Asking the difficult questions

Prime Minister Oli’s fence-mending trip to India is not getting into the touchy subject of Gorkha recruitment

Bhanu Bhattarai

Five years ago, a young man showed his identity card and was allowed to enter the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu. In the office of the Defence Attache, he put a neat envelope on the table. The contents made the officer nearly jump off his chair.

I was that nervous young man, and I had done what seemed to be the most normal thing a citizen of Nepal could do. I was serving as a Major in the Indian Army, and had decided to resign my commission because I felt it was principally wrong to serve in a foreign military. In a letter to the President of India, I wrote: ‘My conscience does not allow me to serve in the Indian Army anymore. Hence, I would request you to release me from the service.’

The Defence Attache was furious: “I don’t know what you are up to, but let me tell you: if you do not take this back, the moment you are out of my office the system will get after you. There will be severe consequences. It’s not a threat. It is a concern and a personal advice.”

Eight months of legal limbo, two years of isolation within the military, months of illegal military custody, and a Court Martial led to my conviction on the charge of ‘desertion’ and dismissal from service. I returned to Nepal in 2016.

A week before the deadline for the promulgation of the Constitution in September 2015, Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar flew to Kathmandu as a special messenger of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India wanted to delay the promulgation of the constitution to accommodate Madhesi demands.

Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress, Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists and K P Oli of the UML, used each other as scapegoats. When he got a sense that Nepal was not listening, Jaishankar warned: “Modiji is not Manmohan Singh. Strict measures will be taken. There will be consequences.”

The rest is now history, and a black page in the relationship between the two countries. The Blockade that immediately followed the 2015 earthquake was a foreign policy blunder at par with, if not worse than, the LTTE war in Sri Lanka in 1988-89.

From the time when the Ranas leaned on British India with a clear ‘strategy for survival’, right to the present day, Nepal’s relations with the south has seen many transformations. Nepal’s dependence on India has helped preserve a colonial strategic and security mindset in the Indian establishment long after the British left.

This security framework in New Delhi treats Nepal as a country that has to be saved from Chinese influence. Therefore the concept of equidistant foreign policy, which has been the elusive goal of many Nepali strategists, is not taken very seriously in New Delhi. Every time Nepal wants to move towards equidistance, India has warned of the consequences.

When Prime Minister K P Oli lands in New Delhi on Friday, he will be received as one of the most powerful leaders in Nepal’s history. Oli has support of nearly three-fourths of parliament, a majority rarely enjoyed by any other leader in recent times.

Despite this, it will be virtually impossible for Oli to ask the difficult questions. The visit will be limited to tokenism, where the Modi government’s focus will be on reducing the political damage of the Blockade and the consequences to his party in next year’s elections. And Oli too, will be happy to play along.

One of the main agendas of the Maoists, laid out in their 40-point demand to the royal government in 1996 before launching the armed struggle, was scrapping the 1950 treaty and the issue of Gorkha recruitment. Now, the Maoists are in power with the UML, but none of the comrades wants to be reminded of those demands anymore.

The reason why I took that step five years ago, and why I felt so strongly that it was time to stop Gorkha recruitment was that it is a scar on our national self-esteem. At the core of it, Gorkha recruitment into the Indian and British armies sends out the message to the world: ‘If you pay us enough, we are even ready to die for you.’

But however powerful K P Oli may be, and despite his nationalism narrative, even he will not dare raise this issue in New Delhi.

Read also:

Looking back to the future ,  Editorial

Dying for others,  Om Aatha Rai

More warlike,  Deepal Aryal

Equidistance or asymmetry,  Editorial

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