DELHI - Calls for the Nepalese Gorkha community in
West Bengal, India, to be empowered with a
political identity - either through a granting of
statehood (Gorkhaland) or the right to vote - have
intensified following talk in Nepal of ending the
tradition of their community sending soldiers to
the British (where they are known as Gurkhas) and
A recent report, endorsed
by a Nepali parliamentary committee, advocates an
immediate ban on the recruitment of Gorkhas by
foreign armies. If the ban comes into force, it
may spell the demise of Gorkha regiments that have
served in the Indian Army since independence in
1947. Over 25,000 Gorkhas - as they are called in
India - currently serve, including 120 officers.
Thousands of Gorkhas migrated to India
during colonial rule. They constitute about 90% of
the 130,000 population in the Darjeeling
district in West Bengal
state. Experts say a stable political status in
India could benefit the entire Gorkha community,
since it would offer job security and the promise
of a secure future.
"Here is a community,"
Brigadier (retired) C S Thapa wrote recently in
the Darjeeling Times, "that provides the best
soldiers for the nation yet lacks ration cards and
reservation, something which would not have been
seen if the community had a political identity".
Reservation in India is a form of affirmative
action designed to improve the well-being of
perceived backward and under-represented
Nepali activists say that
with a political identity the Gorkha community
could preserve its culture, improve opportunities
for higher education and find a better way of life
perpetuated. Once the Gorkhas become an empowered
Indian community, like other tribes of castes, it
will help them stabilize and banish feelings of
Thapa argues that normally
with most minorities, there is appeasement in the
form of a commission and political quotas.
However, there are none for the Gorkhas, which
have traditionally have been famous for their
gallantry and contribution to the defense and
"If there can be a
Dalit [sometimes referred to as "untouchables"]
quota and a Muslim quota in India, why not a
Gorkha quota?" says Bhaiji Gurung, a
Darjeeling-based activist who has been fighting
for the creation of a Gorkhaland state in India's
northeast since the 1990s.
Last July, a
tripartite accord was signed by the Indian
government, the West Bengal government and the
Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the main party of
the Gorkhas. It provides for a Gorkhaland
Territorial Administration (GTA), an elected body,
which will manage with a "greater degree of
autonomy" the affairs of the Gorkhas through
control of 59 government departments including
public works, social welfare, education, water
resources and health.
Gorkhas, says Gurung, are residents of hill states
which are plagued with lack of sanitation, poor
infrastructure and no proper education facilities.
All these problems can better addressed through a
Given the demands
the Indian army makes of its Gorkha infantrymen,
the Indian defense establishment is watching the
potential ban with trepidation. Talks are underway
to convince the Nepali soldiers to not leave the
Defense Minister A K
Antony told the Lok Sabha (lower house) this week
that India was going to extend the benefits of its
ECHS (ex-servicemen contributory health scheme) to
retired personnel in Nepal through three clinics
at Kathmandu, Pokhara and Dharan. Nepal is home to
79,000 Indian army pensioners, 11,000 widows of
ex-servicemen and 17,000 retired Assam Rifles
personnel. According to a media estimate, the
Indian army pays out US$200 million annually in
pensions to ex-Gorkhas.
point out that even though removing the Nepalese
Gorkha battalions wouldn't impact enormously on
the operations of the 1.13-million Indian Army,
they still represent an important infantry asset.
The first recruitment of Nepalis as
Gorkhas started in 1815, immediately after Nepal's
war with British India in which Nepal lost
one-third of its territory. A peace treaty ended
the war, and the British made arrangements with
the rulers of Nepal under which they could recruit
offspring of those whose bravery had impressed
them on the battlefield.
Gorkhas fought for Britain in World War I and
World War II and more than 45,000 have died in
At the time of India's
independence in 1947, Nepal, the UK and India
entered into a tripartite agreement allowing India
and the UK to "maintain the Gurkha connection"
with soldiers recruited from Nepal. The Indian
Army was created that year.
of the Gorkha soldiers from India could also
impact Indo-Nepalese relations, say analysts.
"Nepali Gorkhas have been part of the Indian Army
for a very long time. If they are stopped from
joining the army then the association between the
armies and also the countries will be affected,"
former chief of army staff General Ved Prakash
Malik told IANS news agency.
Nepali government has already directed its
Ministry of Foreign Affairs to implement the
dynamic is the national pride seen behind the ban.
Nepal is trying to leave its centuries-old
monarchical and feudal traditions behind and
embrace democracy, libertinism and modernity.
"The elimination of Gorkha recruitment,
indeed, is a test of whether the new republic can
settle the debate over her semi-colonial status
and become a proud member of fully sovereign
community of nations," writes columnist Gyanu
Adhikari in The Kathmandu Post.
Gorkha Rifles in India have won plaudits in all
conflicts and counter-insurgency operations,
ranging from the 1999 Kargil conflict with
Pakistan to winning the highest gallantry awards
like the Param Vir Chakra, Ashok Chakra and
The planned Gorkha ban has
met with stiff resistance from ex-Gorkha regiments
across Nepal. They have threatened to launch
countrywide protests if the order is not
"The Nepali government has
failed to provide us with solid employment back
home," a Gurkha subedar - a rank equivalent
to a British lieutenant - told Asia Times Online
on the condition of anonymity. "It has no right to
take away our current livelihood in foreign lands
either. Besides, we send a lot of money back home,
contributing in a big way to the Nepali economy."
Neeta Lal is a widely published
writer/commentator who contributes to many reputed
national and international print and Internet
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