Veteran Nepali soldiers allege discrimination by India

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS

Kathmandu : Hundreds of veteran Nepali soldiers, who risked their lives taking part in covert operations in hot spots on behalf of the Indian government, are now waging another grim battle, this time against New Delhi, saying they were badly exploited and left in the lurch.

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Retired personnel from the Special Frontier Force, who took part in dangerous operations like the Bangladesh freedom war and the anti-terrorist Operation Blue Star in Punjab in the 1980s, have now begun a sit-in and an indefinite hunger strike before the Indian Embassy here, demanding equal treatment with the Nepali Gorkhas serving in India’s Gorkha regiments.

An Indian Army spokesman in New Delhi charged Nepal’s Maoists as being behind the protest.

“The contractual terms of Nepalese soldiers serving in the Special Frontier Force make it clear that they are not entitled to the same benefits as their Indian counterparts,” the spokesman said.

“This position has already been clarified to them by the Indian defence attaché in Kathmandu,” he added.

The Special Frontier Force is under the operational command of India’s home ministry. Its personnel are drawn from the army and the paramilitary forces.

The veterans have appalling tales.

There are currently about 2,000 Nepalis working in Establishment 22 of SSF, named Sujan Singh Force after its Inspector General (IG) Major Gen. Sujan Singh, a Military Cross recipient and a legend in the British Indian Army who had commanded the 22nd Mountain Regiment during World War II.

SSF had about 4,000-5,000 discharged soldiers, but none were ever given an appointment letter by the Indian government, says former subedar Ram Bahadur Karki.

Karki is president of the Ex-Army Welfare Fund Association that has brought over five dozen former soldiers to Kathmandu to start the protest.

While Nepali Gorkhas get the same pension and compensation as Indian soldiers, SSF soldiers don’t get any.

Dil Bahadur Thapa waves his withered right hand. It is a stump, the result of an ambush attack when an SSF convoy was proceeding from Assam in India to the then East Pakistan in the 70s to help underground Bangladsehi guerrilla fighters.

The attack left the soldier, now 59, hard of hearing and mentally unbalanced. However, he was not awarded any compensation or pension.

Durga Gurung, 55, who sits with the protesters, wants to know the fate of her husband.

Lok Bahadur Gurung went missing from the SSF camp in Dehradun in India in 1987 and no one knows what happened to him. Durga has three children and no means to support them.

“We were the victims of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment,” says Karki, who is on an eight-day fast.

“We have petitioned Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his Nepali counterpart Girija Prasad Koirala, Nepal’s Foreign Minister Sahana Pradhan, the Indian army chief and the Indian ambassador in Nepal but no one has paid any heed.”

Unlike the British Gurkhas, who were able to wrest their dues by filing a series of cases in British courts, the SSF vets are unable to do so since they do not have any documentary evidence.

The irony is that while the Indian government recognised at least one SSF vet’s valour by awarding him the Shaurya Chakra after his death in Operation Blue Star, the late soldier Ram Bahadur Chhetri’s family too has not been paid any pension.