Gorkha plan reverberates in India

By Neeta Lal, NEW DELHI:  Calls for the Nepalese Gorkha community in West Bengal, India, to be empowered with a political identity – either through a granting of statehood (Gorkhaland) or the right to vote – have intensified following talk in Nepal of ending the tradition of their community sending soldiers to the British (where they are known as Gurkhas) and Indian armies.

A recent report, endorsed by a Nepali parliamentary committee, advocates an immediate ban on the recruitment of Gorkhas by foreign armies. If the ban comes into force, it may spell the demise of Gorkha regiments that have served in the Indian Army since independence in 1947. Over 25,000 Gorkhas – as they are called in India – currently serve, including 120 officers.

Thousands of Gorkhas migrated to India during colonial rule. They constitute about 90% of the 130,000 population in the Darjeeling
district in West Bengal state. Experts say a stable political status in India could benefit the entire Gorkha community, since it would offer job security and the promise of a secure future.

“Here is a community,” Brigadier (retired) C S Thapa wrote recently in the Darjeeling Times, “that provides the best soldiers for the nation yet lacks ration cards and reservation, something which would not have been seen if the community had a political identity”. Reservation in India is a form of affirmative action designed to improve the well-being of perceived backward and under-represented communities.

Nepali activists say that with a political identity the Gorkha community could preserve its culture, improve opportunities for higher education and find a better way of life perpetuated. Once the Gorkhas become an empowered Indian community, like other tribes of castes, it will help them stabilize and banish feelings of alienation.

Thapa argues that normally with most minorities, there is appeasement in the form of a commission and political quotas. However, there are none for the Gorkhas, which have traditionally have been famous for their gallantry and contribution to the defense and paramilitary forces.

“If there can be a Dalit [sometimes referred to as “untouchables”] quota and a Muslim quota in India, why not a Gorkha quota?” says Bhaiji Gurung, a Darjeeling-based activist who has been fighting for the creation of a Gorkhaland state in India’s northeast since the 1990s.

Last July, a tripartite accord was signed by the Indian government, the West Bengal government and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the main party of the Gorkhas. It provides for a Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), an elected body, which will manage with a “greater degree of autonomy” the affairs of the Gorkhas through control of 59 government departments including public works, social welfare, education, water resources and health.

However, most Gorkhas, says Gurung, are residents of hill states which are plagued with lack of sanitation, poor infrastructure and no proper education facilities. All these problems can better addressed through a constitutional identity.

Given the demands the Indian army makes of its Gorkha infantrymen, the Indian defense establishment is watching the potential ban with trepidation. Talks are underway to convince the Nepali soldiers to not leave the Indian services.

Defense Minister A K Antony told the Lok Sabha (lower house) this week that India was going to extend the benefits of its ECHS (ex-servicemen contributory health scheme) to retired personnel in Nepal through three clinics at Kathmandu, Pokhara and Dharan. Nepal is home to 79,000 Indian army pensioners, 11,000 widows of ex-servicemen and 17,000 retired Assam Rifles personnel. According to a media estimate, the Indian army pays out US$200 million annually in pensions to ex-Gorkhas.

Military experts point out that even though removing the Nepalese Gorkha battalions wouldn’t impact enormously on the operations of the 1.13-million Indian Army, they still represent an important infantry asset.

The first recruitment of Nepalis as Gorkhas started in 1815, immediately after Nepal’s war with British India in which Nepal lost one-third of its territory. A peace treaty ended the war, and the British made arrangements with the rulers of Nepal under which they could recruit offspring of those whose bravery had impressed them on the battlefield.

About 200,000 Gorkhas fought for Britain in World War I and World War II and more than 45,000 have died in British uniform.

At the time of India’s independence in 1947, Nepal, the UK and India entered into a tripartite agreement allowing India and the UK to “maintain the Gurkha connection” with soldiers recruited from Nepal. The Indian Army was created that year.

The departure of the Gorkha soldiers from India could also impact Indo-Nepalese relations, say analysts. “Nepali Gorkhas have been part of the Indian Army for a very long time. If they are stopped from joining the army then the association between the armies and also the countries will be affected,” former chief of army staff General Ved Prakash Malik told IANS news agency.

However, the Nepali government has already directed its Ministry of Foreign Affairs to implement the report’s recommendations.

Complicating the dynamic is the national pride seen behind the ban. Nepal is trying to leave its centuries-old monarchical and feudal traditions behind and embrace democracy, libertinism and modernity.

“The elimination of Gorkha recruitment, indeed, is a test of whether the new republic can settle the debate over her semi-colonial status and become a proud member of fully sovereign community of nations,” writes columnist Gyanu Adhikari in The Kathmandu Post.

The Indian Gorkha Rifles in India have won plaudits in all conflicts and counter-insurgency operations, ranging from the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan to winning the highest gallantry awards like the Param Vir Chakra, Ashok Chakra and Mahavir Chakra.

The planned Gorkha ban has met with stiff resistance from ex-Gorkha regiments across Nepal. They have threatened to launch countrywide protests if the order is not withdrawn.

“The Nepali government has failed to provide us with solid employment back home,” a Gurkha subedar – a rank equivalent to a British lieutenant – told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity. “It has no right to take away our current livelihood in foreign lands either. Besides, we send a lot of money back home, contributing in a big way to the Nepali economy.”

Neeta Lal is a widely published writer/commentator who contributes to many reputed national and international print and Internet publications.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Your Responses