Context: Recent remarks by the Indian Army chief implying that Nepal was raising imaginary border claims with India at China’s behest could hit the relations between the Indian Army and the Nepalaese origin Gukha soldiers.

More about the news:

  • Recently the Indian Army chief 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” pointing towards China.
  • The General’s remarks raised a controversy in Nepal, where tensions with India were already high following inauguration of an 80-km stretch of a “pilgrim” road that would provide easier access to Indian worshippers bound for Kailash-Mansarovar in China via the Lipulekh Pass. 

Concerns due to the developments

  • Alienation among Gurkhas: The controversy may breed alienation among segments of at least 40 Gurkha battalions, mainly comprising Nepali soldiers who are serving in the Indian Army. 
    • 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.

About the Gurkhas

  • The name "Gurkha" comes from the hill town of Gorkha from which the Nepalese kingdom had expanded.
    • But their name is said to derive from an 8th century Hindu warrior-saint Guru Gorakhnath.
  • Ethnicity: The ranks have always been dominated by four ethnic groups, the Gurungs and Magars from central Nepal, the Rais and Limbus from the east, who live in villages.
    • The Gurkhas are mainly impoverished hill farmers.
  • Nepalese customs: They keep to their Nepalese customs and beliefs, and the brigade follows religious festivals such as Dashain, in which - in Nepal in which goats and buffaloes are sacrificed.
  • They still carry into battle their traditional weapon - an 18-inch long curved knife known as the kukri.
  • "Better to die than be a coward" is the motto of the world-famous Nepalese Gurkha soldiers.
  • Ties between British-India and Nepali Gurkhas, who originate from the mountainous region of Gurkha, can be traced to the famous Treaty of Sugauli, signed at the end of the Anglo-Nepalese war in 1816.
    • They suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the Gurkhas and signed a hasty peace deal and offered to pay the Gurkhas to join their army.
    • The General of the East India Company, David Ochterlony was the force behind the induction of the Gurkhas in the military.
  • Significant role in the consolidation of the British Empire in India
    • Gurkhas have been part of the British Army for almost 200 years,
    • Gurkhas had engaged in combat during the Gurkha-Sikh War, Anglo-Sikh wars, and the Afghan wars. 
    • More than 200,000 fought in the two world wars, and in the past 50 years they have served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo and now in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Plight of the British Army Gurkhas: 

  • The British Army Gurkhas are now based at Shorncliffe near Folkestone, Kent - but they do not become British citizens.
  • Fighting for equal treatment: In 2005, after the Gurhkas used the Human Rights Act to appeal against their inequitable treatment compared with regular British army soldiers, the government agreed to increase the Gurkha pension for retirement. But there remain 10,500 Gurkhas and 5,000 widows who receive no pension and live in near poverty.
  • Retired Gurkhas not allowed to live in the UK: Nepal is not a member of the Commonwealth. Gurkhas have never been subjects of the British Crown. The UK government says that letting all 36,000 ex-Gurkhas into the UK would lead to "massive pressure" on the immigration service.

Ties with Indian Army

  • After the partition of India in 1947, an agreement between Nepal, India and Britain transferred four Gurkha regiments from the British to the Indian army. 
  • There are Gurkhas in the Malaysian army and the Singapore Police Force both bodies formed from ex-British Army Gurkhas.
  • Currently, there are roughly 32,000 Gurkhas who make up the 40 battalions serving in the seven regiments in the Indian Army.
  • They serve in a variety of roles, mainly in the infantry but with significant numbers of engineers, logisticians and signals specialists.
  • Family bonds: Within each battalion there are usually very, very close family links, so when they are fighting, they are not so much fighting for their officers or the cause but for their friends and family.

Proven record of loyalty and valour: 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.”

  • Siachen battle: Resolutely defending Bilafond La, one of the “gates” leading to the glacier, 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.
  • In the Indian Peace Keeping Force operations in Sri Lanka, two Gurkha battalions participated in combat with distinction.

Keeping in mind the significance of Gurkhas in the Indian Army, there is a need for damage control measures from the Indian Army to boost the morale of Gurkha soldiers.