India set for Agnipath, worry in Nepal over Gorkha recruits

On his first visit to Nepal as Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi told the Nepalese parliament that there had been no war India had fought in which no Nepali blood had been sacrificed. Modi praised the contribution and bravery of Gorkha soldiers in the Indian Army, saying, “I salute the brave hearts who have given their lives for India.”

Seven years later, as the military prepares to deploy Agnipath’s recruiting program, questions remain about its social and economic impact on Nepal, from which India has so far recruited approximately 1,400 soldiers annually into the Gorkha regiment (pre- Covid), and how it could affect India’s relations with the government and people of Nepal, where its strategic interests stand against China.

The first recruitments in Nepal under the Agnipath program are scheduled for the end of August, and some websites are already showing dates for recruitment meetings, but the Nepali government’s confirmation to hold the meetings, which is part of the recruitment process, is still pending. waited. It is also unclear whether the annual recruitment numbers under Agnipath will hold up.

In India, the military will only recruit 25,000 Agniveer this year.

The capture of Nepalese soldiers by the army takes place under a tripartite treaty signed in 1947 between Nepal, India and Great Britain. There are about 32,000-35,000 Nepalese soldiers serving in the Indian Army at any given time. The community of ex-servicemen of the Indian army in Nepal is about 1.32 lakh strong.

While the numbers to be recruited from Nepal this year are unclear, concerns have grown that only 25 percent will be re-enlisted by the Indian military; the rest have to go home.

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

“That’s a huge injection of money into Nepal’s economy,” said Ranjit Rae, India’s former ambassador to Nepal, who has written extensively about the Gorkha-Nepal ties in his book ‘Kathmandu Dilemma: Reset India-Nepal Ties. ‘. “There is huge unemployment in Nepal and most young people move to other countries to work. In the villages only the old people and women are left. It would be very difficult to assess the impact [of the new recruitment scheme] straight away. But as we saw in India, the initial reaction in Nepal was also 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 to the Indian army. It may take 10 or 15 years for Agnipath’s socioeconomic impact to become apparent, he said, but what was at stake was also its historical connection to Gorkha.

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

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

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

Nepal’s own stance on the recruitment of its citizens into the Indian military has been a bit of a mixed bag. Over the past two decades, parts of the state have questioned the recruitment of Nepalese citizens into another country’s military, where they could be deployed against countries that are friends with Nepal. Gorkhas in the Indian Army are deployed on both the Line of Control with Pakistan and the Line of Actual Control with China.

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

In 2020, then-Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali shocked many by calling Gorkha’s recruitment into foreign armies a “legacy of the past” and denouncing the 1947 Tripartite Agreement as “redundant”.

The narrow caste pool from which recruitment takes place – the Indian Army influx comes from the Magar and Gurung communities in western Nepal, and the Kirati Rai and Limbus from eastern Nepal – has also raised concerns that these communities are excluded from Nepal’s national life as a result, which may not be the case. be beneficial to the country or communities in the long run.

Despite the rhetoric, Nepal understands that the economic aspect is too important for Kathmandu to dismiss completely, but wants to be involved in the recruitment process. The sudden announcement of the plan surprised Nepal.

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

While Indian Army officials claimed there are currently no plans to tinker with regimental composition, Bhandari had questions about the impact of the All Country All Class recruitment on the idea of ​​an ethnic Gorkha regiment, and whether there would be room in this new structure for Nepalese Gorkhas over time.

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

As in India, the relocation of Agniveer, who will be discharged after their four-year term, is a major concern in Nepal. Contrary to the relocation programs announced for the Indian Agniveer, no plans have been announced for the Gorkhas in Nepal.

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Major General Bhupinder Singh Ghotra (retd) of 5 Gorkhas, said the Nepalese ex-Agniveer need not fear, as they would be “ready material” for the armed forces of Brunei and Singapore recruiting Nepalese civilians. But, he said, India must discuss the issue of relocation with Nepal – “government to government”.

Ghotra also said that while the numbers may seem small, their “strategic importance” needs to be understood, especially because of China’s interest in Nepal. “China is looking for opportunities and they should not abuse these people,” he said.

Gurung also pointed out that China has “never been comfortable with Nepalese citizens joining the Indian army”.

In 2020, Indian media reported that a Confucius Studies Center had funded a Nepalese NGO to conduct an investigation into why Nepalese youth join the Indian military. But the research, if any, and its conclusions are not in the public domain.

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