2020 unfolded and the world grappled with Covid, factional coalition dharmas within the party started coming apart and whipping up anti-India sentiment, as usual, became the stratagem of choice for the Prime Minister to hold on to his position.This manifested itself in the release of a new map of Nepal that egregiously included Indian territories in Uttarakhand. Adding fuel to the fire were verbal articulations in Nepal at the highest-level targeting India.

All in all, Nepalese actions could only be interpreted as pokes in the eye for India. They were also alienating their best friends, the people of India. At the government level, there was little option but to allow some ‘cooling’. However, in the past few months, since August 15, when the Nepali PM called Prime Minister Modi and offered good wishes on India’s Independence Day and followed it up with a Dasehra greeting, with a card showing a map of Nepal without the recently claimed territories, the augury appears positive.

Nepal’s gesture to invite the Indian Army Chief and India’s decision to accept the invitation indicate mutual interest in finding a way to resume regular exchanges. In the extant circumstances, the visit of the Army Chief was bound to and did receive an unusual level of media attention in both countries (as did an informal visit by the R&AW Chief last month). It is good that the visit has been widely welcomed in Nepal. Hopefully, it will pave the way for more frequent higher-level engagements between India and Nepal soon. India-Nepal ties are such that there should be no distancing between the two countries.