New Delhi, July 10: India’s army chief Gen. Bikram Singh today reached Kathmandu as Nepal seeks to resolve whether to allow recruitment of its youth in the Indian and British armies.
The highlight of Gen. Singh’s three-day visit — his first trip abroad after taking office — will be the ceremonial conferment of the rank of honorary general in the Nepal Army, a tradition that is reciprocated by India.
But lurking beneath the pomp that will mark the military investiture ceremony in which President Ram Baran will hand over the baton to General Singh are tensions that can chip away at the Indian Army’s manpower and Nepal’s tottering economy.
Last December, a Nepalese parliamentary panel recommended — in a concept paper titled “Nepal’s Foreign Relations in the Changed Context” — that Kathmandu should ban the recruitment of its Gorkhas by foreign armies because the 200-year-old practice did not befit national honour in the changed political scenario.
Nepal’s government instructed two of its ministries in March this year to examine the report and suggest how the practice could be stopped.
The Indian Army has seven regiments of Gorkhas — more than half recruited from Nepal — and about three others in which they are recruited. An estimated 35,000 Gorkhas serve in the infantry and the special forces, about 60 per cent of whom are originally from Nepal. The rest are recruited largely from Darjeeling and Sikkim.
But Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s government is still unsure about accepting the recommendations because of the economic consequences. India spends about Rs 2,000 crore a year on salaries and pensions for Nepalese Gorkhas. Outfits of veterans and youth organisations in Nepal have protested against the parliamentary report because employment opportunities in the country are scarce.
The Indian Army had stopped recruiting Gorkhas for about two years before reviving the practice in 2010. It currently recruits about 1,000 soldiers from Nepal every year. The British, who recruit fewer numbers, have sought to keep jobs in their army attractive by offering citizenship to recruits from Nepal.
“The visit (of Gen. Singh) assumes special significance in the light of enhanced defence co-operation between the two countries and our growing bilateral relationship with Nepal,” the Indian Army said in a statement in Delhi today.
“Both sides have indicated a desire to work towards building a mutually beneficial defence co-operation,” it added.
India has emphasised that it would want to continue with the close defence relations. “Traditional linkages of the two armies and defence co-operation have been important tools towards cementing this friendship,” the statement said.
The practice of recruiting Nepalese Gorkhas in the Indian Army dates back to an agreement signed in 1816 between the East India Company and the erstwhile kingdom. But Nepal’s Maoists, now in power in a fragile set-up, have campaigned against the recruitment by foreign armies for years.