Prospect of Indo-China war revives Gurkha recruitment debate in Nepal

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Prospect of Indo-China war revives Gurkha recruitment debate in Nepal

Recruits from the Indian Army’s Gurkha regiment stand in formation in Sabathu in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh on 24 Oct 2002/ Dipak Kumar, Reuters

Whenever India-China or India-Pakistan border tensions flare up, one of the first concerns in Nepali minds is the fate of the frontline Gurkha soldiers. Accompanying this concern is a query about whether time has come for Nepal to rethink the recruitment of Nepali nationals into the Indian Army.

Same kinds of queries are now being raised as India and China face-off in Ladakh. If it comes to that, is it right for Nepali nationals to fight China, its immediate and vital neighbor, on behalf of a third country? Forget China. Is it even morally right to allow your citizens to serve as mercenaries?

With tensions against China mounting, the Gurkha soldiers of the Indian Army who are on leave in Nepal are now being summoned back to duty. In this light, the splinter Maoist group led by Netra Bikram Chand, in a June 20 statement, ‘reminded’ India to desist from using Nepali soldiers against China. 

Despite such concerns, Nepal is in no position to ask India not to use the Gurkhas against China, nor is it the current priority of any of Nepal’s major political parties. “We have to accept the reality that they are part of the Indian defense system. We can do nothing about it,” says political analyst Krishna Khanal. Though it is an emotional issue for Nepalis, he argues, the Indian defense force can deploy them as they wish.

Over the past 60 or 70 years, Nepal’s communist parties used this issue as a political instrument whenever they were out of power, Khanal adds. For instance, stopping recruitment into the Indian army was one of the 40 demands put forth by the mother Maoist party in 1996, right before they launched their insurgency.

During the insurgency, the Maoist party continued to raise this issue. But after joining peaceful politics in 2006, the party abandoned this agenda. Now Gurkha recruitment does not find a mention in the political documents of Nepal Communist Party, the ruling party formed after the merger of the mother Maoists and erstwhile CPN-UML. The Chand faction, plus some other fringe communist outfits, however, has continued to give voice to it.

“In the past, the CPN-UML, like other communist parties, also raised the issue of recruitment into Indian Army for political benefit. But it dropped the agenda when it came to power,” says Ashok Mehta, a retired general of the Indian Army who closely follows Nepal.

History’s burden

There is a long history of recruitment of Nepali nationals into the Indian and British armies. The British started enlisting Nepalis in their colonial army from 1815 when it set up the Gurkha regiments. After India’s independence, six Gurkha regiments were retained in the Indian Army while the British Army got four. Now, there are seven Gurkha regiments in the Indian Army, with 40 battalions and a total of 40,000 soldiers.

Nepal has never brought up the issue of revisiting Gurkha recruitment with India. But Nepal did send a note to Britain in February this year, seeking a review of the tripartite agreement signed in 1947 between Nepal, India and Britain that split the Gurkha regiments between India and Britain. In an initial reaction, Britain refused to make any changes in the agreement. Before that, Prime Minister KP Oli had raised the issue during his bilateral talk with then British Prime Minister Theresa May in 2019.

In 2016, Nepal and India formed the Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) to study the entire gamut of bilateral relations and to suggest modifications. The EPG prepared a report covering all bilateral issues but not Gurkha soldiers. “We did not discuss Gurkha recruitment as it was beyond our jurisdiction. But the two countries can always discuss this,” says Surya Nath Upadhyay, a member of the Nepal half of the EPG. He says it is a sensitive issue and needs to be dealt with finesse.

Till date, Nepalis continue to be recruited into the Indian Army. Lured by attractive salary, pensions, and other social security benefits, they join the Indian Army and take oath to protect India’s national interests. According to Mehta, Nepali youths in Indian Army get four times the salary and pensions they would get in Nepal Army.

As of now, there are 126,000 Indian Gurkha pensioners in Nepal, and there is an Indian Ex-servicemen Welfare Organization in Nepal working for retired army personnel.

“We are in no condition—politically, economically or socially—to stop the recruitment into Indian Army,” says political analyst Khanal. In economic mess created by Covid-19, that prospect appears unlikelier still.

Fighting for India

Gurkha units have a history of fighting India’s key wars including in 1947-48, 1965, and 1971, all of them in Jammu & Kashmir and all against Pakistan. They also took part in the Indo-China war of 1962, and in later skirmishes between the two countries. There are many anecdotal evidences for this.

Writes ex-Indian Army Brigadier CS Thapa in Indian defense magazine Salute, “In 1962 the Chinese used loudspeakers daily against the company of Major Dhan Singh Thapa, PVC [Param Vir Chakra] asking the soldiers to withdraw as they were from Nepal.”

Then, in September-October 1967, the Nepali Gurkha soldiers were deployed against the Chinese at Nathu La pass between India and China. “A Gurkha unit,” according to Indian General V.K. Singh’s accounts, “gave the Chinese side a ‘bloody nose’… on that occasion, occupying a position after a brutal khukri assault.”

During the Doklam crisis in 2017, there were media reports that Gurkha soldiers were deployed at the forefront against China. But Mehta clarifies that Gurkha soldiers were deployed in Doklam only on second or third lines.

“If there are further tensions, China may raise this issue with Nepal stating that Nepali youths are fighting against China on India’s behalf. But so far as I know, China has lodged no such objection till date,” Mehta adds. Officials at Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also expressed their ignorance of any formal Chinese objection to the use of Gurkha soldiers against them.