By Chiran Jung Thapa, Kathmandu
11 November 2016
Another prominent dignitary from India is currently visiting Nepal on the heels of President Pranab Mukharjee’s recent state visit to Kathmandu. General Dalbir Singh Suhag, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) of the Indian Army, has arrived in Nepal to participate in the concluding ceremony of the tenth “Surya Kiran” military exercise. This battalion-level exercise is jointly conducted every year between the Nepalese Army and Indian Army. General Singh’s visit comes at a time when Nepal India relations are at its lowest ebb. But, in contrast to President Mukharjee’s visit, General Singh’s visit will be markedly different. There will be no pomp and pageantry. Entire routes will not be shut for his motorcade and neither will there be a public holiday to celebrate his arrival. But, the welcome and hospitality accorded to General Singh by his Nepalese counterpart and the institution that conferred on him an honorary General accolade will not be feigned. It would rather be out of deep respect and heartfelt gratitude towards him.
Blockade blues and Military maneuvers
General Rajendra Chettri, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) of the Nepalese Army (NA), reportedly hasn’t shot at a target in a long time. His visit to India included the inspection of Indian Army’s state of the art indoor firing range facility at MHOW. During the inspection, he was offered an opportunity to have a go at the target. At a significant range, just like a proficient marksman, he hit bull’s eye twice and completely astonished the onlookers. Hitting the fictitious bull’s eye however, was inconsequential in comparison to the bull’s eye he hit in his actual mission in India.
General Chettri reportedly was in a great quandary prior to his maiden visit as COAS to India. In line with a long tradition, he was invited to receive the title of the honorary General of the Indian Army. But, since India had laid a siege on Nepal by imposing a crippling blockade at that time, visiting India then was excruciatingly difficult to justify back home. He, however, saw it as a rare opportunity to hold direct talks with various constituencies in India to end Nepal’s predicament. He consulted with the Nepali Prime Minister who gave him a nod to proceed. It was a great gamble but a one that ultimately paid off. The blockade was still on when he departed for India but was miraculously lifted just a day before his arrival back in Kathmandu.
According to several reports, prior to his visit, General Chettri had already quietly dispatched his military emissary to Delhi. A team comprising of two of his most trusted aides (Director General of Military Operations and another Colonel) reportedly set up camp in the Indian capital for ten days and met with civilian and military brass and apprised them of Nepal’s dire situation and made efforts to persuade their counterparts towards a propitious resolution. Reportedly, the Indian Army was very receptive to NA’s reasoning and rendered unequivocal support to the two senior Nepali officers in their mission. The Indian Army facilitated all the dialogues with other civilian counterparts in the Indian establishment and buttressed the NA’s position.
While the Nepali media and social media that spewed incessant acerbic anti-India vitriol during the blockade detected the decisive role played by the General Chettri, they remained in dark about General Singh who played a predominant role in lifting the blockade and salvaging a fraying friendship from the precipice of doom. General Singh, who is widely acclaimed for his gentle temperament but also for his intestinal fortitude, had apparently challenged the positions of various other constituencies in the Indian establishment to impose the blockade. Reportedly, he had maintained that such a harsh imposition would critically damage India’s security interests and bring enormous disrepute to the Indian polity in the regional and international spheres. The Indian Army equated the stranglehold on Nepal as a stranglehold on the families of Indian soldiers from Nepal who were braving all adversities to safeguard India’s national security interests. To the men in uniform, irrespective of the divergence and displeasures in the political realm, a blockade on a landlocked neighbor that was just limping back to normality following a major earthquake was simply unjustifiable. It even appeared hypocritical given that Indian Army had just played a major role in Nepal’s recovery efforts just several months back and had won universal plaudits for its invaluable efforts. Also, they believed that imposing a blockade would only highlight the abysmal failure of Indian influence and policy in Nepal. Initially, Indian Army’s position was trumped by the political pundits and the shadowy spooks. General Singh and the Indian Army, however, resolutely kept prodding the other constituencies and finally managed to debunk the faulty assumptions of the other constituencies and emerged triumphant in the end.
Even prior to the blockade, General Singh had visibly displayed his affinity and responsibility towards Nepal especially during the aftermath of the earthquake in April 2015. Unfortunately, his supportive role then too never made the limelight in the post disaster disarray. The support rendered by India in the aftermath of the earthquake was pivotal. The Indian military support arrived in Kathmandu within hours. It was the first foreign contingent to arrive and the last to depart. Dispelling all Nepali suspicions and trepidations of an unwelcome protracted stay, the Indian Army personnel gracefully exited winning kudos and unreserved gratitude of the Nepalese people and their Nepali counterparts. General Singh was apparently about to embark on a foreign trip when he heard of the disaster. But when he did, he immediately canceled the trip and began to personally direct the rescue and relief operations mounted by the Indian Army for Nepal. Reportedly, his convictions stemmed from two considerations. First, being from the Gorkha regiment and as the commander of an Army which comprised of thousands of Nepalese nationals, he equated the earthquake as a disaster that had struck his own men and their families in the hills in Nepal. Sources even claim that he and many others in the Indian Army believe that the bedrock of Nepal-India relations is Nepali men serving in their regiments not the clichéd bread and bride bond. Second, as the honorary General of the Nepalese Army, he took it upon himself the rightful responsibility to assist his brothers in Arms in the NA during a dire hour. Reportedly, he was in frequent contact with his Nepali counterpart and even went to the extent of offering the entire Indian Army’s assets and personnel on the ground at the Nepalese Army’s disposal and even told his counterpart to deploy them as deemed necessary for rescue and recovery operations.
Just like many other contradictions that beset Nepal India relations, the relations between the two militaries too are a great contradiction. This was manifested during the blockade. When the political realms of both countries collided, it was the militaries that were conciliatory and played a uniting role.
The blockade has irrefutably injected an enormous amount of anti-India venom into the psyche of an entire generation of Nepalese nationals in Nepal and beyond. Thus, diluting that venom is absolutely imperative because it is inimical for both sides. But, in search of the antidote, the governments and policymakers in both countries are recklessly ignoring some of the tall tales of genuine friendship that still exist between the two countries. Amongst them, the camaraderie between the two militaries is salient. General Singh’s goodwill managed to pierce through even the thickest haze of mutual distrust and disdain that had shrouded Nepal-India bilateral relations. Such feats need to be promoted to boost bilateral ties. Similarly, the time has come for the both establishments for some unconventional solutions. And one of them could be to incorporate venerable men in uniform like General Singh to enhance bilateral ties.
Thapa is a Security and Defense analyst.
Opinions and ideas expressed in this article are the sole responsibilities of the writer – Editor