When the Indian government announced the Agnipath recruitment scheme a year ago, it was met with fierce resistance from aspirants to a career in the Indian Army in both India and Nepal.
Under the Agnipath scheme, soldiers will be hired for a fixed four-year term, after which only 25 percent of them will be retained, while the rest will be demobilized. The demobilized troops will not receive any pension benefits, except a one-time lump sum payment of roughly $14,100 at the end of their service.
Despite the resistance in India, the government went ahead with implementing the scheme and welcomed the first batch of recruits, called Agniveers, under the scheme, on January 7 this year.
However, the stalemate between the Indian and Nepali governments over the recruitment of Nepali Gorkhas into the Indian Army under the scheme continues, with no solution in sight.
When India announced the scheme, Nepal opposed it. Its then Minister for Foreign Affairs Narayan Khadka said that the government had “requested India to stop the recruitment until all political parties in Nepal reach a consensus on the [Agnipath] issue.”
Gorkha aspirants in Nepal were left in limbo after the Nepali government stopped the recruitment that has been going under a unique arrangement since 1947.
In 1947, India, Nepal, and the United Kingdom signed a Tripartite Agreement to protect the rights of Gorkhas serving in Britain’s Brigade of Gurkhas and India’s Gorkha Rifles regiment (it does not apply to Gorkhas in the Nepali Army). The agreement comprises seven clauses ranging from protection of the Gorkha identity to the retention of Nepali citizenship while in service. The bone of contention, however, is the fourth clause which states that a “Gorkha soldier should be allowed to serve for sufficient time to qualify for a pension,” which the Agnipath scheme violates.
Nearly 40,000 Nepali Gorkhas serve in the Indian Army’s Gorkha Rifles regiment.
According to a serving colonel in the Gorkha Rifles who has also worked as the director of an Army Recruitment Office, “There are 39 units of Gorkha Rifles in seven regiments, of which 38 units have a composition of 60 percent Nepal-domiciled Gorkhas (NDGs) and 40 percent India-domiciled Gorkhas (IDGs). Only one unit in the entire Indian Army has 100 percent IDGs.”
“Gorkha battalions of the Indian Army are facing an unprecedented problem of finding adequate manpower to fill up the deficient vacancies… as the number of IDGs is not available in India,” the Gorkha Rifles colonel said, adding that “if the Nepali government doesn’t agree [to resume recruitment], then the whole Gorkha Rifles is in danger.”
Even before the announcement of the Agnipath scheme, the Indian Army was reportedly facing a hard time attracting Indian Gorkha youth as they have other opportunities.
Simply put, India does not have enough ethnic Gorkhas to sustain its seven Gorkha Rifles regiments.
This put the Gorkha Rifles Regiment’s existence in jeopardy.
A majority of the Indian Army’s infantry regiments are class- or region-based. Since their inception in 1815, the Gorkha Rifles has been a “pure” regiment, recruiting only ethnic Gorkhas to its ranks. According to a brigadier-ranked officer who has overseen an Indian Army regiment’s recruitment for over two years, “The homogenous composition of regiments deepens cultural, linguistic, and social bonds in the units and motivates them on the battlefield.”
Colonel D.K Pradhan, a retired ethnic Gorkha officer who served in Indian Army, said, “An aspirant to the Gorkha Rifles spends nearly $450-600 to get into coaching institutes to prepare for Indian Army. Many sell their property or jewelry to pay this fee. But with Agnipath, many lads have lost their money. They have nowhere to go.”
The Indian government is providing retired Agniveers with jobs in central and state police forces. “But that is only for Indian citizens,” pointed out Pradhan. “What will the Nepali Gorkhas do after they are relieved from service after four years?”
According to data put out by the Nepal Rashtra Bank in 2021, India is the largest source of inward remittances for the country, accounting for nearly 13 percent of all foreign remittances. These inward cash flows are a major source of Nepal’s GDP and pensions from the Indian Army are a substantial part of it. As per the figures released by the Indian Embassy in Nepal, nearly 122,000 Indian Army pensioners are currently living in Nepal.
Besides its effects on the Gorkha Rifles, the scrapping of Nepali recruitment can also damage India-Nepal relations.
According to a retired lieutenant colonel of the Gorkha Rifles, “Gorkha recruitment has traditionally caused a pro-India sentiment in the Nepali society. A Gorkha in the Indian Army enjoys good financial stability and working conditions as opposed to the Nepali Army.” A Gorkha soldier reportedly “supports nearly 15-20 family members with his salary.”
The absence of a solution to the Agnipath issue will undermine the positive social perception of the Indian Army in Nepal. Given the highly porous India-Nepal border alongside the rising Chinese influence in Nepal, the evolving situation “does not bode well for India,” he said.
The solution to this problem, as of now, is a contested one.
“The Indian government wants to replace Nepali Gorkhas with India-domiciled Gorkhas and other hill communities including the Garhwalis and Kumaonis,” Pradhan said, pointing out that this would “weaken the bonding among the troops and harm the invaluable camaraderie of Gorkha Rifle units.”
As opposed to the Nepali Gorkhas, Indian Gorkhas are much more urbanized and therefore lack the physical and mental toughness that NDGs possess, the colonel-ranked officer, mentioned previously in the story, said. Other Gorkha Rifles officers concur. “Nepali recruits are hardier than Indian Gorkhas owing to the tougher environment” from which they hail, a Gorkha Rifles officer said.
According to another retired Gorkha Rifles officer, “Allowing non-Gorkhas into the Gorkha Rifles will break its racial character. The dastoor (traditions) or regimental ethos is very important for Gorkha soldiers” and this will be “compromised with racial mixing.” He went on to point out that although the Indian Army “is highly professional and will make the best out of the situation, Agnipath has impacted Gorkha Rifles in a big way.”
“It is evident,” he said, that “it is not a strategic move.”
In August 2022, the Indian government said that it “looks forward to continuing to recruit Gorkha soldiers to the Indian Army under the Agnipath scheme.” However, no concrete steps towards Nepali recruitment have been taken either by India or Nepal. This freeze in Gorkha recruitment is expected to continue, affecting not only the Indian Army’s age-old traditions but also relations between India and Nepal.