The India-Gorkha link of serving soldiers, ex-servicemen, thousands of Army aspirants, and impressive economic assistance all make for a pro-India constituency in Nepal that is often able to subdue the politically motivated, anti-India sentiment.
“Aaju mo to Nepal Janchhu” (today I will go to Nepal) is a vintage song I first heard in 1959 at Barpak, now the epicentre of the killer earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, 2015. In the lyric, Nepal refers to Kathmandu, the be-all and end-all of life for the village Gorkhas; as in ancient times, it still represents the exalted centre, the periphery not counting. Let me elaborate.
Following the earthquake, world attention, for the first four days, was riveted on Kathmandu, which reflected the political and constitutional lacunae that still disconnects the rural hinterland from the metropolis. Ironically, the exodus of survivors, from Kathmandu back to the mountain villages has begun because up there, “pani, hava aru khaja ramro chha”, which means water, air and grain are healthy. Had India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, not flown to flattened Barpak , he would never have heard about the famed Victoria Cross winner, Gaje Ghale. (Captain Gaje Ghale, who died, aged 81, in New Delhi in 2000, was awarded a Victoria Cross, as a Havildar (sergeant) while leading a platoon of young soldiers of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles in Burma in May 1943.) For the Indian Army, specifically, it means much more as hundreds upon thousands of Ghales, Gurungs, Thapas and Ranas from this region regularly join its ranks with cheer. Just last month, two of India’s 38 Gorkha battalions celebrated 200 years of kinship with India having made the ultimate sacrifice for the defence of the realm.
According to initial quake damage assessment by the UN Humanitarian mission and UN World Food Programme reports, 30 out of the 75 districts in Nepal have been greatly affected, 14 of them acutely. Out of four million people, one million of them are likely to have been displaced and 1.5 million will require urgent food assistance. Gorkha, Dhading, Lamjung, Sindhupalchowk and parts of Bharatpur, Patan and Kathmandu have been razed to the ground. Rescue and relief efforts have been undermined due to severe damage to the infrastructure and the few all-weather roads. There is also the factor of the absence of youth which has left the old, women and children languishing, especially in the rural areas. Here is why. In 2014, 1,500 Nepalis left each day seeking jobs abroad, a meteoric jump from just six persons each day, in 1996. Remittances from tourism, the second largest earner of wealth for Nepal, is bound to come to a grinding halt. The fact is that half-a-million hands drive tourism for nearly 8,00,000 tourists; in 2013, this generated $0.42 billion or Rs.39.1 billion in revenue.
When India reached out
Let’s look at how India stepped in following the quake. Displaying extraordinary strategic foresight with its ‘Operation Maitri’, India became the first country to respond to Nepal’s distressed state. India’s first C130J ‘Super Hercules’ with National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel brought rescue and relief material to Nepal in less than six hours. In addition, the C-17 Globemaster III, IL-76 and civilian aircraft along with Mi-17 and Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv helicopters were also used to supplement the exercise. AN-32 aircraft and Cheetah helicopters were on standby in Gorakhpur. Maj.Gen. J.S. Sandhu, a Gorkha Rifles officer, earlier posted in the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, was appointed the overall task force commander while another Gorkha Rifles officer, Brig. J. Gamlin, was deployed at Pokhara to lead the subsidiary task force to reach out to the rural areas.
“What stood out amid the quake ruin and distress was the failure of the SAARC in formulating a regional response and its inability to operationalise the SAARC Food Security Bank. ”
The Chief of the Indian Army, Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag, who is a Gorkha officer, personally directed operations. Mobile medical teams, mobile and field hospitals and engineering task forces were brought in by air; in addition, numerous trekking teams carting relief to inaccessible villages set out quickly. ‘Operation Maitri’ has been the most elaborate out-of-area humanitarian venture launched by our armed forces. The aircraft mentioned earlier, evacuated stranded tourists and the Indian work force in Nepal. Some 600,000 Indians are living and working across Nepal; India is also the source of the largest group of money-spending tourists in Nepal. Similarly, due to the unique open border and the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, there is always a five to seven million strong Nepali floating population in India.
The Chinese defence spokesman, Geng Yansheng, was even asked at a briefing in Beijing why the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force did not use its aircraft to airlift stranded Chinese tourists and others such as the 8,000-strong work force working on Chinese-funded projects there when India had done so to ferry out its nationals and more than 200 foreigners from 15 countries. The Chinese media have reported the visible outpacing by India of Beijing’s rescue and relief efforts. The Chinese Foreign Ministry played down reports of a competition with India to assist quake-hit Nepal and the Ambassadors in Kathmandu and New Delhi dismissed such speculation and instead recommended joint operations and working “positively”. The only jarring note in all this was when some sections of the Nepali media complained that India had forced its way into many quake-affected parts without Nepal’s sanction. At this point, I would like to recollect how in the 1990s, when there were two civilian passenger airline crashes in Nepal, unknown to the media, Nepal’s Prime Minister G.P. Koirala sought help from India to locate the bodies of the passengers. In contrast to this, one had “India invades Nepal” as banner headlines in Kathmandu-based newspapers when there were sorties by Indian Air Force helicopters scouring the Kathmandu valley to locate quake victims.
The Army link
China has come to realise and accept India’s comparative and operational advantages in Nepal: the physical proximity, a familiarity with the terrain, the language, historical, social, ethnic, cultural and religious linkages. What is less known is the military connection. This predates the British when Gorkhas joined Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Punjab Army at Lahore, giving the soldiers back home the appellation “Lahure” which endures till this day. The Nepal Army has been trained and equipped by India since 1952 with Indian Army signallers helping out in the first 1959 multiparty elections and even briefly manning joint check posts on the Northern border. Even today, Nepal receives the largest number of training slots in Indian military institutions. A Bilateral Consultative Group on Security Issues was established in 2003.
The Army Chiefs of both two countries are honorary Generals in each other’s armies. Why India was able to respond with alacrity was due to the fact that in early 2014, Nepal Army Chief, Gen. Gaurav Rana organised a disaster management conference in Kathmandu to which he invited former Indian Army Chief, Gen. Bikram Singh, to be the keynote speaker. But one needs to consider this response. In an interview to an Indian TV channel, Gen. Rana said: “India’s contribution was tremendous and outstanding, government-to-government relations superb and the bonhomie between the two armies, special and unparalleled with stray criticism about Big Brother India being inconsequential”. The Indian Embassy in Kathmandu has the biggest military mission anywhere, including Pension and Welfare Wings located in areas where there is Gorkha recruitment to the Indian Army and where there also is a concentration of ex-servicemen; 26 ‘District Soldier Boards’ reach out to inaccessible areas where the permanent establishment at Pokhara and Dharan cannot. This elaborate outreach ensures that a Bharatiya Sena Lahure or Bhu Pu (Indian soldier or ex-serviceman) is present across Nepal. Thus 39,000 serving soldiers, 150,000 ex-servicemen, thousands of Army aspirants and the impressive economic assistance all make for a pro-India constituency which is often able to subdue the politically motivated anti-India sentiment.
Maoist leaders, led by former Nepal Prime Minister Prachanda, have raised the usual security concerns about Indian Army’s relief work. Similarly, the online outrage on social media over the Indian media’s “overzealous and insensitive reporting of relief work”, has touched a raw nerve. India’s spontaneous and overwhelming response has been misconstrued in some quarters as undermining Nepal’s sovereignty. “There is no need to suspect the role of India as their personnel are accompanied by the Nepal Army,” said Gen. Rana.
Obviously, no country in the region would have been able to cope with a catastrophe of such magnitude as the quake has showed. While it is early days yet, some lessons are apparent: inadequate political direction and control; a lack of civil-military coordination; the delayed establishment of a nodal agency to control foreign assistance; inadequate disaster awareness, the lack of means to counter rumour, panic and fear; and the disparity of attention between the centre and the periphery. However, what stood out amid the quake ruin and distress was the failure of the SAARC in formulating a regional response and its inability to operationalise the SAARC Food Security Bank sanctioned in the 1980s.
The new Nepal constitution must decentralise power and resources. The fact that no local body elections have been held since 1999 will immensely hurt rehabilitation, relief and reconstruction efforts.
The rescue phase ended after nine days — mainly relief and the removal of rubble. There are still aftershocks some as much as 7.4 on the Richter scale, and reports of casualties. Mr. Doval told Mr. Koirala that India will provide whatever it takes to put Nepal back on its feet. By being a step ahead of others in its response, India has turned the Himalayan tragedy into a strategic opportunity.
(Gen Mehta is from Fifth Gorkha Rifles and has trekked extensively in Nepal since 1959.)
This article has been originally published in THE HINDU on 15 May 2015.