Even as the relationship between Nepal and India hit a rocky patch about disputed border territory, ties between the neighbours received a new jolt recently when Nepal’s foreign minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali said that a 1947 agreement that allows India and Britain to recruit Gorkha soldiers is redundant.
“It is a legacy of the past,” Gyawali said during an online interaction organised by the Nepal Institute of International Relations on July 31. India currently has approximately 35,000 Nepali citizens serving in seven regiments, some of whom are deployed along India’s fractious borders with Pakistan and China.
The Indian Army recruits about 1,300 Gorkha youths every year, while Britain selects more than 200 people annually for the British Army and Singapore Police.
Recruitment from Nepal started after the Anglo Nepal war (1814-1816), when the East India Company was vastly impressed by the courage of their opponents. Decades later, Indian Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw declared, “If someone says he is not afraid to die, he is either lying or is a Gurkha.” After India’s independence, Nepal, Britain and India signed a tri-partite agreement that allowed Nepali citizens to be recruited into their armies.
Debates about Nepal’s responsibilities to its citizens gained new momentum in 2018, when Britain set about recruiting Gorkha women without seeking the consent of their home country. In December 2019, Nepal expressed concern about issues like standards for selecting and employing Nepali citizens in foreign armies.
Kathmandu wants to renegotiate the pact and replace it with individual treaties with each country because the current treaty does not allow allow Nepal to play any role in selecting its citizens for foreign armies, “We should define the presence of the government of Nepal in the [recruitment] process,” Gyawali has previously said.
At the online meeting in July, he explained: “It opened the window for Nepali youths to go abroad. It created a lot of jobs in the society in the past but in the present context, some provisions in the agreement are questionable. So we should start discussions on its various objectionable aspects.”
However, Britain and India have had a lukewarm response to Nepal’s proposal.
Gorkhas have been used in conflicts against the states with which Nepal has diplomatic relations. India has used its Gurkha regiments in every war including the war with China (1962 and 1967) and against Pakistan (1947, 1965, 1971, 1999). Though this is allowed by the 1947 agreement, it is clear that this needs to be discussed.
In an article in the Economic Times shortly after Gyawali’s statement, Ranjit Rae, a former Indian ambassador to Nepal, advised Kathmadu to proceed with caution. “Discussing terms and conditions of recruitment and service is one thing, but a possible argument that Nepali Gurkhas should not be deployed during conflicts with countries friendly to Nepal is quite another matter,” he said. “This would clearly be unacceptable. Nepal needs to think very carefully of the overall impact of its approach before taking steps that may eventually end a 200-year-old tradition.”
The recruitment of Gorkhas is often seen to have economic benefits. But for Nepal, Gorkha recruitment has had deep social, economic and cultural impacts. The most important factor is that the selection procedure is strictly based on the caste system. Recruits are largely drawn from the (hill-resident) Magar and Gurung communities in western Nepal and the Kirati Rai and Limbus from eastern Nepal.
This has had the effect of prompting them to “self-exclude”’ from the intellectual, political and social mainstream. Historically, it has been a trend for youth from these communities to be groomed to prioritise serving the British or Indian army rather than their own country. In this way, manpower that ought to be utilised for the development and prosperity of Nepal has been systematically licensed to serve and even die for another country.
Besides, representing Nepalis as warriors and the subsequent recruitment in the British and Indian armies provides the rationale for these countries to boss Nepal around. In Britain and India, Nepal has been represented as politically weak and economically poor. Since it believed to have few sources of income, Nepalis are have been recruited in their army. This provides leverage f Britain and India to perceive themselves as economic emancipators and to think of Nepal as a poor , unstable country that needs paternalistic domination.
In a way, for Nepal, the recruitment of Gorkhas has been no different from a colonial project, where the human resources of a small country are recruited into a foreign army after taking an oath to kill or die. It reduces humans to mercenaries or machines of violence.
Promod Tandan is a doctoral researcher in International Relations at the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy.