India set for Agnipath, worry in Nepal over Gorkha recruits

On his first visit to Nepal as Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi told Nepal Parliament that there was no war India had fought in which Nepali blood had not been sacrificed. Praising the contribution and bravery of Gorkha soldiers in Indian Army, Modi said, “I salute the bravehearts who laid their lives for India.”

Seven years later, as the Army prepares to unroll the Agnipath recruitment scheme, there are questions about its social and economic impact on Nepal, from where India has so far recruited approximately 1,400 soldiers into the Gorkha regiment annually (pre-Covid), and how it might affect India’s relations with the government and people of Nepal, where its strategic interests are pitted against China.

The first recruitments in Nepal under Agnipath scheme are scheduled to begin late August, and some websites are already showing dates for recruitment rallies, but the Nepal government’s confirmation to hold the rallies, which is part of the recruitment procedure, is still awaited. It is also unclear whether the annual recruitment numbers will hold good under Agnipath.

In India, the Army will recruit only 25,000 Agniveers this year.

The Army’s intake of Nepal soldiers takes place under a tripartite treaty signed in 1947 between Nepal, India and Britain. Some 32,000-35,000 Nepal soldiers serve in the Indian Army at any given time. The Indian Army ex-servicemen community in Nepal is about 1.32 lakh-strong.

While the numbers to be recruited from Nepal this year are unclear, what has added to the concern is that only 25 per cent will be re-employed by the Indian Army; the rest will have to go home.

According to information available in public domain, annual pensions for Nepal-domiciled Gorkhas (Indian Army also hires India-domiciled Gorkhas) total about Rs 4,000 crore. Serving soldiers also send remittances home to the tune of Rs 1,000 crore every year.

“That is a huge injection of money into Nepal’s economy,” said Ranjit Rae, India’s former ambassador to Nepal, who has written extensively about India’s Gorkha connect with Nepal in his book ‘Kathmandu Dilemma: Resetting India-Nepal Ties’. “There is massive unemployment in Nepal, and most young people leave to work in other countries. In the villages, only the old folks and women are left. It would be very difficult to assess the impact [of the new recruitment scheme] immediately. But as we saw in India, the first reaction in Nepal, too, was dismay.”

Major-General Gopal Gurung (retd) of 5 Gorkha said that as in India, salaries, pensions and other benefits are a huge draw in Nepal for recruitment into the Indian Army. The socioeconomic impact of Agnipath may take 10 or 15 years to become apparent, he said, but what was at stake was also the historic Gorkha connection.

“You had a system where you could join, not just for money but also because it is a family tradition,” said Gurung, a third-generation soldier of the Indian Army and an alumnus of the National Defence Academy. His grandfather was a JCO, his father a captain.

The importance of the link, Gurung said, could be gauged from Modi’s 2014 speech. “He could have invoked any other aspect of India-Nepal ties — culture, religion, Buddhism, Hinduism — but he chose to invoke the Gorkha connection. That is the special relationship between India and the Gorkhas,” he said.

Gurung also flagged concerns articulated in Nepal media that Kathmandu was not consulted about the Agnipath scheme. “It is not binding on India to consult Nepal as long as it is applied uniformly and without discrimination. At the same time, considering good relations between the two countries, and to augment our ties, the Nepal government could have been consulted,” he told The Indian Express.

Nepal’s own stand on the recruitment of its citizens into the Indian Army has been a bit of a mixed bag. Over the last two decades, sections of the polity have questioned recruitment of Nepal citizens into another country’s army where they might be deployed against countries friendly to Nepal. Gorkhas in the Indian Army are deployed at both the Line of Control with Pakistan and at the Line of Actual Control with China.

Nepal has friendly ties with Pakistan, and China is hugely influential in Nepal.

In 2020, then Nepal foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali shocked many by calling Gorkha recruitment into foreign armies a “legacy of the past” and the 1947 tripartite agreement as “redundant”.

The narrow caste pool from which recruitment takes place — Indian Army’s intake is from Magar and Gurung communities in western Nepal, and the Kirati Rai and Limbus from eastern Nepal — has also raised concerns that this excludes these communities from Nepal’s national life, which may not be favourable for the country, or the communities, in the long run.

Despite the rhetoric, Nepal understands that the economic aspect is too important for Kathmandu to dismiss altogether, but wants to be involved in the recruitment process. The sudden announcement of the scheme caught Nepal by surprise.

Officials in Kathmandu told The Indian Express that they had no information from Delhi about Agnipath. Even chairman of Nepal ex-servicemen’s association, Major General Keshar Bahadur Bhandari, was in the dark. He seemed to believe that the Agnipath scheme was separate from Gorkha recruitment and expressed hope that recruitment of Gorkhas would continue.

While Indian Army officials have asserted that there is no plan to tinker with the composition of the regiments at the moment, Bhandari had questions about the impact of the All Country All Class recruitment on the idea of an ethnic Gorkha regiment, and whether there will be space in this new structure for Nepali Gorkhas over time.

“Nepal believes India often takes it for granted. Since we are recruiting every year, it behoves us to tell them what we are doing,” Rae said.

As in India, re-employment of Agniveer who will be let go after their four-year stint is a major concern in Nepal. Unlike the re-employment schemes announced for Indian Agniveer, none have been announced in Nepal for the Gorkhas.

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Major General Bhupinder Singh Ghotra (retd) of 5 Gorkhas, said Nepali ex-Agniveer need not fear, as they would be “ready material” for defence forces of Brunei and Singapore that recruit Nepali citizens. But, he said, India needs to discuss the re-employment issue with Nepal — “government to government”.

Ghotra also said while the numbers might seem small, their “strategic importance” should be understood, particularly due to China’s interest in Nepal. “China is looking for any opportunity, and they should not misuse these people,” he said.

Gurung, too, pointed out that China has “never been comfortable with Nepal citizens joining the Indian Army”.

In 2020, reports in Indian media said that a Confucius Studies Centre had funded a Nepal NGO to carry out a study on why Nepali youth join the Indian Army. But the study, if it was conducted at all, and its conclusions, are not in the public domain.

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