India’s trial by fire for soldiers from Nepal

The 39 Gorkha Regiment marching contingent passes through the Rajpath during the 62nd Republic Day Parade-2011, in New Delhi on January 26, 2011. Photo: PRESS INFORMATION BUREAU INDIA

A Tripartite Agreement in 1947 allowed the continued recruitment of Nepalis into the British and Indian Armies, but New Delhi’s plan to reform its military has implications for Nepal’s economy and politics.

However incongruous it may be in this day and age for nationals of a sovereign nation to be serving in the military of another country, enlistment overseas provides  income for tens of thousands of Nepali families as well as being an important source of foreign exchange for the country.

Now, the Indian government is set to implement the ‘Agnipath Yojana’ to reduce its defence expenditure. The scheme will allow soldiers below the rank of commissioned officers across three branches of India’s armed forces to be hired only for four-year periods.

There are an estimated 32,000 Nepalis in the Gorkha Regiments of the Indian Army, but many new recruits in recent years are Indians of Nepali origin. Pensions of retired soldiers is an important source of Indian currency for Nepal’s economy, which relies overwhelmingly on imports from India.

Agnipath will mean that only a quarter of the 46,000 soldiers between 17-23 years hired in 2022 can stay on in the military after four years. Those being let go will get golden handshakes of INR1.7 million and will not be eligible for lifetime pension.

As the clock winds down to its launch in September, there have been angry protests against Agnipath in India. But the Nepal government has been conspicuously silent despite the potential impact on recruitment, the economy, as well as implications for the 1947 Tripartite Agreement on the rights of Nepali soldiers.

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Says senior advocate Yuvraj Sangraula: “The Agnipath scheme violates the Tripartite Agreement signed at India’s independence which stipulates that pensions and other financial benefits be given to Gorkha soldiers as per the Indian Army Pay Code.”

Recruitment of Nepalis into the British Army started even before the end of the 1814-16 war with the East India Company. Nepali soldiers have served in 10 Gurkha regiments of the British Army ever since, serving in both world wars, in the Malaya insurgency, and in Afghanistan. At least 55,000 Nepalis in the British Army have been killed in action, and many thousands have died fighting for India since 1947.

Following Indian independence in 1947, six of the 10 regiments were assigned to India and four to Britain. India has since added another Gorkha Regiment, and there are currently 32,000 Nepali soldiers in 40 battalions. (India refers to its Nepali soldiers as 'Gorkhas', while the British prefer 'Gurkha'.)

The Tripartite Agreement between Britain, India and Nepal spells out the rights of Nepali soldiers: their salaries, pensions, financial compensation, as well as facilities for families.

The treaty guarantees equal basic pay for Gorkhas as other Indian soldiers, as well as pensions for servicemen who have served a minimum of 15 years.

On 23 July, UML leader Bhim Rawal raised the Agnipath scheme in Parliament, asking for clarification from the government. He demanded that if Agnipath included Nepali soldiers, then Gorkha recruitment into the Indian Army be terminated.

India earlier had informed the Nepal government that it would go ahead with recruiting Nepali youths in Butwal and Dharan. But after Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka held talks with Indian ambassador Naveen Srivastava on 24 August, the recruitment has been postponed in Butwal for now, and officials say that further discussions are underway.

Experts, including former Nepali military brass, had called at the Prime Minister’s Office as well as the Foreign Ministry last week to urge talks with New Delhi about the impact of Agnipath on Nepal.

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Lt Gen (Retd) Bala Nanda Sharma says both sides should sort it out: “Nepal should decide and state its position on the scheme in no uncertain terms after discussing its intricacies with India.”

Former Indian Ambassador to Nepal Ranjit Ray confirmed that the scheme applies to recruitment of Nepalis, and also urged the two governments hold talks.

“There is much confusion in Nepal about the terms and conditions of the Agnipath scheme. This reform will affect Nepal, especially its economy,” Ray admitted.

International relations experts are surprised that as a signatory to the Tripartite Agreement, and as the country whose citizens will be directly impacted, the Nepal government was not involved in decision-making. Instead, New Delhi just asked for Nepal’s ‘views’ as recruitment under the new scheme was due to start.

“As a member of the Tripartite Agreement, Nepal should have been asked for input prior to any decision by the Indian government,” says historian Pratyoush Onta. “It is clear that Nepal was given little importance in the new recruitment scheme.”

Onta notes that India and Britain only tout the agreement when they have problems. “This has been happening for 75 years,” continues Onta. “Just like Nepal was not consulted when the British decided to scale back Gurkha recruitment, India now wants to stop giving pensions to Gorkha servicemen.”

Writer and journalist Kanak Mani Dixit agrees that India going ahead with the military reform without discussing it with Nepal is a violation of the Tripartite Agreement.

“When Nepal signed the agreement in 1947, Nepali servicemen were guaranteed a tenure, and all the benefits that came with it up to and beyond retirement, even if pension was not explicitly stated in the agreement.” Dixit says. “Now, the term has been reduced to four years.”

However, ambassador Ray argues that Agnipath has not violated the Tripartite Agreement. “I have thoroughly read the 1947 agreeement,” he says, “There is no provision for pension in it.”

Former Maj Gen Gopal Gurung of the Indian Army Gorkha Regiment concedes that there is no mention of pension in the 1947 agreement, and the Indian Army Pay Code that Nepal’s argument hinges on has been subject to multiple revisions over the years and does not guarantee pension for Indian soldiers after retirement.

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“The reform should only be considered a violation had Indian and Nepali soldiers not been treated equally,” argues Gurung. “There has been a severe gap in understanding because of the lack of dialogue between the two countries.”

There are 125,000 Nepali retirees from the British, Indian and Singapore security forces who received Rs61.9 billion in pensions in the last fiscal year. After Agnipath comes into force, that amount could decrease by a quarter. The remittance Nepalis in the Indian military send home will also go down now due to the four-year military term limit.

Former Lt Gen Ashok Mehta of the Indian Army predicts that Agnipath will henceforth discourage Nepali youth from enlisting.

“They will not want to risk their lives just to get a lump sum of money in four years when they could be earning that amount by working in Japan or the Gulf,” Mehta says.

The Agnipath scheme has once more opened the debate about the absurdity of recruitment of Nepalis into foreign armies. Nepali soldiers in the Indian Gorkha Regiments have fought and died in wars against Pakistan, China and in Sri Lanka – all neighbouring countries with which Nepal has friendly relations.

When the Maoists launched their insurgency in 1996, they presented 40 demands to Sher Bahadur Deuba who was also prime minister then. One of those demands was a stop to recruitment by Britain and India of Nepali nationals into their army.

Twenty-six years later, Deuba is prime minister for the fifth time in a coalition with the Maoist party. Demand for jobs in the Indian and British armies and the narrative of valour in battle appear to be too powerful for Nepalis and the Nepal government to stop  enlistment into foreign armies.

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