This commentary is inspired by the Annual Gorkha Brigade Conference held at New Delhi on 11 February 2017 and the unique model of military diplomacy it fosters between India and Nepal. The Gorkha Brigade is an association representing approximately 40,000 Indian and Nepali Gorkha soldiers as well as about 90,000 Indian Army pensioners in Nepal. The Brigade comprises seven regiments, viz, First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh Gorkha Rifles. The missing serials were allotted to the British Army on India’s independence. Each regiment is further organised into five or six infantry battalions, which is the basic, fully independent, and functional unit of the Indian Army. Thus 3/9 GR denotes the Third Battalion of the Ninth Gorkha Rifles, an exclusive classification which has baffled many within and outside the armed forces fraternity. The Gorkha Brigade also encompasses the Defence Wing of the Embassy of India in Nepal and the Gorkha Recruiting Depots of Gorakhpur and Ghoom (Darjeeling). The President of the Gorkha Brigade is always the senior most serving officer from amongst the seven regiments; presently, the Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, a second generation officer of the Eleventh Gorkha Rifles, has that honour.
This year the Gorkha Brigade is also celebrating the bicentenary of one of its oldest regiments, the Ninth Gorkha Rifles. The First Battalion of the Ninth Gorkhas was raised by the British in 1817 as the ‘Fatehgarh Levy’. Contrary to popular belief that the British were the first to recruit Gorkhas, it was in fact Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who, impressed by the bravery and valour of these big hearted little men from the hills, raised a battalion of Gorkhas to serve in the Sikh Army in 1809. As a result, all soldiers serving in the Indian Army are still called ‘Lahorey’ in Nepal, i.e., those who serve in Lahore – the capital of Ranjit Singh’s empire. The celebrations of the bicentenary commenced with a Motorcycle Rally of 1/9 GR flagged off by General Rawat on 30 January from Delhi. The motorcyclists drove through the traditional recruiting areas of the Regiment in Western Nepal honouring many ex-servicemen en route. Their arrival in Pokhra in Nepal on 4 February coincided with a massive rally where almost 3,500 ex-servicemen and widows had gathered to celebrate the bicentenary of the Regiment. The event was attended by General Rajendra Chhetri, Chief of Army Staff, Nepal Army, Shri Ranjit Rae, Ambassador of India to Nepal, and Lt. Gen. AK Bhatt, Colonel of the Regiment of the Ninth Gorkhas. India and Nepal share a unique tradition wherein their respective Chiefs of Army Staff are anointed as Honorary Generals of the other’s forces. General Rajendra Chettri is already an Honorary General of the Indian Army and General Bipin Rawat is likely to be conferred the reciprocal honour on his first visit to Nepal.
Ex-servicemen welfare is a state subject in India, with the Indian Army and the Ministry of Defence having only a limited role in it. However, Nepal being a Sovereign Nation, the welfare of Nepal-domiciled ex-servicemen of the Indian Armed Forces and pensioners of the Central or State Government including para-military forces is the responsibility of the Embassy of India in Nepal. The Government of India owes a debt to these citizens of Nepal for having dedicated their lives in service of our nation and the Defence Wing of the Embassy carries out this onerous task, a model without parallel in the world, with exemplary efficiency. Here, it would be pertinent to explain the range of its activities.
The Defence Wing of the Embassy has three Pension Paying Offices at Kathmandu, Pokhara and Dharan, each handled by a serving officer of the Indian Army under the Defence Attaché. Approximately 1,27,000 pensioners (90,000 of the Indian Army and 37,000 of the Central and State Governments as well as para-military) draw pensions from these offices. About 30,000 of these pensioners are paid pensions directly in their respective bank accounts. The rest reside in areas yet to be covered by banking infrastructure and draw their pensions in cash. The Pension Paying Offices carry out 36 payment camps every year in various remote locations, some accessible only on foot, to disburse these pensions. It is to the credit of this organisation that it has completed the payment of One Rank One Pension arrears to all pensioners in Nepal. The total amount disbursed as pensions and arrears in this financial year is likely to exceed INR 2,500 crore or Nepali Rupee (NR) 4,000 crore, and possibly reach INR 3000 crore or NR 4,800 crore per annum by 2018/19.1 At a conservative estimate, the 32,000 Nepal domiciled serving soldiers remit approximately INR 1,000 crore equivalent to NR 1,600 crore per year.2 This total at approximately NR 6,400 crore is almost equivalent of 63 per cent of the total foreign grant in aid received by the Government of Nepal from all donor countries for the year 2016/17at NR 10,689.64 crores and greater than its own allocation for Defence at NR 3601.80 crore.3 Further, this figure does not include remuneration received by Nepali citizens as other employees of the Indian Government; there is no definitive figure available for the numbers of such personnel. The pensioner’s ratio does offer some basis for extrapolation wherein these pensioners form approximately 21 per cent of the total pensioners of the Indian Government. It can therefore be assumed that a similar ratio is in service at any given point of time with the Government of India and, if their remittances were to be added, the figures would further increase.
The Indian Ex-servicemen Welfare Organisation in Nepal (IEWON) is an independent organisation chaired by the Ambassador of India with representation from senior officials from the Governments of Nepal and India. It functions under the aegis of the Defence Wing of the Embassy and is responsible for the welfare of the Nepal-domiciled pensioners of the Government of India. In an exceptional decision, the Government of India chose to execute its social welfare activities through its ex-servicemen residing in Nepal. These ex-servicemen have shown exemplary zeal, honesty and determination in executing these social welfare projects, most of which are drinking water projects in remote hilly areas where drinking water is an acute problem. This has not only empowered these ex-servicemen and enhanced their status in society but also created more than one lakh ambassadors for Brand India and the values that it stands for. The IEWON also carries out other welfare activities including the provision of educational scholarships and vocational training for the wards of pensioners through 22 District Soldier Boards manned by Ex-servicemen it employs all over Nepal. The total annual budget of these welfare schemes is approximately INR 5.5 to 6 crore.4
The Government of India also provides opportunity to any citizen of Nepal to serve as an officer in the Indian Armed Forces, a fact that goes unnoticed in the haze and smoke surrounding Indo-Nepal relations. Some Nepali citizens have already risen to the rank of Major/Lieutenant General or equivalent. This displays the amount of trust and faith that India has on the citizens of Nepal. A Nepali youth has twin opportunities compared to his Indian counterpart; he can either join the Nepal Army or the Indian Armed Forces. No country in the world has opened its armed forces to a neighbour in this manner besides the other aspects of this special relationship like the open border. Different studies estimate the number of Nepalis working or residing in India to be between one and 1.6 million. The Indo-Nepal Trade Treaty of 2009 provides special treatment to industrial products of Nepal to promote development of industry in that nation on a non-reciprocal basis.5 Many Indian industries like Dabur have shifted production to Nepal as it is cheaper to produce in Nepal and distribute in India. There have been occasions when this special arrangement has been questioned by myopic interests on either side: Indians questioning the need to recruit Gorkhas when an ample recruitable population exists in the country; and Nepalis objecting to the impropriety of sovereign citizens of Nepal serving another country. This petty squabbling ignores the geo-political reality of a land locked Nepal hemmed in by the Himalayas to the North and India to the South as well as India’s moral obligations therein. It also ignores the fact that Nepal does not have the wherewithal, infrastructure and industry to provide employment for its bulging youth population. India provides the only viable option for their gainful employment and for the remittances therein.
A comparison with the British Gurkhas6 is inevitable here as even Great Britain maintains this special bond. The British have reduced their four Gurkha regiments existing in 1947 to one and this has two infantry battalions. Though the exact strength of British Gurkhas has not been mentioned on their website, an approximation, given the units and subunits mentioned, would be about 3,500 men.7 The number of British Gurkha pensioners residing in Nepal is dwindling as the majority choose to settle down in Britain after the British parliament voted to offer British Gurkhas the right to settle in the UK in 2009.8 The contrasts with the Indian relationship are glaring if only because of the sheer numbers involved.
This author had the opportunity to meet several pensioners from Nepal at a regimental reunion at Ranchi.9 Each one was immensely proud of his service in the Indian Army and grateful for the pensions and welfare activities being provided to them. They were especially happy with the recent extension of the Ex-servicemen Contributory Health Scheme (ECHS) to private hospitals in Nepal as also the extension of canteen facilities to pensioners in Nepal. Similarly, every senior Indian Army officer of the Gorkhas at the Gorkha Brigade Conference spoke of the exemplary qualities of the Gorkha soldiers. One of the Generals said that the Nation was grateful to these citizens of Nepal for their service and no amount of pensions or welfare activities can truly repay the debt that India owes these brave warriors. This unique bond is the core of Indo-Nepal friendship. Irrespective of the noise and clutter that surrounds this relationship, both governments need to nurture this core and build on the foundation it offers so that the association contributes to the Comprehensive National Security of both nations.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.