• 12 August, 2020 6:54 am


View: Nepal must think before testing Gurkha traditions

Kathmandu, Aug 12 

by Ranjit Rae

Nepalese foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali’s recent statement that the 1947 tripartite agreement between India, Nepal and the UK, which provides for the continued recruitment of Gurkha soldiers from Nepal into the Indian and British armies, is ‘redundant’ has caused dismay in India. Gyawali’s July 31 remark made during a webinar has the potential to become yet another irritant in the fraught relationship between India and Nepal. The minister went on to say that his government would like to work out separate bilateral agreements with the two countries.

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Nepalese foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali’s recent statement that the 1947 tripartite agreement between India, Nepal and the UK, which provides for the continued recruitment of Gurkha soldiers from Nepal into the Indian and British armies, is ‘red…

ADVERTISEMENTGurkha soldiers were first recruited by Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army following the defeat of the Nepalese by the Sikhs on the banks of the Satluj in 1809. Indeed, in local Nepali, such soldiers even today are referred to as lahure, a term derived from the Sikh capital of Lahore. The Nepalese went on to fight two wars with the British East India Company in 1814 and 1815, before suing for peace and agreeing to the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816. Impressed by the courage, valour and military prowess of the Nepalese soldiers, the British started recruiting Gurkhas into the Indian Army. Following India’s independence, six Gurkha regiments remained in India while four went to Britain. India, subsequently, raised an additional regiment and has continued annual recruitment within the framework of the tripartite agreement.

Currently, Indian Army recruits about 1300 Gurkha jawans every year, largely from the Magar and Gurung communities in western Nepal and the Kirati Rai and Limbus from eastern Nepal. Britain selects about 200 persons annually for their own army as well as for the Singapore Police and for deployment in Brunei.

ADVERTISEMENTWith the advent of multiparty democracy in 1990, the question of Gurkha recruitment has come up more frequently for public debate in Nepal. There is a view, particularly among those of a communist persuasion that Gurkha soldiers are mercenaries fighting for foreign armies and that no self-respecting sovereign country should allow this. Indeed, one of the demands made by the Maoists in 1996 was to close Gurkha recruitment centres in Nepal. The government led by Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai did try to put an end to Gurkha recruitment in 2012 following a recommendation by the Nepalese Parliament, but this effort was unsuccessful.

The contrary view that has prevailed thus far in Nepal is that in a poor underdeveloped country, jobs are hard to come by, especially in the hill areas where Gurkha soldiers belong. Working in foreign armies or paramilitary and security organisations is no different from working in foreign companies in the Gulf and Malaysia, where an estimated four million Nepalese are employed.

That joining the army is a popular job option is evident to anyone who visits Pokhara or Dharan in Nepal; visitors will see a number of agencies advertising their proficiency in training Nepalese youth to join the British and Indian armies; if you travel to Sarangkot, a few miles from Pokhara, you are likely to see young men running up the hills carrying heavy pitthus, backpacks weighing over 25 kg, in preparation for their recruitment tests. Thousands of young men apply for the few vacancies that exist. This is perhaps the only way for some of the youngsters to escape alife of poverty.

Nepal’s concerns about the tripartite agreement largely stem from the unequal treatment by Britain of British Gurkhas, particularly in terms of pension and leave benefits and the right to remain and live in that country. Nepal formally requested a review of the 1947 Tripartite Agreement with Britain during Prime Minister Oli’s visit last year, and followed up with an official letter in February this year. Whether any such letter has been sent to the government of India is not known. As far as the Indian Army is concerned, it deeply cherishes the Gurkha connection with Nepal. The Gurkhas are the pride of the Indian infantry.

ADVERTISEMENTIndeed, Gurkha regiments have received a large number of battle honours and medals in various conflicts. As Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw famously said, “If someone says he is not afraid to die, he is either lying or is a Gurkha”. Gurkhas are provided equal treatment with their Indian counterparts in terms of pay, pensions and health facilities. It is estimated that 35,000 Gurkhas are deployed in the Indian Army; in addition, about 125,000 Gurkha retirees live in Nepal. Salaries for serving soldiers and pensions defrayed by the Indian government amount toRs 4,200 cr, or $600 m, annually. This represents a little over 2% of Nepal’s GDP. All pay or pension revisions, including ‘One Rank One Pay’ are applicable to Gurkhas as well.

Dividing the tripartite agreement into two separate agreements is a complicated exercise. It could open a Pandora’s Box. Discussing terms and conditions of recruitment and service is one thing, but a possible argument that Nepalese Gurkhas should not be deployed during conflicts with countries friendly to Nepal, is quite another matter. This would clearly be unacceptable. Nepal needs to think very carefully of the overall impact of its approach before taking steps that may eventually end a 200-year-old tradition.

(The writer is former Indian ambassador to Nepal)

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