Nepal was almost a military ally of the British empire until the Indian independence of 1947. British and Nepalese military ties, going back to the Sugauli treaty, however, are not the oldest in the region.
These relations now appear not just strained, but almost irreparable.
Gen Chhatraman Singh Gurung’s recent visit to the United Kingdom at such a crucial moment –that coincided with the killing of Lakshman Rai in Afghanistan while fighting for the British cause—may not be an occasion to expect traditional warmth and lavish praise of the ‘brave Gurkhas’ by the British hosts.
The historical relationship has now been dogged with suspicion and distrust. A large section in Nepal, including the army, now believe that the British government, during the later years of the Maoist insurgency, and in the post-monarchy days, moved too much closer to the Maoists. They cite evidences of how the British government agencies and Human rights groups funded by them are taking one sided view against the Nepal army and agencies of the state for alleged human rights violations during the years of conflict.
Gen Gurung’s five-day official visit to the United Kingdom beginning October 3 has therefore triggered intense speculations about how the British will want to have their military ties continued with Nepal.
No doubt, over the past few years, the British have corrected their policy of discrimination in pension for the retired Gorkhas compared to the locals, and even provided residential facilities in the UK to the retired personnel provoking a near exodus, something that has generally been welcomed, but has grossly affected Nepal’s major foreign exchange earnings.
Gen Gurung preferred to visit the UK around the time a high-powered Chinese delegation was scheduled to be in Nepal to have important discussions with him. The Chinese team has put off its visit because of Gen Gurung’s unavailability. India’s army chief will be coming to Nepal in the first week of December to receive the Honorary General’s title—a reciprocal arrangement between the two countries that has been in existence since mid-sixties-- from President Rambaran Yadav. And China that has been expanding its presence and influence in Nepal to match India’s obviously would not want to ignore building ties with the Nepal army that is increasingly taking an assertive role and defending itself against attacks on it by Nepal’s political parties, international and home based HR groups and UN agencies.
However, for Gurung, NA’s current challenge lies in defining the meaning and importance of the historicity of its relations with the British outfit.
To reassure the British and the world at large that that Nepal army has a ‘zero tolerance policy’ towards human rights violation, the army headquarters issued a statement, prior to Gen Gurung’s departure, to that effect. But he also confided to some senior NA officials that he is not going to open, or take any sermons from the British authorities on, the issue of human rights as it was purely a visit to promote conventional relations.
New York based Human rights watch (HRW) and Amnesty International are pressing the UK government to secure a commitment from Gen Gurung that NA would fully cooperate in expeditious investigation of HR violation cases committed by the army during the years of conflict. The NA has repeatedly blamed a couple of UN bodies in Nepal—UNMIN and OHCHR—and some human rights NGOs as systematically denigrating the army in league with the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN-M), another party to human rights violations during the years of conflict. Its stated position is: let all the HR violation cases during the period be referred to the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) instead of isolating the NA on it.
In fact, HR groups’ influence on the British government is not only visible, but almost decisive when it comes to reacting on HR violation issues abroad. In 2002, a few months after a visiting British Minister issued a statement in Kathmandu that ‘terrorists cannot be accepted as winners’ in an obvious hint that the British will do anything to defeat the Maoists, who then were waging a war against the state, Britain’s Foreign Minister Jack Straw gave the message of a clear shift towards UK’s policy when he called on King Gyanendra during his London visit.
Some covert activities of the British officials, Nepalis authorities now reveal, in promotion of the new policy had been noticed, but it was never taken seriously back home.
Prior to the King’s visit, British Embassy in Kathmandu had casually informed the media that a serving British General, during his visit to western Nepal, had been abducted, detained and later released by the Maoists.
“That in fact, was a stage managed act and during that event, Maoists had acquired satellite telephones and other sophisticated equipment. We never suspected out oldest military ally to have developed that kind of relations with the Maoists,” a senior government official told ENS. “We did not even interrogate the British official in question.”
After the 2006 April political change, agencies representing the British government in Nepal are perceived as radically pro-Maoists and anti-army.
Gurung has been forthright about taking up such ‘discriminatory attitudes’ head- on while talking to the officials of the UN agencies concerned and representatives of the diplomatic missions.
India reviewed its role towards Nepal army soon after King Gyanendra handed over power to political parties in April 2006, but Britain has not. And it might be quite embarrassing for the British government if Gen Gurung raises the issue of dual standards on the part of the British authorities on human rights violation issues in Nepal.