Army chief Manoj Mukund Naravane’s visit to Kathmandu next month is likely to be the first step in breaking the current logjam in ties between India and Nepal. The Gurkha soldiers from Nepal and the large population of Nepali ex-servicemen are a major pro-India constituency in the Himalayan Republic, often wracked by anti-India protests encouraged by political interests.
The Indian Army has always had close links with their Nepali counterparts and the strong bond between them helps bolster Delhi’s political and diplomatic links with the neighbouring country. These strong ties need to be nurtured and encouraged before they begin to fray. The government should take note of this even as the Nepalese army is now committed to holding joint exercises with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
A relationship that started as early as 1809, with Gurkha soldiers serving in the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, continues to play an integral part in ties between the neighbours. But already during the current crisis, Nepal’s foreign minister was quoted as saying that Nepalis should not be serving in a foreign country.
The Indian Army continues to recruit large numbers of able-bodied Gurkhas both from India and Nepal to serve in its various battalions. The Gurkhas, known for their valour and fierce loyalty to their units, have long been an integral part of the Indian Army. There are perhaps as many as 26,000 Nepali Gurkhas serving in the Army currently, former Army chief Ved Prakash Malik said on a ballpoint calculation. The exact numbers are not known but they are possibly more than 26,000.
Once they retire and return home to Nepal, the Indian army provides them with pension, medical benefits and all other facilities enjoyed by the ex-servicemen and veterans of the Indian Army. Besides this, a large number of army officers from Nepal attends the staff college and other training programs in India. There has always been a sense of camaraderie between the officers and men of both the armies.
Ironically, General Naravane’s blunt remark about Nepal being nudged by a third party to take on India had added fuel to the controversy, fuelled by tit-for-tat maps issued by India and Nepal, setting claims on each other’s territory. Though the General did not name China, the reference was obviously about China egging on Nepal. In recent years, China’s influence in Nepal has grown by leaps and bounds, more so after the nearly five-month roadblock in 2015, following the unveiling of the new Republican Constitution of Nepal. With land-locked Nepal dependent on supplies coming in from India, the blockade angered not just the government of the day, but ordinary citizens who were badly affected. From kerosene, cooking gas, and medical supplies, the shortages caused enormous hardship to the people and led to anger against Delhi. That short-sighted policy of the Modi government gave China the opportunity to spread its wings in Nepal.
The General’s words led to angry protests by Kathmandu, with the former defence minister Ishwer Pokharel slamming the Indian General for such insinuation and warning of hurting the sentiments of thousands of Gurkha soldiers who have long sacrificed their lives for India. He went on to say that after this continued soldiers could stop taking orders from their Indian superiors. Delhi was not amused by Pokharel’s remarks.
In India too, many eyebrows were raised at the General’s uncharacteristic and undiplomatic remarks. “He is a simple, straight-forward soldier. This is the only way he knows to respond to questions from the press,” said Ved Prakash Malik, defending Naravane and hinting that a soldier is not a diplomat.
But the General’s remarks are in keeping with the recent trend of men in uniform commenting on issues which were once a strict no-no for the military. Last year, his boss, General Bipin Rawat, the former army chief and current chief of defence staff, took the unprecedented step of commenting on an on-going domestic issue. Referring to the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, he had said:
“Leaders are not those who lead people in an inappropriate direction. We are witnessing in large number of universities and colleges that students are leading masses and crowds to carry out arson and violence in cities and towns. This is not leadership.”
He got away with impunity. Will the men in uniform, so long known to keep their political views to themselves, now begin publicly airing their political views? This is not in keeping with the best traditions of the Indian army.
However, a tradition of the Army that was established a decade or more ago was conferring the honorary rank of commander to the army chiefs of India and Nepal. General Naravane will be conferred with this honorary rank during his visit next month. President Bidya Devi Bhandari will do the honours for the Indian chief. Naravane’s counterpart General Purna Chandra Thapa had received a similar honorary ranking by India in January 2019.
General Navarane’s visit is being viewed as an ice-breaker and a sign that both countries are ready to talk. Soon after Kathmandu announced the Indian army commander’s visit, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli did a cabinet reshuffle. In that, the defence minister was removed and the PM himself assumed the charge of the ministry. Delhi again read this as a positive signal from Oli.
A section in the Indian government began targeting the defence minister as anti-India and pro-China following his reaction to Naravane’s remarks. What these sections both in the government and media forget is that the Nepalese Prime Minister himself regards the 2015 blockade and his removal as PM soon afterward as an Indian ploy. He is the man who made massive overtures to China in 2015. So blaming Pokharel is redundant.
But, for now, the signs are that both Delhi and Kathmandu are ready to diffuse the crisis and work at improving ties between the two countries which have excellent cultural, economic and military ties.
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