Field Marshal Viscount Slim notes in the book Unofficial History, “The Almighty created in the Gurkha an ideal infantryman, indeed an ideal Rifleman, brave, tough, patient, adaptable, skilled in field-craft, intensely proud of his military record and unswerving loyalty.” Since antiquity, ‘loyalty’ has been the leitmotif of the valiant Gurkha (or ‘Gorkha’, as spelt originally in Nepal and India) combatants, irrespective of the sovereign flag that they served. When Prince Harry served with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Gurkha Rifles in 2007-2008, he famously observed, “When you know you are with the Gurkhas, I think there’s no safer place to be”.
The Unflinching Loyalty of Gorkhas
India in general, and Indian Army in particular, can more than vouch for that unflinching attribute of ‘loyalty’ among its own Gorkha soldiers (be it the NDG, ie, Nepal Domiciled Gorkha or the IDG, ie,, Indian Domiciled Gorkhas).
Importantly, despite serving the militaries of the United Kingdom, Malaysia, India, and obviously the Nepalese Armed Forces, the term ‘mercenary’ is absolute anathema to the spirit, track record and professional elan of the Gorkha soldiers.
Even Protocol 1 of 1977, which is additional to the Geneva Convention, explicitly excludes anyone who “is a member of the Armed Forces of a party to the conflict” from the demeaning and pejorative taint of ‘mercenary’. The Tripartite Agreement 1947, signed by the governments of the United Kingdom, India and Nepal, ratifies the dignified recruitment of the fine Gorkha soldiers into these militaries. While around 3,500 still serve in the British Army, there are about 35,000 Gorkhas in the Indian Army (besides affording approximately 1.3 lakh strong Indian Army’s Gorkha Veteran community in Nepal).
Suffice it to say, this eco-system of a sizeable Indian Army Gorkha serving/veteran soldiers in Nepal is a priceless and decidedly pro-India constituency in the restive state of landlocked Nepal, which otherwise has had many ups-and-downs with Delhi, owing to political and economic undercurrents.
Other than the historic religio-cultural-linguistic commonality that besets the Indo-Nepali lands, marital relations across the borders (notably amongst families from the former Princely States), it is the ‘Gorkha soldier’ who binds the bilateral Indo-Nepali ties almost intractably.
This fortuitous reality worked as a bulwark against the frequent political raptures between Delhi and Kathmandu, which often led to Nepali overtures towards Beijing, as a tactical counterweight. The royalist regime in Kathmandu was often miffed with India’s accommodation of the rebel Nepali opposition leadership (from the Nepali Congress to even the Nepali Communist leadership), with Kathmandu even seeking the withdrawal of the mutually agreed upon Indian military mission, as also constitutional amendments to restrict Nepalese citizenship for Indians, moving to Nepal.
Fears Over 'Big Brother' Syndrome
The opposition to the Rana regime-signed Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, especially in the ’70s and ’80s, morphed into a ‘Big Brother’ syndrome about Delhi and was used to justify the Communist movement’s drift towards Beijing. Despite further deterioration, like the economic ‘blockade’ of landlocked Nepal in 1989-90 and perceptions of interference in the internal politics of Nepal, the bond made by the regimentation system of the Indian Army’s Gorkha presence ensured that beyond bumps and contrary posturing, India’s nemesis, ie, China, was only used as a counterfoil on the odd rebound.
The symbolism of affording reciprocal ‘Generalship’ onto the Chiefs of the Indian and Nepalese Army was symptomatic of the umbilical cord that overcame the politico-economic vicissitudes of time and varied dispensations.
The definitive image of the fearless Gorkha warrior charging with his fearsome Khukhri (traditional eighteen-inch recurved machete) is subliminally ingrained in the Indian consciousness. Folklore of the Khukhri having to necessarily ‘taste blood’ in combat, either of the enemy or of the bearer, before getting re-sheathed, may be a myth, but it has added to the popular imagination. Overall, it is a well-earned image that is factually seeped with the sweat, blood and dare-devilry of the gallant soldiers like Nar Bahadur Thapa, Man Bahadur Rai, Ram Prasad Gurung, Dhan Singh Thapa and countless others who have given their all for the Tiranga (Indian Tricolour) and all that it encompasses.
No less than the current Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had befittingly and wholesomely acknowledged the contribution of the noble Gorkha soldiers whilst on a state visit in 2014, when he noted that there had been no war that India had fought in which Nepali blood had not been sacrificed. PM Modi said, “I salute the bravehearts who laid their lives for India”.
Ties Have Frayed Now
Military cantonments across the length and breadth of India, and especially the ‘forward areas’, are boldly inscribed with martial lines like Kafar Hunu Bhanda Marnu Ramro (Better to die than live like a coward!), Jai Maha Kali, Ayo Gorkhali (Hail Goddess Kali, Here come the Gorkhas!) – blunt reminders of the specific occupants of the barracks therein and the inevitable fate that awaits those who cast an evil eye at the sovereignty and dignity of India.
But the new millennium brought newer dynamics to the region, that unprecedentedly threatened the sacred relationship between India and Nepal.
Nepal’s internal disaffection with its own monarchial system, China’s unbridled expansionism and aggressive diplomacy, timed with the rise of the Maoist persuasion gave way to sovereign possibilities and opportunities that went beyond dangling the Chinese card to Delhi.
Kathmandu started ‘balancing’ relations with China (euphemism for hard bargaining and drift). Still, the realm of the ‘Gorkha Soldier’ in the Indian Armed Forces remained beyond the ensuing tensions, even as the groundswell of the supposed ‘Big Brother’ attitude of Delhi started gaining credence, aided immensely by local politicians in Nepal.
The 2015 ‘blockade’ (denied categorically by India) was the tipping point – Kathmandu accused Delhi of interfering with its constitutional redrafting and imposing the crippling ‘blockade’. Across party lines and Nepalese streets, a sense of anger and disillusionment loomed. The redrafted constitution was ultimately passed with 90% approval, but the memories of that six-month-long ‘blockade’ left a deep scar and wound, which remains unhealed.
Erosion of Trust in India
The hypersensitivity towards any action by Delhi (intentional or even unintentional), was given to conspiracy theories that further alienated the Nepalese sentiment. India’s reluctance to exchange over $100 million worth of banned/demonetised Indian Rupee notes in Nepal, did not help matters – Delhi was seen playing insensitive, hardball and intransigent. The civilisational-generational trust seemed to be waning dangerously despite India’s purported ‘neighbourhood first’ policy.
The all-time low sentiment against India was essentially at its peak, placated only by the inevitable trade routes for landlocked Nepal (with damaging murmurs of possible rail linkages connecting Nepal and China as part of the ensnaring Belt and Road Initiative), and, above all, to the emotions attached to the ‘Gorkha Soldier’. However, with the pandemic-related freeze on the recruitment of soldiers into the Indian Army for over two years, the impact was naturally felt in Nepal, too.
What remained undeniable was the acute sense and perception of imposition, dis-involvement and unconcern on the part of the Indian side despite historic interlinkages and ramifications on the Nepalese side. While the Indian policy changes were easily passed with a majority government in power, the trust across the Nepalese side was not the same. On the contrary, a belief of unilateralism by Delhi prevailed.
However, other than the recruitment freeze and odd border dissonance, the bond of the ‘Gorkha Soldier’ remained robust.
But the revised policy of Agnipath on the Indian side has obvious ramifications for the construct of the ‘Gorkha Soldier’. Yet again, the Nepalese side remained unconsulted.
True, policy changes are for any sovereign to decide wholly by themselves, but given the unique bond and situation of reciprocal impact, and, more importantly, the fractured trust, perhaps, a more consultative and reassuring engagement may have eased matters.
Gorkha Bond Has Withstood All So Far
While the Nepalese government has been stoically silent on the matter and Delhi has subsequently clarified the applicability of the same terms and conditions for the Nepalese ‘Gorkha Soldier’, it has been post-facto.
With the Nepalese-Chinese dimension also in a churn with the imploding status of the Nepalese Communist Parties, Delhi needs to ‘re-win’ its trust in Kathmandu, beyond what is maintained by the existing economic-commercial dependency. Herein, the ‘Gorkha Soldier’ has been, and is, a foremost lever of the sacred covenant between the two sovereigns, beyond politics. Critically, this is still an unbreeched realm for the Chinese, and India needs to nurture and harness the same.
Co-option, reassurance and constant engagement are warranted as it is important to understand that the acceptance of a policy change like Agnipath may not be as seamless for the wary Nepalese. This is not about diminishing or surrendering India’s independence or right towards making its own policies, but about strengthening its strategic relations, diplomacy, and, above all, security for itself.
The saga of the ‘Gorkha Soldier’ in the Indian Army must continue, with all its glorious traditions, legacy and pride with which the Gorkha has instilled fear into the enemy, be it the Pakistanis or the Chinese, since 1947.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)