Carrying forward a 72-year-old tradition, Indian Army Chief General Manoj Pande was conferred with the title of Honorary General of the Nepal Army by President Bidya Debi Bhandari in Kathmandu on Monday. Unfortunately, the 207-year-old tradition of Nepali soldiers serving in the Indian Army’s Gorkha Regiments is facing an uncertain future due to the controversial Agnipath short-term recruitment scheme.
Even before the British Indian Army recruited Gorkha in 1815, Maharaja Ranjit Singh—also known as the ‘Lion of Punjab’—recruited them into his army after the battle of Kangra in 1809. Precisely why to this day, a Gorkha soldier or ex-serviceman in Nepal goes by the nickname of ‘Lahure’—the one who returned from Lahore.
History of India’s Gorkha recruitment
On 24 August, five days before the traditional month-long recruitment process of Gorkhas from 26 August to 29 September, Nepal’s Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka informed Indian ambassador to Nepal Naveen Srivastava that the recruitment of Gorkhas under the Agnipath scheme does not conform with provisions of the Tripartite Agreement, which was signed by Nepal, India and Britain on 9 November 1947. The Tripartite Agreement allows Nepalese soldiers to serve in the Indian Army while assuring them of financial security and benefits.
“This is not a final decision of the government, we will get back to India after a broader understanding is formed after wider consultation with political parties and all stakeholders,” assured a source close to Khadka, but there is widespread apprehension in Nepal about 75 per cent of its soldiers returning without pension on demobilisation and the impact of these out-of-job young men on society and economy.
It is evident that India did not inform or consult Nepal regarding the Agnipath scheme also applying to the recruitment of Gorkhas. India also seems to have not visualised the adverse impact of this decision on the ‘special relationship’ it shares with Nepal. Such actions uphold the traditional perception in Nepal that India takes the Himalayan country for granted.
It was national interest to foster good relations and not the fighting prowess of the Gorkhas or the manpower needs of the Indian Army, that allowed the recruitment tradition under the Tripartite Agreement to continue. It would be prudent to keep the same in mind while finding a mutually acceptable solution.
The all-pervasive influence of Gorkha soldiers
India’s relations with Nepal have come a long way since 1947. Economic dependence, common religion and freedom of employment in India made Nepal a committed ally. Personnel of the Indian Military Liaison Group, in conjunction with Nepal Army, used to man the latter’s northern borders till 1969. There was a popular Nepalese saying, “Shree paanch le chinknu mang chha bane, bhartiya dhoot lai sodnu pard cha.” Roughly translated, it means that if his majesty wants to sneeze, he has to seek permission from the Indian ambassador. Internal political upheavals, Maoist insurgency, the end of monarchy and the influence of China have brought Nepalese sovereignty to the fore. India too has followed realpolitik to keep Nepal in its sphere of influence. The economic blockades of 1989 and 2015 are classic examples. Today, the relationship is at crossroads and Nepal is not averse to exploiting the India-China power play in its national interest.
What has not changed is the pervasive influence that the 35,000 Nepal domicile Gorkha soldiers in the Indian Army and the 1.35 lakh ex-servicemen have in Nepalese society. Every village in Nepal has ex-servicemen who have spent their youth in the Indian Army and are receiving a pension from it. Their personalities were shaped by the ethos of the Indian Army. As soldiers, they took an oath on the Indian Constitution and while in service, were driven by a sense of duty and regimental loyalty.
They are highly respected and their counsel is sought to cut across political affiliations in the countryside. Their financial contribution to the economy enhances their clout. The salaries of serving soldiers and pensions of ex-servicemen amount to $620 million, which is 3 per cent of the Nepalese GDP and more than the country’s defence budget of $430 million. The absence of this resource will adversely affect Nepal’s economy.
Gorkha soldiers and ex-servicemen are India’s ambassadors to Nepal and have made an immense contribution toward maintaining good relations. China is waiting in the wings and India cannot afford to forsake this diplomatic leverage.
India has two options
Agnipath recruitment scheme is still a reform in progress, as was evident from a host of measures hastily announced post facto as incentives for Agniveers after demobilisation from service. Inadequate incentives and the non-assurance of a second career are the main flaws of this scheme.
I am a supporter of a viable short–term engagement scheme of five years, plus a voluntary extension of another five years without pension but with gratuity, a handsome severance package, a contributory pension scheme and attractive incentives for education, entrepreneurship and jobs in the public/private sector. I predict that in the course of the next few years, the Agnipath scheme will be refined to incorporate all or most of these expectations. From a military reform, it will eventually become a politically inspired mega employment generation scheme. But what is considered politically beneficial for India may not be perceived as such by Nepal.
India has two options with respect to Gorkha soldiers. The first is to make an exception and let the existing system of recruitment and terms/conditions continue for Gorkha soldiers. The original decision in 1947 under the Tripartite Agreement itself was an exception and there would be no loss of face for the Indian government to continue with the same. This will generate a lot of goodwill in Nepal and India will continue to enjoy the benefit of an indirect influence in Nepalese society.
The second option is to make no distinction, but offer similar incentives for a second career in India to all Nepalese origin Agniveers as are available to their Indian counterparts after demobilisation. As I said, Agnipath is a reform in progress. The current incentives do not inspire confidence and will not be acceptable to the government of Nepal.
A piqued Nepalese government may terminate the Tripartite Agreement, which mentions that “subject to satisfactory performance and conduct, all soldiers should be allowed to serve for sufficient time in order to qualify for a pension.” The opposition is already clamouring for the same. Nepal may allow Gorkhas to be recruited by other countries in their police/armed forces. Precedence exists of their employment in Singapore and Brunei police even without formal treaties. It would be a shame if the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recruits Gorkhas to spite India. The numbers are small. Saving on 1,400 annual pensions at the cost of good relations does not befit the conduct of a potential superpower like India.
The Gorkhas consider themselves to be part of the Indian civilisation. In rural Nepal, India is referred to as ‘Desh’ or country. “Ma desh bata aye ko (I have come from desh, that is India),” would be the common response of Nepalese soldiers returning from duty. Ironically, if he returned from Kathmandu, he would invariably say, “Ma Nepal bata aye ko (I have come from Nepal).”
I have had the privilege of serving for six years in the 5/5 Gorkha Rifles. I have no hesitation in saying that Gorkha soldiers and ex-servicemen are loyal citizens of Nepal, but are also united by an umbilical bond with the Indian Army. It is a bond we must not forego.
The Article was first published by The Print on 8 September 2022.
About The Author
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was member of the Armed Forces Tribunal.
(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)