India can emulate the British model and offer Gorkha soldiers a longer tenure

AYO GORKHALI (The Gorkhas are upon you), is quite a menacing war cry on the battlefield. The Gorkhas have impressed one and all with their courage and fighting spirit. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw paid them the ultimate compliment: “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gorkha.”

The Gorkha regiments are among the most decorated in the Indian Army and have served with unquestionable distinction. There is not a single battle or insurgency theatre in independent India where the Gorkha has not spilled blood―his own, as well as that of his adversary. And the incredible fact is that a substantial number of them are citizens of another country. Nepal is the traditional homeland of the Gorkhas, although they are also present in considerable numbers in India’s northeast and regions close to the Himalayas.

Not too far back in the past, every year there would be a rush of fresh-faced Gorkha lads in Nepal, keen on a career in the Indian and British armies and the Singapore Police. But for the last three years, there have been no recruitment drives for the Indian Army, following a directive to that effect from Kathmandu.

Kathmandu has decided that no Gorkha would be sent to serve in the Indian Army as it believes that the ‘Agnipath’ scheme ‘violates’ a 1947 tripartite agreement signed by India, Nepal and the United Kingdom. The ‘Agnipath’ scheme provides employment only for four years. On completion of four years, only one-fourth of the soldiers will be re-employed for 15 more years based on merit, intent and organisational requirement. The remaining three-fourths would be compensated and retired off.

It was in 1815―impressed by the Gorkha’s soldierly qualities in the two Anglo-Gorkha wars―that the East India Company raised the first Gorkha battalion, also called the ‘Nasiri’ battalion. The Gorkhas again demonstrated their prowess in World War II. And when it was time for the British to leave India in 1947, a tripartite pact was signed to deal with the issue of the ten Gorkha Regiments―each with two or three battalions―still serving in the Indian and the British armies.

According to the agreement, the British retained the services of regiments 2, 6, 7, and 10 Gorkha Rifles. The fact that 2 and 6 regiments were from west Nepal and 7 and 10 were from east Nepal underlined the strategic thinking that characterised British policies. Moreover, the fact that those units were already serving in the British army in locations like Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya and Brunei forced the British to retain their services. Guided by the policy that the age-old relationship with Nepal should not be broken, the services of the other six regiments―1, 3, 4, 5, 8 and 9―were retained by the Indian Army.

Lieutenant General Shokin Chauhan (retired), a veteran of the Gorkha Regiment, said the Gorkhas were never mercenaries. “They were part of an empire as Nepal was controlled by the British, and they continued to serve the empire in different parts of the world.” Chauhan has a life-long bond with the Gorkhas. “I was born among the Gorkhas since my father, too, was an officer in the Gorkha Regiment. I grew up with them and I have worked with them all through my life.”

Chauhan has travelled across the length and breadth of the Himalayan kingdom, visited the homes of many of his soldiers and also served as defence attaché at the Indian embassy in Kathmandu. His PhD is on India-Nepal strategic relationship in the 21st century. “I know Nepal’s strategic importance for India. I hope everyone else does, too,” he said. “Look at Nepal’s location. It is on the head of the Indo-Gangetic plains. All rivers, including the Kosi, flow from Nepal into India. Nepal is the upper riparian state. So if someone occupies that country, they can stop all our waters. That makes Nepal strategically the most important nation for India. Besides, we have a ‘roti-beti’ relationship, not to speak of our close cultural affinity and marital ties. That is why it makes perfect sense to keep the good relationship going.”

Reacting to recent reports that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is showing a keen interest in understanding why the Gorkhas want to serve in the Indian Army, Chauhan said: “Nature abhors vacuum. If India yields space in Nepal, obviously someone like China will try to step in.” He said India should not yield that space. “India and Nepal are two countries, but one people. We should be sworn to protect one another.”

But he warned that it is not going to be easy. “From furniture to locks to mobile phones, everything comes from China these days. If we are unable to stop our traders from buying stuff from China, how can we stop the Gorkhas from taking advantage of China’s offers? If they are getting more money, why should we stop them? And how can we?” asked Chauhan. He said if Nepal switched sides, India would be forced to fence off its 1,770km-long border with the Himalayan nation, which would come at a prohibitive cost.

THE WEEK spoke to Himal Chhantyal, a young Gorkha from Baglung, Nepal, about his views on joining the PLA. “If the pay, perks, facilities, are good enough, I am ready to serve as a soldier anywhere. Yes, even in the PLA,” said the 18-year-old. Chhantyal is among thousands of hardy mountain lads in the Himalayan nation whose aim in life is to don the uniform. Said Krishna Tamang, who heads a private academy in Pokhara for training young Gorkhas. “There is much unemployment in Nepal. The youth in today’s world will move wherever they see opportunities for a better life.”

There are some who would disagree though. Maden said China was not an option for the Gorkha youth. The first preference is usually the British army, followed by the Indian Army, with the Nepalese army coming last―a reason why Kathmandu is trying to put an end to foreign recruitment. Many Nepalis also question why their able-bodied young men should fight for another country.

Ending Gorkha recruitment to the Indian Army would bring down Nepal’s dependence on India as a provider of jobs, thereby reducing India’s strategic space in the land-locked Himalayan country. This would add more heft to Chinese presence in Nepal. Already India-Nepal relations have been jolted by territorial disputes in the Kalapani-Limpiyadhura-Lipulekh area.

So is there a way out? Chauhan said the British model of Gorkha recruitment could offer a solution. “There can be a special arrangement for about 1,000 Gorkha youth who join the Indian Army every year. In the British army, the soldiers retire after 4, 7, 8, 11, 14 and 20 years of service. But they have special arrangements for the Gorkha soldiers who retire only after 20 years,” he said. “Every year, the British army takes in 100 Gorkha soldiers. But look at the goodwill and association it generates for Britain in Nepal. And they get their pensions once they turn 65. After retirement, they are allowed to work in the UK. So why India cannot give employment for a thousand soldiers in return for huge strategic gains?”

Chauhan said it was therefore important to maintain a cordial relationship with Nepal. “What does it entail? Some jobs? So be it,” he said. “What are 1,000 soldiers every year for a country with a 1.3 million strong army, especially in the backdrop of huge strategic advantages and enormous goodwill?”