In the Line of FireAllowing its citizens to fight in foreign armies is the most glaring failure of the Nepali state to provide for and protect its citizens
Few things could be more incongruous for a country that prides itself in never having been colonised than for its citizens to fight in foreign armies. Yet, the tradition of recruiting Nepali soldiers that dates back to 1815 during Nepal's war with the East India Company continues to this day.
Nepal’s leaders like to bash India and rouse the public with ultra-nationalist populism, but the fact is that thousands of Nepalis have fought and died for India in its multiple wars. Nepal’s soldiers in the Indian Army are at the frontlines against two neighbouring countries with which Nepal has friendly relations: Pakistan and China. Nepal should be grateful our neighbours do not hold that as a grudge against us.
More than 45,000 young Nepali men lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars. Since the British Army recruited from only five ‘martial races’ in Nepal, entire villages in the mountains were devoid of young men during the last century.
After India’s independence in 1947, Nepal, India and the UK signed a Tripartite Agreement allowing the continued recruitment of Nepalis into the Indian and British militaries without them being labelled ‘mercenaries’ even though, strictly speaking, that is what they were.
The first choice for many young Nepalis is to join the British Army, and while 25,000 apply every year only 200 or so are picked. The Nepal government also bafflingly still allows the British to recruit on behalf of the security forces of Singapore, Brunei and Oman.
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How desperate must the search for jobs be when society and the state find it perfectly acceptable for its young men to lay down their lives for someone else’s country. That fact alone represents the single most glaring failure of the Nepali state to protect and provide for its citizens.
For the past two centuries, Nepal’s rulers have found a convenient safety valve in sending citizens away so they do not have to take responsibility for their welfare by providing decent livelihoods and a chance for a dignified life at home.
Ironies of ironies: one of the 40 demands of the Maoists before launching their armed struggle in 1996 was for the government of Sher Bahadur Deuba to immediately terminate recruitment of Nepalis into foreign armies. Nearly 30 years and a decade-long war later, Deuba is now propping up a Maoist prime minister who has long forgotten about that demand, and the proposal to make a permanent Nepali UN peacekeeping force.
The issue of foreign armies recruiting soldiers from Nepal has once more come up with New Delhi’s Agnipath scheme, and a halt to ‘Gorkhas’ joining the Indian Army.
Indian Gorkha regiments today are a continuation of a service that Nepali soldiers have given for more than two centuries. Six of the 10 British Army Gurkha brigades went to the Indian Army because newly-independent India did not want to lose its Gorkha troops.
They went into battle immediately after Partition in a confrontation with Pakistan.
Read also: India’s trial by fire for soldiers from Nepal, Anita Shrestha
Thousands of Nepalis have been killed and wounded since. But last year India launched Agnipath reforms under which only recruits aged 17.5 to 23 years old can be enlisted for four-year periods, after which they are discharged with a lump sum but not eligible for a pension. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal had said he raised the Agnipath issue with Narendra Modi during his state visit to India in May, but neither mentioned it jointly. And there the matter rests: Nepal too timid to bring it up, and India too preoccupied with itself.
There has been ambivalence about allowing Nepalis to fight in foreign armies, balancing the need for household and national income with the morality of exporting soldiers as state policy. For the present, the contribution to Nepal’s economy outweighs ethical concerns.
The 42,000 Nepalis who serve across 46 battalions in seven Gorkha Rifles regiments in the Indian military, and the 125,000 pensioners earn Rs60 billion a year. Indian Gorkha servicemen have expressed concern over Agnipath’s impact on pensions of future recruits as well as their own pensions.
Agnipath would provide Nepal the route to phase out mercenary mercantilism. However for now, Nepal’s strategy should be to lobby with New Delhi for the status quo under the Tripartite Agreement until it can provide alternative prospects. The economy of one country, and the security of another are at stake.
Read also: From Nalapani to Kalapani (Parts 1-5), Alisha Sijapati