The border dispute with Nepal turns the spotlight on the Gurkha regiments, which have been a pillar of India’s national security for decades
The blow-back from remarks by the Army chief, Manoj Naravane, implying that Nepal was raising imaginary border claims with India at China’s behest could hit a vital pillar of India’s national security — the seven prized Gurkha regiments comprising battle-hardened troops, with a proven record of loyalty and valour.
Speaking at an online seminar on May 15, Gen. Naravane raised eyebrows when he asserted that Nepal’s objections to India’s construction of a link road to the Lipulekh Pass may be “at the behest of someone else”. “There is reason to believe that they might have raised this issue at the behest of someone else and that is very much a possibility,” the Army chief had said, in an obvious reference to China.
The General’s remarks raised a firestorm in Nepal, where tensions with India were already high following Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s inauguration of an 80-km stretch of a “pilgrim” road earlier in May. The entire road would provide easier access to Indian worshippers bound for Kailash-Mansarovar in China via the Lipulekh Pass. Mount Kailash is about 96 km away from the Pass.
Nepal PM K.P. Sharma Oli stoked the fires of nationalism to a new high, by delivering a defiant speech in Parliament, slamming India not only over territorial claims, but also for spiralling COVID-19 infections in his country.
Amid the growing bitterness, the Nepalese Army, which has historically enjoyed unique and privileged ties with India, has refrained from reacting to Gen. Naravane’s statement. Spokesperson of the Nepal Army, Brig. General Bigyan Dev Pandey, refusing to respond to General Naravane’s comments, spotlighted that the controversy fell in the “political” and not the military domain.
Massachusetts-born General of the East India Company, David Ochterlony, was the force behind the induction of the Gurkhas in the military
The Gurkhas had fought in the Gurkha-Sikh War, Anglo-Sikh wars, and the Afghan wars
During the 1971 Indo-Pak war, a Gurkha battalion pioneered amphibious operation in independent India.
But, on the contrary, Nepal’s Defence Minister Ishwor Pokhrel, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, has slammed the Indian Army chief’s utterance. Gen. Naravane’s comments, he said, had hurt the sentiments of Nepalese Gurkhas, who have a long tradition of sacrifice for India, he said on May 25.
“With this, the Indian Chief of the Army Staff has also hurt the sentiments of the Nepali Gurkha Army personnel who lay down their lives to protect India,” Mr. Pokhrel said in an interview. He added the Nepal Army “would definitely play its role in the right time, as per the directives of the government based on our Constitution… If needed, it will fight”.
Amid the cross-fire between the Army Chief and the Nepalese political leadership lies the danger that the controversy may breed alienation among segments of at least 40 Gurkha battalions, mainly comprising Nepali soldiers who are the Indian Army’s pride. That would be a major Indian concern as New Delhi cannot afford any dissonance in the strong and reliable relationship with Gurkha troops, which has been tested and forged in the line of fire, for more than two centuries.
Recruited by the British
Ties between British-India and Nepali Gurkhas, who originate from the mountenous region of Gurkha, go deep, and can be traced to the famous Treaty of Sugauli, signed at the end of the Anglo-Nepalese war. That was in 1816, when troops of the British East India Company discovered that despite losing the war, the Nepali Gurkhas had fought with exceptional valour and grit, worthy of recruitment in the British-Indian forces. Consequently, the first battalion of the Gurkha Regiment was raised.
The gamble of the Massachusetts-born General of the East India Company, David Ochterlony, the force behind the induction of the Gurkhas in the military, paid off, as the recruits from Nepal played a significant role in the consolidation of the British Empire in India. Gurkhas had engaged in combat during the Gurkha-Sikh War, Anglo-Sikh wars, and the Afghan wars. By the time the First World War began, 10 Gurkha regiments had already been raised in the British Indian Army. Unsurprisingly, they distinguished themselves in major combat theatres across the globe, ranging from Monte Cassino — a rocky hill about 130 km southeast of Rome — in the West, to tropical Rangoon in the East.
The German Afrika Korps, the German expeditionary force in Africa during the Second World War led by Gen. Erwin Rommel, went on record to acknowledge the ferocity of these khukri-wielding fighters. “Rommel enjoyed touring the front lines. We would go deep into the desert to explore. One time we came across 14 German soldiers who seemed asleep. When we got closer we saw each had his throat cut. Nearby we found a khukri — the knife of the British Gurkha soldiers. I still have that knife,” recalled Rudolf Schneider, a former Afrika Korps soldier, who was also Rommel’s driver, as reported by The Independent newspaper. Gurkhas have fought in the Falklands war and served the British in Hong Kong, Cyprus, Sierra Leone and East Timor.
Ties with Indian Army
After India gained Independence, six Gurkha regiments were transferred from the British to the Indian Army as part of a tripartite agreement between Nepal, India and Britain. A seventh regiment was raised after Independence. Currently, there roughly are 32,000 Gurkhas who make up the 40 battalions serving in the seven regiments in the Indian Army. There is not a single military campaign launched by independent India, where the battalions have not left their indelible mark. In recent decades, many retired Indian Army officers would recall the sheer tenacity, courage and combat skills of Gurkha troops at the dizzy heights of the Siachen Glacier in Ladakh.
Resolutely defending Bilafond La, one of the “gates” leading to the glacier, the third battalion of the fourth Gurkha Rifles regiment blunted repeated assaults by the Pakistani troops, all at a height of 20,000 feet. In the battle fought on September 20-24, 1987, 13 Gurkha troops were killed and 23 wounded. For their bravery, the unit earned 3 Maha Vir Chakras (MVC) and 5 Vir Chakras.
During the 1971 Indo-Pak war, a Gurkha battalion pioneered amphibious operations. Amid the Indian Peace Keeping Force operations in Sri Lanka, two Gurkha battalions participated in combat with distinction, but Lt. Colonel Inder Bal Singh Bawa, one of the battalion commanders, was injured and later died, along with many of the unit’s officers and troops. Col. Bawa was later decorated with an MVC.
Speaking of the Gurkhas, Sam Manekshaw, India’s first field Marshall, who himself belonged to the eighth Gurkha Rifles regiment, once famously said: “If anyone tells you he is never afraid, he is a liar or he is a Gurkha.”