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SOURCE:  The Tribune

INDIA-NEPAL relations are at their lowest point after the 2015 economic blockade following the promulgation of Nepal’s new Constitution which India did not welcome. Fortunately, the light at the end of the tunnel, the lodestar of ties, is in the hands of India’s most trusted and reliable constituency outside the political battleground of Kathmandu valley, the Indian Army Gorkhas and the ex-servicemen community.

They make up for the growing anti-India sentiment in Nepal driven by ultranationalism and a Left-leaning government. The Gorkha connect is as strong as it is stable in a country where hardy youth still flee their homes to become Lahure, the mythical mantra which transforms stout-hearted mountain lads into fearsome khukuri-wielding warriors. Starting 1809, they would trek to Lahore to join Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Sikh army, creating a formidable Gurkha-Sikh martial force much before the British East India Company began recruiting them after the Anglo-Gurkha war (1814-15). Even today, soldiers of fortune are called Lahure. A more than 200-year-old legacy of valour and affection, acclaimed by 12 Victoria Crosses, made the Lahure the loved Johnny Gurkha to the British.

At the time of Independence, British Gurkhas became Indian Gorkhas and for the first time, officered by Indians. A tripartite agreement of 1947 between the UK, India and Nepal regulated the recruitment, pay, pension and terms of service of Gorkhas recruited into three sovereign countries. The bulk of the Gurkha regiments volunteered to join the Indian Army, growing to 43 infantry battalions (45,000 combatants which is larger than the entire British infantry) plus an artillery regiment and a mechanised battalion.

Initially, recruitment was wholly from Nepal, but it reduced progressively to the current 60 per cent while the remaining 40 per cent are Indian-domiciled Gorkhas. Scattered across Nepal from Mechi and Mahakali are 28 District Soldier Boards and three Pension Paying Offices. Recruitment rallies are now held in Nepal but these were for long periods organised at Gorakhpur’s Gorkha Recruitment Depot. Roughly 1,500 to 2,000 Gorkhas are recruited annually compared to 200 lads for the British Army where the British Gurkhas are 3,500-strong, making up two battalions and support forces. A third battalion was to be raised in 2019 along with female combatants, but Covid-19 has probably delayed it.

Relations between the Indian and Nepalese armies go back to 1952 when Nepal requested India to establish a military mission which waxed and waned under different acronyms till it was withdrawn under Communist pressure in 1970. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw as the Army Chief, set up a special Gorkha cell which revamped army-to-army ties. Later, the Army Chiefs of India and Nepal were recognised as honorary Generals and Chiefs of each other’s armies. A slew of welfare measures for Gorkha ex-servicemen were instituted in Nepal and young officers were required not only to acquire proficiency in Nepali language, but also trek across remote areas from where the Gorkhas were drawn. The military connect is unique: Nepal’s advance training is held in India on a preferential basis; the India-Nepal Security Cooperation Agreement of 2003 was at the height of the Maoist civil war; it was during this military engagement that the Indian Army provided tactical and strategic guidance to the Nepal Army as well as lethal and non-lethal military hardware. When in 2005, King Gyanendra dismissed the elected government by a royal coup, India suspended the supply of lethal equipment which led to a spat between the Army and Foreign Office in which the latter prevailed. The then Army Chief General JJ Singh claimed that suspension of military support would adversely affect army-to-army relations and the course of counter-insurgency, but political authority trumped military considerations. The two armies continue with joint military exercises under Surya Kiran series and also organise special joint seminars.

The Indian military has traditionally been the first responder during Nepal’s natural disasters. In the 1990s, during a major aviation accident, the IAF pressed in half a dozen helicopters to trace and evacuate its victims. After the 2015 earthquake, the Indian Army reached out before one could say Aayo Gorkhali. Nepal Army chief General Gaurav Rana paid rich tribute to the Indian military. India has provided medicines and medical equipment including ventilators to the Nepal Army during Covid-19.

These special relations are not without missteps like the non-participation of Nepali contingent in the BIMSTEC military exercise in 2019 even after the Nepal Army Chief had accepted the invitation, apparently without political sanction. Army Chief General MM Naravane’s recent comments on the Chinese stirring the pot in Nepal were ill advised. A periodic problem is Gorkha recruitment in the Indian Army which has been turned into a political football by the Left governments in Nepal. In 1990, the Maoists had included it in their 40-point memorandum to the government. During the Doklam crisis, the Nepali media erringly reported that 4/8 Gorkha Rifles — the battalion that was dislodged from Galwan in 1962 — was in eyeball confrontation with the Chinese PLA when it was 13 JaK Rif (Jammu and Kashmir Rifles). Then Foreign Minister KB Mahara, when asked by reporters about this, replied: “Nepal is neutral between China and India.”

With a pro-China KP Oli-led Nepali Communist party government, Beijing might object to Nepalese troops in the Indian Army confronting a friendly Chinese PLA with whom they have begun joint training. The fear in India that the Indian Army Gorkhas could fall prey to Nepalese domestic politics over map wars, and India-China issues, is misplaced as the Gorkhas are institutionally embedded as a unique entity of the Army which has weathered economic blockades and a Gorkhaland movement.

Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali said recently that the tripartite agreement has become redundant and should be replaced with bilateral agreements, adding the staple that it is not appropriate for the Nepalese to serve in foreign armies. Nepali politicians are unaware that in 1974, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi rejected a proposal to discontinue Gorkha recruitment. Although it is possible to continue the legendary Gorkha legacy with Indian-domiciled Nepalese (such a Gorkha battalion was raised in 2015), India would lose a valuable strategic asset in Nepal.