Indian Army Chief General Manoj Pande is visiting Nepal for five days from 4 September. It is mainly to receive the title of honorary general of Nepal Army from the president of Nepal, as it is customary between the two armies of India and Nepal to bestow this title on the chiefs of the two countries.
However, this visit is much more significant because of the Agnipath scheme, under which India wants to recruit Nepali Gorkhas. In fact, the intake process, which was to begin on 25 August, was stalled and the Nepal government has asked for clarification from India over the benefits of the scheme for Nepali aspirants. India has not responded yet. General Pande is thus going to be flanked with questions over the practicality and implementation of Agnipath in his meetings with Nepal’s president, prime minister, and others.
India is keen to bring Nepal onboard Agnipath as Gorkha recruitment is vital for this scheme that is designed for the age group of 17.5-23 years. But the Agnipath scheme saw huge protests in India initially, with many Indian security experts still not in its favour, mainly because it does not offer a pension scheme as part of the larger scheme.
The Gorkha recruitment is part of the November 1947 trilateral agreement (between Nepal, India, and the UK), which came into existence even before the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship and is considered to be the very foundation of Indo-Nepal bilateral relations. But soldiers have always been sent from Nepal under bilateral arrangements established as per the trilateral framework.
So, 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.
Second, the attraction for Nepali men to join Agnipath is clearly missing. They join Gorkha regiments in the UK and India seeking a better life after retirement because of the attractive pension packages, which are clearly higher than in Nepal. In the Agnipath scheme, a total of Rs 11 lakh is offered at the end of four years with a monthly salary of Rs 30,000, out of which 30 percent is deducted as provident fund for employees and the like.
Third, as Agnipath is a separate scheme sans any connection with the tripartite agreement, there is no guarantee that Nepali Agniveers will be retained after four years. For example, let's say that out of 100 Agniveers, 75 quit and only 25 are further retained. How many of those 25 retained will be Nepali Agniveers? The scheme is silent about what happens to them after four years of service.
Why Does India Want Nepali Soldiers?
Indian experts have often recognised that Nepali fighters are brave and have unique fighting skills which are inborn in some caste groups. The psychological fear associated with the name Gorkhali itself is a big winning factor for the army.
This is important for India. Gorkhas have fought on the frontlines of almost all the wars that India has fought so far. There are 43 Gorkha battalions in India under 6 regiments (one regiment has 5-7 battalion). This is a huge force, almost half of the Nepali Army’s strength. Losing them would be a huge loss for the Indian Army. That is why India wants Gorkha soldiers.
But if it is so important for India to hire Nepali Gorkhas, then it should have engaged in bilateral diplomatic dialogues and addressed Nepal’s concerns before the scheme was finalised. India is looking at young recruits of both the countries through the same lens, which directly brings Nepal’s independent identity in question.
Under Agnipath, Nepali men will not be recruited specifically for the Gorkha regiments but for the army, navy, and air force in India. There must be a separate bilateral agreement on Agnipath recruitment to determine whether Nepali Agniveers will only join Gorkha regiments through this scheme. However, there is a lot of confusion on this issue among Nepali army aspirants.
India has gradually drifted away from the core spirit of the tripartite agreement. As per the agreement, the Gorkha regiments are exclusively for Nepalese soldiers and they are eligible for pension. It is now seen that 40 percent soldiers in the Gorkha regiments are either Nepali-speaking Indians or Garhwalis and Kumaonis. This is also against the 1947 agreement. In both the UK and India, the Gorkha regiments are specifically for Nepali soldiers only. But Agnipath is for all Indians and doesn’t guarantee pensions. The UK still abides by the agreement on both counts.
Also, the age of intake is questionable. As per Nepal’s law, one has to be 18 years of age to join the army or secure a government job. They cannot enter the army at the age of 17 and half as stated in the Agnipath scheme. This will be considered child labour in Nepal.
Indian Gorkha pensioners and recruitment-aspirants in Nepal have expressed their grave concerns through various media outlets on the Agnipath scheme. Their dislikes are mainly regarding job security and pension. The pension also inherently comes with medical insurance.
On the other hand, the Nepal government’s concerns are related to unilateral violation of the historical tripartite agreement by the Indian side, future of returnee Agniveers, security challenges associated with it, and public opinion on Gorkha recruitment. This is why the Nepal government has not been able to take a decision on the Agnipath scheme so far.
National Security Challenges
The Nepali soldiers’ post-Agnipath future is quite uncertain. When Agniveers return back home after four years, given their age factor, they will not fit anywhere professionally. Most importantly, since Nepali politics is unstable, those returning will be potentially recruited by armed groups operating clandestinely in the country. This could mean huge national security implications for Nepal, which is undergoing protracted political instability. In India, those retiring will be given a re-employment option in security agencies and factories under the home and defense ministries. This has been decided precisely to address the potential security challenges for India’s internal security environment. But Nepal does not have such a plan.
Impact on Indo-Nepal Ties
It is not Nepal but India that seems to have walked out of the Gorkha connection and historical relationship. As Nepal has halted the recruitment under Agnipath for now, dialogue is the only way out with diplomatic initiatives. The tripartite agreement was done by declining the Rana regime. This is quite a different Nepal now and the current generation of Nepali youth have varied options for foreign employment.
As Nepal has been underlining that the 1950 treaty should be amended and the EPG report should be accepted, it also needs to understand the opinion of common people on the 1947 agreement. Nepal needs to decide in accordance with its national interest as well as the circumstances and aspirations of its youth.
(Dr Purna Silwal is a retired major general of the Nepali Army, and Akanshya Shah is a Nepali journalist and researcher based in New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)