September 11, 2022

Nepali Gorkha is Against Agnipath - The Short Term Pensionless Scheme

B Arjun

INDIAN army chief general Manoj Pande was on a five day visit to Nepal, starting September 4. In continuation of the custom and tradition between the two armies, Gen Pande was conferred the title of honorary general of Nepal Army by the president of Nepal. However, besides parades, receptions, the focus of the visit was the discussions over continued recruitment of Gorkha soldiers under the newly constituted Agnipath scheme of the Indian government.

This issue has gained significance mainly because the Nepal government has expressed doubts about the short-term recruitment scheme, devoid of pension provisions for the soldiers, launched by the Indian army. Many quarters in Nepal have raised issues regarding how the scheme dissuades the Gorkha soldier for moving into the harms way on behalf of India. The result is that the intake process which was to start on August 25, in the hill regions of Nepal lies suspended.  

The gutsy and loyal Gorkha soldiers are crucial to the very fabric of the Indian army.  They are an integral part of the Indian army and have valiantly fought in all major wars that India has been involved in since independence. They have also participated in the counter-insurgency and counter terrorism initiatives launched by the Indian security establishment. According to media reports India recruits approximately 1,400 soldiers into the Gorkha regiment annually.

India cannot imagine itself without the 32,000 (approximately) soldiers from Nepal who form the backbone of Indian infantry. The Indian army has seven Gorkha regiments, 43 battalions. 60 per cent of the Gorkha soldiers come from Nepal and rest are recruited from within India.  “The Indian army ex-servicemen community in Nepal is about 1.32 lakh-strong."  Raising such concerns a Nepalese journalist writes can India treat the Agnipath recruitment in Nepal like any other recruitment, say, in Punjab or Bihar regiments? Nepal is a sovereign country and India is bound by the obligations of the 1947 agreement to fill the shortfall in its six Gorkha regiments. Going by the present situation, the soldiers will not be called Gorkhalis but Agniveers. This is against the spirit of the 1947 agreement.”

Furthermore, According to the Nepal government, recruitment of Gorkhas from Nepal under the Agnipath scheme is not in consonance with the tripartite agreement signed among Nepal, India, and Britain on November 9, 1947.

The 1947 agreement facilitated the provision of military manpower from Nepal for the two big powers.  When India became independent, it was decided to split Gorkha regiments between the British and Indian armies.  Further, after independence, a Treaty of Peace and Friendship between India and Nepal cemented the process to raise Gorkha regiments partly by recruitment from hill districts of Nepal. After the 1947 tripartite agreement, the British Army amalgamated the Gurkha regiment into combined Royal Gurkha Rifles (RGR). The1947 tripartite agreement ensured that Gurkhas in British and Indian service would enjoy broadly the same conditions of service as that of British and Indian citizens.

A Gurkha soldier joins the army to earn a better living for his family. If denied that, he would certainly choose other options. The most talented warriors from Nepal opt for the British army that takes roughly 200 Nepalis annually. The second best lot joins the Indian army because India offers better pay and perks in comparison to the Nepali army. It is obvious that if the Indian army is not able to make the job-offer lucrative, Nepali youth will look elsewhere. 

The army has landed up in a situation where the continued flow of soldiers from Nepal is in jeopardy due to the ill-conceived and controversial Agnipath scheme. This speaks volumes about the sloppy and tardy decision making process within the Modi government. Before doing away with army pensions, someone in the decision making loop should have realised that for many years now the Gurkhas have been demanding that the British  government treat Gurkhas fairly and pay them the same pension as other British veterans of the same rank and service. 

The Agnipath imbroglio has come at a time when two years back a border controversy erupted between the two countries. Two years back India inaugurated a new 80 km-long road in the Himalayas, connecting to the border with China, at the Lipulekh pass. The Nepali government protested, contending that the road crosses territory that it claims and accusing India of changing the status quo without diplomatic consultations. In response, Nepal deployed police forces to the region. Nepal has also initiated a constitutional amendment to extend its territorial claims over approximately 400 sq km.

The needless eruption of a bilateral crisis and the current stalemate certainly doesnt augur well for the future of India-Nepal ties. India has strong cultural ties with Nepal. Both countries share open borders and recognise the citizens of each other country as a national citizen. India will have to shed its big brother attitude and walk an extra mile to ally Nepali fears and concerns through diplomacy.

This is especially important in view of the fact that India is trying hard to counter the growing Chinese influence in Nepal.  On September 12, Li Zhanshu, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National Peoples Congress of China, the Chinese Speaker, is scheduled to visit Kathmandu. Li, considered close to Chinese President Xi Jinping and is a number three member of the Politburo Standing Committee of Chinese Communist Party, after President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang. The visit is taking place just ahead of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October and provincial elections in Nepal on November 20. This will be the third highest visit from Beijing in the last one year after the formation of Sher Bahadur Deubas government in Kathmandu. Nepal and China have enhanced security cooperation. China is involved in training of Nepali army and the two also hold bilateral military exercises. 

The Indian governments lopsided military recruitment policy, designed to reduce governments pay and pension bills, has international implications and in the long-run will only push Kathmandu more into Beijings arm.