India: Do not let go of real Agniveers

Attending the 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) diamond jubilee celebration was a homecoming; sad Indian army is not recruiting these die-hard Gorkha fighters anymore, a hara-kiri of sorts

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File Photo of Agniveer [Special Arrangement]

The name and fame of legendary Gorkha warriors have risen meteorically due to the biopic on Field Marshal Sam (Bahadur) Manekshaw whose own reputation as a soldiers’ General has also skyrocketed after his bonding with Nepal’s Gorkha. Sam never actually commanded any Gorkha unit. Still, he enjoyed the awe, aura and magic of the Gorkhas.Ask any  Army formation commander who his best troops a:  Gorkhas is an instant response. They have set records on battlefields and in peacetime.  Back from visiting Nepal last month and my Paltan reunion last week, I shudder to think about the sacrilege India is committing by compelling Nepal to suspend Gorkha recruitment as Agniveers. Last month at the Chanakya Dialogue held at Manekshaw Auditorium Nepali scholar and historian Chiranjung Thapa noted: “India should not take Nepal’s Agni Pariksha”.  Gorkha ex-servicemen or Bhu Pus at Pokhara, Butawal, Chitawan, Nepalgunj and Kathmandu celebrate Jubilees.

These sometimes parallel events reflect the burgeoning regimental spirit of seven Gorkha regiments and 38 battalions of the Gorkha Brigade. These get-togethers recall the Gorkha ex-servicemen’s hand in protecting the territorial integrity of India which Prime Minister Modi himself acknowledged in Nepal’s Parliament in 2014 when he said: “In every war India has fought, Gorkhas have shed their blood”. Any doubt about their loyalty or commitment to India is instantly removed when at an ex-servicemen’s commemoration in Pokhara’s Kantipur Party Place in Ram Bazar.

I am the lucky one. I seldom miss these events since I became a veteran.Last week 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) popularly FOFIF which was re-raised on 1 January 1963 after its demobilisation end of World War II celebrated its Diamond Jubilee. Veterans from India and Nepal received this welcome note: “welcome home. Its been a rather long wait…we have been yearning most intently for the Diamond Jubilee. To have you join us as we cross this historic milestone to reminisce old times, bask in the glory of battalion’s triumph, to live bitter sweet memories, to celebrate our heroes and to redeem our pledge of devotion to our paltan…we are happy you are here”.

No other battalion in the history of the Indian Army in its second avatar has won as many awards, citations and trophies as FOFIF. I am one of the few left who joined Paltan on its reincarnation in Dehradun. In 1965 we broke the back of Pakistan’s insurgency, in 1971  created history twice in Bangladesh with the first ever khukuri attack at Atgram and the first ever heliborne attack in Sylhet, spearheaded the  Jaffna attack in Sri Lanka with IPKF, foiled Chinese forays in north Sikkim last year bagging  Army Chief’s citation.

The prestigious International Cambrian Patrol Competition trophy was also won Space restricts listing all the laurels. But winning three MVCs, six VrC (three posthumously) 12 Sena Medals and 25 commendation cards for gallantry alone in a short span of 60 years is both historic and enviable.

Nearly 200 retired and serving officers and families came for the grand reunion. 300 Gorkha ex-servicemen with families converged in several buses from different parts of Nepal. They were the star attraction of homecoming. These diminutive fighters regaled one another with battle tales while referring to each other by the last two digits of their army number at the time of recruitment. “hey challis (44)! Malai Chinhiyo??” (you recognize me) and 44 would say: “Kinha na Chinhe (why would I not recognize you). Similarly 55 (pachpan)…. This guffa (conversation) is liberally sprinkled with Old Monk, nowadays responsibly imbibed by the Gorkhas. Mandir Parade with puja, havan and arti is the start. The Bahun baje (Brahmin priest) blesses all during their first face-to-face meeting after years… even decades. Pagal Gymkhana is a traditional afternoon of fun: gambling, eating Nepali food and of course, consuming considerable amounts of propellants.

The not-so-pagal” Gymkhana is the perfect place to chat with Burhos from Nepal and their families. Every regiment has its ‘Colonel” – the seniormost serving General Officer. He hosted the officers to a lavish dinner. Former Army Chief Gen Dalbir Suhag is a son of the battalion. He was present greeting every one of the 500 or so guests.

One evening we were all treated to a Himachali feast of food and all the eating and drinking were adding calories.The piece de resistance was the Diamond Jubilee dinner at Piffers Mess which lit up outshining the Raisina Hill during the Beating Retreat. A film depicting the battalion’s milestones is excellently choreographed. A presentation of paintings of different battles follows.

The culmination is the unveiling of the Diamond Jubilee trophy. The next morning’s wreath-laying is as poignant as comforting the Veer Naris during the Sainik Sammelan. Barakhana is letting the hair down with gusty “nautch” followed by an innovatively illuminated band concert.

The night won’t end singing and dancing to Khemraj Gurung’s immortal, Vari Jamnua Pari Jamuna. Am returning  to NOIDA with  additional baggage and nostalgia but  feeling ten years younger – that’s the magic of the  reunion  and FOFIF motto of  Kafir Huno Marnu Jati-(Better to die than be a coward.)

Ashok K Mehta

Ashok K. Mehta is a radio and television commentator, and a columnist on defence and security issues. He is a former Major General of Indian Army. After joining the Indian Army in 1957, he was commissioned in the 5th Gorkha Rifles infantry regiment in the same year. He had fought in all major wars India went into, except the Sino-Indian War of 1962. And he was also on a peacekeeping mission in Zaire in the year 1962 and in the Indian Peace Keeping Force, Sri Lanka (1988-90) and it was his last assignment in the Indian Army. He is also a writer of several books and a founder-member of the Defense Planning Staff in the Ministry of Defence, India.

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