Amid talks of the Nepalese government trying to halt Gorkha recruitments in foreign armies, Avalok Langer details why the move is counterproductive for all parties concerned
In August 1989, Lance Naik Thilak Bahadur Rai had been deployed with his unit 1/11 Gorkha Rifles in Sri Lanka as a part of the Indian Peace-keeping Force (IPKF). In that encounter with the LTTE, the now retired Thilak eventually took out 13 enemy fighters, while gathering the wounded of his own unit. For his bravery, this young Gorkha from Diktil in Nepal, who later also fought in the Kargil War, was awarded the Vir Chakra.
Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw had famously said, “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gorkha.” Known for their battlefield tenacity and fierce loyalty, 30,000 Nepalese Gorkhas currently serve in the Indian Army.
However, further recruitment of Nepalese Gorkhas into the Indian and British Armies (which started with the Britain-India-Nepal Tripartite Agreement of 1947) is under a cloud. Based on the recommendation issued by a Parliamentary Committee on International Relations and Human Rights on 26 December 2011, Nepal has directed the ministries concerned to halt the recruitment of Gorkhas by foreign armies. This demand had first come up as a part of the 50-point agenda the Maoists submitted to the government when they went underground in 1996.
“Nowhere in the world do you see a system like this. Times have changed from the Empire days. The Gorkhas are taken from Nepal as raw material and used by another country to meet their purposes in exchange for money; there is no value addition. They may be given medals and honours, but it is a form of modern-day slavery that questions the sovereignty of Nepal,” says Amrita Thapa of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (M).
Deepak Bhatt of CPN-UML says although there is nothing wrong with Nepali youth getting jobs abroad, “if the committee feels, we should re-look the age-old agreement. Even if it impacts relations with India”.
Surprisingly, this move finds support from the Indian Gorkhas, who have always felt sidelined. “Being Indian citizens, they feel they should be given preference over Nepalese Gorkhas,” says a senior officer in the Indian Army.
But not all are in favour of this move in Nepal. Sources in the Nepali Congress suggest this is simply political posturing by the Maoists. “At some level, it is an attempt to appease the hardliners in the party, but I don’t think much will come of it. The Gorkha groups and other political parties are not in favour of this being passed.”
Even Naik (retd) Om Bahadur Thapa of 5/9 GR, puts the report down to political posturing. “Certain sections in the political domain are opposed to the idea of the Nepalese serving another country, saying it is a form of slavery; I don’t agree. I wanted to join the Indian Army of my own choice.” When asked if it ever felt odd fighting for another country, Thapa says, “No, India and Nepal are like brothers. Nepal is my home, but so is India. I never felt I was in another country.” Honorary Subedar Major (retd) Tirath Bahadur Rai of 3/11 GR, who was with the IPKF, fought in Kargil and against the Northeast insurgencies, says, “My father and uncles served in the British India Army. A sense of duty and pride was instilled in us. We only thought of service to the nation. After 30 years in India, I have a sense of belonging. All this is just politics.”
Retired Gorkha servicemen, whether from India or Britain, echo the sentiments. And given the strong bond men share with their units abroad, it is perhaps easy to understand this concern. But with employment constraints in Nepal, financial security is also equally important.
‘Nepal is my home, but so is India. It never felt like I was in another country,’ says Naik (retd) Om Bahadur Thapa
“Known as Bhu Puus (bhut purva, or former), there are 1,24,000 ex-servicemen in Nepal from the Indian Army and allied services, who receive Rs 1,300 crore annually as pension,” explains an Indian Army officer. Add to that the salary of existing Gorkhas in the Indian Army, which is a little more than the pension, around Rs 2,600 crore is sent back to Nepal as remittances.
This amount is roughly a tenth of Nepal’s annual budget. If you factor in the Rs 715 crore (£87 million) that the UK government sends to Nepal every year, not counting remittances, this is a figure that no government can choose to ignore.
It doesn’t stop at salaries. The Rai cousins, Thilak and Tirath, are in Kathmandu to pick up equipment supplied by the Indian government to bring water to their village. “After retiring in 2008, I was worried. In the unit, everything was taken care of, but I didn’t know what to expect here in Nepal. But all our needs have been met,” says Tirath Rai. Through its embassy and military wing, India has set up elaborate welfare and medical schemes that cover the pensioners and their families. From education and housing grants to schools, libraries and water systems, the Indian government has done more for the Bhu Puus than even the local administration.
The withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Iraq and Afghanistan has had a bearing on the demand for retired Gorkhas to fill in the gaps. A few thousand Gorkhas from the Indian Army are serving abroad, post-retirement. “In 2007, I went to Afghanistan for four years, providing security to water pipelines for the US and NATO troops,” says Subedar (retd) Arun Subba of 11 GR. He adds: “I went because I wanted to travel abroad and I needed money to build my house and educate my children.” It was the same for Subedar (retd) Prem Bahadur, who provides security for a NATO camp in Kandahar, “It is a good job option. In Nepal or India, I would never be able to make this kind of money.”
In 2002, at the height of insurgency in J&K’s Doda district, an officer told this correspondent a WWII story:
“Towards the end of the war, a battalion of Gorkhas was asked to volunteer for an important mission behind enemy lines for the Allies in Europe. A British officer explained to the battalion: ‘It is crucial that you secure the position. You’ll be dropped into enemy territory from an aircraft at 1,200 feet.’ The Gorkha commanding officer asked anyone who wanted to volunteer to take one step forward. Only half the men did so. Shocked, the British officer said to the CO, ‘I thought the Gorkhas were supposed to be the bravest. I didn’t expect this, especially since it isn’t a particularly dangerous job.’ ‘True,’ said the Gorkha officer. ‘But half of them have volunteered to jump from 1,200 feet. Perhaps you should tell them they’ll have parachutes too.”
A fictitious bar room story, but it captures the unquestioning loyalty of the Gorkha. Given the situation in Nepal and the value these soldiers command internationally, it doesn’t seem likely that their recruitment to the Indian Army will stop any time soon.
Avalok Langer is a Correspondent with Tehelka.