Nepal was in the news in 2020, but the MoD’s tinkering with the legendary Gorkha Regiments slipped under the radar. For diehard Gorkhas, it was like fake news: the recent report stated that the Army Headquarters had sanctioned for next two years’ recruitment from Uttarakhand of Garhwalis and Kumaonis for three Gorkha regiments from the next recruitment cycle.

This is the first time that non-Gorkhas are being recruited in Gorkha units. Last year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, no recruitment had taken place and the 1, 5 and 8 Gorkha regiments — already deficient of 100 to 150 soldiers in each battalion from the authorised strength of 850 — would be worse off.

Tinkering with the fixed-class composition of the single-caste infantry regiments, especially Gorkha battalions which are drawn predominantly from Nepal, is an unwise step when easier options are available. If, as seems likely, it is a political decision, though some discount it, it has the potential to undermine a valuable Indian strategic asset in the politically contested Nepal and the haloed infantry regimental system.

Gorkhas were recruited in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army in Lahore much before they joined the British Indian Army in 1815. Any Nepalese who becomes a soldier of fortune is called Lahure. The British kept the Gorkhas insulated from other Indian regiments and only the British were allowed to command them till the Partition, when most Gorkha regiments volunteered to remain in India.

When the 5th Gorkhas was raised (1815) initially, it had one-third each of Gorkhas, Kumaonis and Garhwalis as Gorkhas were not available in sufficient numbers as Rana rulers would not allow it. During the expansionist rule of the Shah dynasty, the Himalayan kingdom had extended its borders from the present Mechi to Mahakali rivers further east and west up to the Teesta and Sutlej rivers and south into UP and Bihar. All of Kumaon and Garhwal became part of Nepal and shared several affinities on becoming cousins.

But that is no justification for the retrograde step. Bureaucrats and politicians who never served in the Indian Army (IA) do not understand the bonding in the infantry regimental system where the battalion torch is passed on from family and village for generations. Any tampering with its composition and traditions is dangerous.

The recruitment of Gorkhas is regulated by the Tripartite Treaty of 1947 between Nepal, India and the UK, which permitted recruitment from Nepal for the British, Indian and Nepali armies. The IA has 43 infantry battalions in 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9 and 11 Gorkha regiments. The British, who at the end of World War II had 51 Gorkha battalions, are left with just two battalions. Field Marshal Bill Slim, a 6 Gorkha officer, lamented in 1947: “Gorkhas march on in glory, but alas, no longer on our side.”

The 9th Gorkhas consist of Brahmins, Thakuris and Chhetris; and Rais and Limbus of east Nepal join 11 Gorkhas. The other five regiments recruit mainly Magars and Gurungs from central and western Nepal. Initially, only Gorkhas from Nepal were recruited; this was changed around 1975 to 70 per cent from Nepal and 30 per cent from the Indian-domiciled Gorkhas (IDG).

In the 1990s, the proportion was changed further to 60:40, whereas Gorkha officers have been recommending reverting to 70:30 as the quality of IDG was below par. The fear is that the government wishes to make it 40:60, devaluing the foreign asset.

The quality of IDG has been a continuing problem. While better educated, they lack the spirit, tenacity and mountain craft of their cousins from the north. More recently, the numbers required to fill the 40 per cent quota were not forthcoming despite some relaxation in standards. In 2015, to prove a political point to Nepal’s Communist parties which are periodically threatening to stop recruitment, the then Army Chief, Gen Dalbir Singh, ordered the raising of a new all-IDG battalion — 6/ I Gorkha Rifles. The current drought of IDG — in both numbers and quality — though puzzling, may not be a short-term problem.

The existing deficiencies in some Gorkha regiments are a serious handicap, given the challenges on the LAC and LOC. It is surprising the MoD did not sanction the quick and easy solution: a two-year reprieve for increasing the Nepali quota from 60 to 70-80 per cent. This would make good the shortfall, instead of by inducting Kumaonis and Garhwalis into Gorkhas, especially when the new DMA is headed by the CDS, Gen Bipin Rawat, a second-generation Gorkha officer. That is, unless curtailing recruitment from Nepal was being used to counter Kathmandu’s cartographic aggression. But relations with Nepal seem to be on the uptick now.

Acknowledging in 2014 the vital Gorkha connect in Nepal’s parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: no war has been fought by India in which Nepali blood has not been shed. The Gorkha network in Nepal is a million-strong, including the ex-servicemen’s extended families that cherish and foster this bonding. You have to visit Pokhara, the hub of the Indian Gorkha ex-servicemen, to feel their infinite linkages with India displayed while commemorating battle honour days.

They are India’s ambassadors in Nepal’s nook and corner; even facing flak from their compatriots when India-Nepal relations nosedive due to incidents like the economic blockade or the maps row. Regimes may change in Nepal but the Gorkha-India bonding will survive and thrive. Former Indian ambassadors to Nepal acknowledge that the Gorkha connect is one of the foundational pillars of bilateral relations, especially when political and diplomatic channels weaken.

In 1974, a nutty proposal emanated from the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu to stop the recruitment of Nepali Gorkhas and disband the Gorkha regiments around the time Nepal had proposed the ‘zone of peace’ idea. The then PM, Indira Gandhi, on the recommendation of Army Chief Gen Gopal Bewoor, a Gorkha officer, rejected it.

In 1915, in a war document, Gen Sir Ian Hamilton, not from any Gorkha regiment, wrote: “The fame of Gorkhas will never die. And if any politician of the hereafter dreams of disbanding their cadre or changing their number or any other like atrocity, may the perusal of this document paralyse his sacrilegious hand.”

Today, 115 years later, Hamilton’s warning remains relevant. The MoD should order a temporary reversion to the 70:30 policy of recruitment to avoid changing the DNA of Gorkha regiments.