It has been noticed lately that China is pacing its efforts to recruit Gorkhas in its PLA. The news is coming at a time when the Indian army underwent an overhaul in its recruitment procedure (Agnipath scheme) and Nepal’s govt. is inclining towards China. In this article, we will understand the dynamics of the present situation and what can be India’s options.
When one talks about the infantry regiments of the Indian army, the name of valiant Gorkhas (or Gurkhas) emerges distinctly. At present, there are 7 Gorkha regiments in the Indian army composed of 39 battalions. They are one of the most decorated regiments of the Indian army flashing a total of 43 war time gallantry awards including 3 Param Vir Chakras. They are identified by the slant hat that is part of the uniform and the famed curved knife called ‘Khukri’.
Another distinguishing fact about these regiments is that the first Field Marshal of India FM Sam Manekshaw and the first CDS of India Gen. Bipin Rawat were also from these regiments. The Gorkhas render their service not only in the Indian army but also in the British army, Singapore and Brunei as well.
Who Are The Gorkhas?
Gorkhas are the native people of the Himalayan regions of Nepal and India. Before their introduction in India, they served the army of Gorkha kingdom under the emperor Prithvi Narayan Shah. The border dispute between the British and Nepal led to the Anglo-Nepal war in 1814. The war ended with the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816. During the war, the British identified the potential of Gurkha soldiers and started to recruit them as irregular soldiers. Later they were organized into the 1st King George’s Own Gurkha Rifles regiment.
During the pre-independence time, these soldiers remained loyal to the British and helped them in suppressing the 1857 revolt. They fought in Afghanistan, Burma and North East frontier of India. They also rendered active service during World War 1 in which Gurkha regiments received 2000 gallantry awards. Almost 250,000 Gurkha soldiers in 43 battalions fought during World War 2 suffering 32000 casualties and earning 2734 gallantry awards.
Post-independence, a tripartite agreement was signed between the British, Nepal and India. The agreement offered a choice to Gorkhas to join either the British army or the Indian army. Out of the 10 regiments (20 battalions), 6 decided to join the Indian army and the rest 4 went to the British. As of now, there are 7 Gurkha regiments in the Indian army. Apart from the regular regiments, they are also recruited in the SFF (Special Frontier Force), which is responsible for doing covert operations in case of Indo-China conflict. There is a Gurkha contingent in Singapore that plays the role of riot police. Around 500 Gorkhas also serve in the Gurkha Reserve Unit of Brunei. Their values and innate qualities has attracted China and now it wants to recruit these Gorkhas.
Acts of Gallantry
The word “Gorkha” is synonymous with the phrase “sheer naked courage”. These men are known for their attitude of never backing down in the face of grave danger. These men with slant hats and shining Khukris justify the motto of their regiment “Kafar hunu bhanda marnu ramro” (It is better to die than to be a coward). The men charging at enemy with screams of “Jai maa kali, aayo gorkhali” have won 3 out of 21 Param Vir Chakras (Highest wartime gallantry award) and have exhibited their fierce fighting ability across the world. Some of their famous tales are discussed below:
1. Capt. Gurbachan Singh Salaria (PVC) 3/1 Gorkha Rifles
He is the only PVC awardee who earned the title for a UN Peacekeeping mission. Capt. Salaria was posted on a UN mission in Congo in 1961 when a civil war erupted there. He was ordered to remove a road blockade by gendarmerie (Military force that was handling the civil riots under the control of the Belgian govt. (Please refer to Congo’s civil war for more details)).
He was commanding a platoon against 90 enemy men. During the operation, he received fire from all directions. But, the enraged Gorkhas charged into the enemy positions and massacred the enemy with their Khukris. Capt. Salaria lost the count of men he had killed and watched the handful of Gorkhas chase away bigger group of enemies. He had just bayoneted a man who was trying to escape when a burst fire of machine gun pierced his neck. He felt his neck bleeding and soaking his olive-green shirt, the view of his men still giving a chase gleamed in his eyes. With this, he went into unconsciousness from which he never came back.
2. Maj. Dhan Singh Thapa (PVC) 1/8 Gorkha Rifles
He is one of the heroes of the 1962 Sino-Indian war. India neglected the threat of Chinese attack and played passively by building outposts along border areas. The Indian army was ill-prepared and ill-equipped when the Chinese attacked on the morning of 20th October 1962. In the Chushul sector, with just 28 men, Maj. Thapa woke up due to a loud bang of a mortar shell next to his bunker. The Chinese had started the offense and were advancing to their position. Maj. Thapa rose to his duty. He and his men fought the Chinese coming in massive numbers, killing hundreds with their .303 and LMGs. They ran out of ammunition and lost nearly all their men.
Maj. Thapa was taken Prisoner of war by the Chinese and declared dead in India and awarded PVC. Later he was able to communicate his condition to the Indian side and China released him. The republic day of 2005 was the last time he wore the PVC on his chest and saluted the president.
3. Captain Manoj Kumar Pandey (PVC) 1/11 Gorkha Rifles
I’m sure everyone knows him by name and his heroic tale of “The capture of Khalubar top” in the Kargil war. A week after celebrating his 24th birthday during the war, he was assigned the herculean task to climb a 70° steep slope at night. Despite the freezing cold, sleeplessness, thirst, and exhausting climb; he completed the mission and destroyed 4 bunkers on top of the hill immortalizing himself during the mission and earning the highest gallantry award of the army.
The tales of their heroic acts are not limited to just Indian military history but also extend to their service in the British military as well. Sergeant Dipprasad Pun single-handedly fought off 30 Taliban attackers during his stint in Afghanistan in 2010. Even after running out of ammo, he used the machine gun tripod and continued to fight.
Their brave acts are witnessed in civil areas as well. A Nepali Gorkha soldier Bishnu Shreshtha was traveling in Indian railways when a group of 40 robbers entered the scene. Bishnu lost his patience when they tried to rape a teen girl in front of her parents. He took out his Khukri and killed 3 of them and injured 8 others. Rest of them fled the scene. These courageous acts demonstrate the abilities and values of these battle hardened warriors. No wonder why China is planning to recruit Gorkhas in its army.
Why No Recruitment of Gorkhas This Year?
Indian army underwent a major overhaul in its recruitment procedure of OR (Other Ranks) soldiers in 2022 by way of the Agnipath scheme. The scheme was introduced to reduce the burgeoning pension bills in the already constrained defence budget and to keep the force younger. Under the scheme, soldiers will be recruited for a period of 4 years after which 25% of the strength will be retained and rest will join normal civilian life. Relieved soldiers will not be given pensions but a compensatory package will be provided to them.
There are a total of 40,000 Gurkha soldiers in Indian army out of which nearly 10,000 are Nepali Gorkhas. These soldiers bring a great amount of money to Nepal as the pay in the Indian army is 2.5 times the pay of the Nepalese army. These Nepalese soldiers in the Indian Army bring US$620 million in remuneration to Nepal, while its own defence budget is US$420 million.
The newly formed Maoist-oriented government of Nepal is already against Nepalese youth joining Indian army. They believe that India deploys Gorkhas against the Chinese border which is not an aggressor in the case of Nepal. Think tanks in Kathmandu are also afraid that after 4 years when the soldiers will return to Nepal, they will have no stable and proper career opportunity. In such a situation, the youth can resort to alcoholism, drugs and even some armed insurgency because of their martial training. Nepal’s govt. also believes it to be a violation of the Tripartite treaty signed between India, the British, and Nepal. Considering these factors, the govt. of the Himalayan nation has decided to halt the recruitment of its young citizens into the Indian army under the present scheme. China finds it as an opportunity to recruit Gorkhas in its forces.
China’s Efforts To Sway Nepal To Its side
China is alleged to have been in talks with Nepal’s govt. to recruit Gorkhas in its PLA taking benefit of the deepening interests of both nations and the investments made by the former in the latter. Chinese govt. is trying to bring Nepal to its side through the following tactics: –
1. BRI initiative: Nepal is a signatory to China’s ambitious BRI plan. Under the initiative, China is building several infrastructure projects in the country. They include the Kathmandu-Terai fast track expressway, Upper Trishuli 3A hydropower project, West Seti hydropower project, development of Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, construction of a new airport in Pokhara, etc. These infra projects are luring Nepal towards China as a strategic investment partner rather than India and the U.S.
2. Increasing trade deficit: As per the 2021-22 data, Nepal imported NPR (Nepalese Rupee) 233.92 billion comprising electronic items and durable goods. Their exports which consists of woolen and traditional handicraft items amounted to just NPR 1 billion which creates a huge trade deficit for Nepal.
3. Study on Gorkhas: In August 2020, it was reported that China had funded a study in Nepal to understand the reasons why the youth from the Himalayan nation joined the Indian Army. The study was conducted by the China Study Centre, an NGO based in Kathmandu. It was funded by the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu and costed around 12.7 lakh Nepalese rupees.
The study found that the main reasons why Gorkhas joined the Indian Army were economic opportunities, job security, and the chance to serve their country. It also found that many Gorkhas felt that they were treated better in the Indian Army than they would be in the Nepali Army. China might incorporate these factors in its plan to recruit Gorkhas.
4. Improving cultural integration: China offers scholarships to Nepalese students and sponsors studies by civil servants and journalists in China. Nepal on the other side has made studying Mandarin compulsory in all schools across the country.
India’s options to counter Chinese plan to recruit Gorkhas
Nepal and India have relations dating back to ancient times. Both countries interact in multiple dimensions including cultural ties, investment, military exercises, regional cooperation, and much more. The Himalayan region is of significance from a territorial, strategic, and geopolitical standpoint. Even the U.S. stated Nepal to be a necessary participant in its Indo-Pacific policy. In light of the recent news on how China is planning to recruit Gorkhas, India can take the following routes to counter them: –
Changes in Scheme
1. Make an exception for Nepali Gorkhas: Nepal’s main concern is regarding the short tenure of its soldiers and the absence of pension post-retirement in the Agnipath scheme. We can deal with this issue by making an exception in the scheme for the Gorkhas recruited from Nepal. Indian army recruits 1400 Nepalese soldiers in a year in Gorkha regiments compared to the 30-40,000 soldiers recruited annually. Therefore, their pension bills won’t add much burden in defence budget. This number can be brought down even lower in the future.
2. Provision of reservation for the retired Gorkhas like normal Agniveers: The other concern of Nepal is the retreat of young retired soldiers back to the country without adequate employment opportunities. This can also be dealt with by giving the same treatment to retired Gorkhas and providing them with the same employment opportunities as regular Agniveers.
3. Using goodwill ambassadors: The 1,35,000 retired Gorkha soldiers who reside in Nepal act as goodwill ambassadors for India. They can make immense contribution to the bilateral relations of both countries. They can convey the intent of Indian army behind the new recruitment scheme.
4. Increasing investments and building trust: To counter the pro-China opinion, India can increase the investment projects in Nepal’s different sectors like building grid systems for transfer of electricity, increasing road-rail connectivity, and deepening people to people connect by way of cultural events.
Though the efforts towards recruitment of Gorkhas are in a nascent stage, But, we cannot ignore the possibility. A slow and steady build-up of pro-China opinion can be observed in Nepal. Successive governments of Nepal are trying to decouple the nation from India. The diasporic and cultural relations between both nations can be leveraged to build trust. An Increase in investments and connective infrastructure can counterweight the Chinese influence and work in India’s interests.