Recruitment of Nepalis into Indian Army paused

Agnipath scheme would no longer make it attractive for Gorkha soldiers to join the Indian military

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

This time of year last year, the phone at the headquarters of Salute Gorkha Training Centre in Pokhara was ringing off the hook. Callers wanted to know if recruitment of Nepali soldiers into the Indian Army had started. 

This year, the phone has not rung at all. The office is quiet.
Many young men from the mountains who had spent more than six months in training in Pokhara to be recruited as an Indian Gorkha soldier have given up. They are now trying their luck to find jobs in the Gulf.

Even so, whenever retired Butwal-based Indian Army soldier Laxman Shrestha gets calls from his village in southeastern Gulmi, the most frequently asked question is: “Dai, has the recruitment process begun?"

Shrestha retired four years ago after having served for more than 17 years in the Indian Army’s Gorkha Rifles, and currently operates a business in Butwal. 

Read also: In the Line of Fire, Editorial

He also supports young people from his home village in the mountains who want to follow his footsteps. But with the uncertainty about India’s military reform plan called Agnipath, he is not able to give them a clear answer.

The Indian Army suspended Gorkha recruitment for two years from 2020 to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But even afterwards, there are new conditions for applicants.

Introduced last July, Agnipath only allows recruits aged 17.5 to 23 years old to be hired as soldiers for four-year periods, after which they will be discharged with a lump sum of Rs1.8 million, but will not be eligible for a lifetime pension. Only 25% of trained soldiers will be offered a 15-year extension after the initial four years.

Recruitment did start in Butwal and Dharan, but the selection process was halted soon after by the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government, saying that Nepal needed further study into the scheme.

Read also: India’s trial by fire for soldiers from Nepal, Anita Shrestha

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The decision was a blow to young Nepalis who wanted to be selected to the Indian Army. Some 306 applicants from the mountains of central Nepal had already enrolled at Salute Gorkha Training Institute in Butwal. Most are now trying to get an overseas job, and some want to try for the British Army. There are currently 4,100 Nepali Gurkha soldiers in the British Army, and 205 were  selected this year from about 25,000 applicants, despite a long-running dispute over pensions. The British Army also recruits Nepalis on behalf of the Singapore, Oman and Brunei security forces.

“The selection for the Indian army is easier than the British Army and the Singapore police. That is why many trainees who enrol in our institute tend to try for the Indian military,” explains Lokesh Thapa, director of Salute Gorkha Training Institute who has been training aspiring recruits for 13 years. “But with the future uncertain, we cannot enrol a new batch.”

Trainees pay fees up to Rs80,000 each at the institute's branches in Butwal, Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Dang, Chitwan, and Dharan, and it is among 30 other similar centres. 

“The fees they have paid has gone to waste,” says retired Indian Army Junior Commissioned Officer Kul Bahadur KC. “They have nowhere to go and no one who can answer their questions.”

Read also: Tales of courage and suffering, Nepali Times

In February, India’s Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra paid an official visit to Nepal to discuss Agnipath among other things, but no outcome was made public. Former Indian Army Captain Chok Bahadur Gurung has made up his mind about what it means: “Agnipath has shown that India is ignoring the Nepali government.” 

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal said he raised the Agnipath issue with Narendra Modi when the two met in New Delhi in May, but there was no joint mention of it. Even retired Indian Army major general Ashok Mehta who has served in the Gorkha Brigades is outraged.

He told Nepali Times: “The existing recruitment system was overturned without notice or consultation with a strategic Himalayan neighbour with whom India claims special relations. India-Nepal relations are like between daju and bhai, but this was not very big brotherly.”

A Tripartite Agreement in 1947 allowed the continued recruitment of Nepalis into the British and Indian Armies, but Nepali fighters went over to the British side even before the end of the 1814-16 war with the East India Company following which Nepal signed the Sugauli Treaty.

Read also: Gorkhas on the frontline between India and China, Pratistha Rijal

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By the end of World War II, there were 10 Gurkha regiments in the British Army, and six of them were assigned to India and four to Britain after Indian independence. India has since added another Gorkha Regiment. (India refers to its Nepali soldiers as 'Gorkhas', while the British prefer ‘Gurkhas’.)

Former soldier Mukta Prasad Shrestha from Gulmi served 21 years as an Indian Gorkha soldier and still sees young people in his village training to do what he did as a young man. He agrees that the Agnipath scheme puts the livelihoods of Nepali soldiers at risk.  

“Well-to-do people do not join the military, those who have the responsibility to take care of families do,” says Shrestha. “Why else would anyone want to go off and fight for somebody else's land?”

Sushant Singh, who served in the Indian Army for 20 years and is now the consulting editor of Caravan magazine in New Delhi, said in a recent podcast that a scheme like Agnipath erases the self-identity of retired soldiers.

Read also: A forgotten Gurkha rebellion, Ram Kandangwa

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“Until now, those who joined the army served for 17 years, and left with experience and honour afforded by the training and the pension received,” Singh recently said on a podcast. “That honour makes all the difference between having been a soldier or a hired killer.”

Nepal’s former ambassador to India Deep Kumar Upadhyay says India employed “crude diplomacy” by failing to discuss Agnipath with Nepal before its implementation as it involves soldiers from Nepal. 

“India should not have taken a unilateral decision on a recruitment process that does not justify terms set in the Tripartite Agreement,” says Upadhyay. “India must reach out to Nepal’s political leadership as well as ex-servicemen networks.”

Maj Gen Ashok Mehta echoes this sentiment: “It is clear that India’s handling was presumptuous, and the government has opted to make Nepal-Domiciled Gorkha (NDG) recruitment not as a foreign policy imperative but a domestic employment issue. Now, India and Nepal must begin talks on Agnipath urgently to save the Indian Gorkha Brigade and the vital Gorkha connection with Nepal.”

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The seven-point Tripartite Agreement ensures the rights of Nepali soldiers, including their salaries, pensions, financial compensation, as well as facilities for families. The fourth point of the agreement in particular stipulates that Gorkha soldiers should be allowed to serve for sufficient time to qualify for pension, a point former soldiers have said Aginapath goes against.

Retired Indian Army Captain Raj Bahadur Thapa says that the 1947 agreement is outdated and must be replaced by a new agreement with conditions that are in the best interests of Nepal’s soldiers in foreign armies. “Otherwise, why send your young men to kill and die for a foreign land?” questions Thapa. A former serviceman who was with the Indian Army for over 20 years says Nepalis will not be included in the 25% who will be permanently retained by the military. “Nepali soldiers are always on a razor edge in the Indian military, they remember even our smallest mistakes,” he says. “We will be the first ones to be sent back.”

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Nepali soldiers have other concerns about what young Nepali men with military training can do when they return to Nepal in four years when the money they saved runs out eventually.

Recruits within India seem to have similar qualms, and there have been protests there against the scheme after it was announced. Recruits from the first batch of ‘Agniveer’ had reportedly dropped out of training, and the Indian Army is said to be considering raising the permanent retention quota from 25% to 50%, and the length of engagement from 4 years to 7 years. 

Read also: A military-migrant economy, Amanda Chisholm

The Modi government introduced Agnipath to reduce military expenditure and redirect the budget to modernisation of the armed forces. Critics in India itself have said that the scheme was introduced without any previous risk assessment or study into its impact on the Indian military structure. Bhakta Bahadur Bucha, who spent 22 years in the Indian Army, says Agnipath will push India’s Gorkha regiments into crisis since they are the military’s largest and most prestigious units. The seven Gorkha Rifles regiments have 46 battalions, 60% of whom are Nepali. Furthermore, there are 125,000 Indian Gorkha retirees who receive a pension.

Says Bucha, “India must not forget that its Gorkha units are on the frontlines in Kashmir, Pakistan, Ladakh, Arunachal and Bangladesh. And a four-year limit to military service will affect their morale and commitment. Soldiers will not be willing to fight wars if the job is temporary.”

Ethics and nationalism aside, recruitment into the Indian Army is also in Nepal’s economic interest. Nearly 18% of the country’s population is working and living abroad because of the lack of meaningful jobs back home, and the interest of young people to join foreign militaries stem from this desperation. 

Dhan Bahadur Thapa of the United Federation of Ex-Servicemen and Police Welfare who was once a Colonel in the Indian Army explains: “If recruitment into the Indian Army is stopped, it will have a direct impact on Nepal’s economy, where jobs are already scarce. If recruitment is not resumed, ex-servicemen are prepared to take to the streets.”

Read also: Diary of a Nepali soldier in France, Shree Bhakta Khanal