In this highly interdependent world, especially among neighbours, a nation’s internal policies may have distinct ramifications impinging on each other’s relations. That India’s newly modified recruitment policy for enrolment in the armed forces has rattled Nepal is more than obvious. Though just introduced, its reverberations points to a long-term negative impact on the historically cordial though continually sensitive long-term relations between India and Nepal. An objective re-appraisal of this step that India has taken, ostensibly without consulting Nepal, must be swiftly looked into without the baggage of self-infallibility!
The Indian Army currently has around 40 Gurkha battalions spread over seven Gurkha regiments. Besides, Nepalese nationals also serve in some paramilitary and other security forces. At any one time, there are around 32,000-35,000 Gurkhas serving in the Indian Army.
Importantly, around 1.40 lakh retired soldiers draw their pensions from India. Nearly 1,400 Nepalese are recruited by the Indian Army each year.
Immediately after India’s independence, Gurkha units were allotted to the Indian Army and British Army based on the 1947 Tripartite Treaty. Some politicians in Nepal’s Parliament have been complaining recently that India’s “Agnipath” scheme violates this agreement. In addition, some vested interests in Nepal have also been spreading disinformation and anti-India propaganda in the tiny Himalayan state. Even Nepal’s former deputy PM and defence minister Bhim Rawal recently spoke in its Parliament that owing to the “Agnipath” scheme, which guarantees only four years’ service and with no post-retirement benefits, the Nepal government must cancel the Tripartite Treaty. He gave the example of some Nepalese youth joining the Singapore police and the Brunei Army without any formal governmental agreements.
It was on June 14 this year that the government announced the new “Agnipath” scheme for recruitment of personnel for the Indian Army and extended it to recruits coming from Nepal. Two rallies due to be held last fortnight in Nepal have been kept in abeyance, awaiting clarifications from India’s defence ministry. Nepal has sought details of the scheme that offers only four years’ service, with only one-fourth of those serving to be further retained and overall there being no pension benefits for those leaving after completion of their four-year service.
Nepal’s ambassador to India Shankar Prasad Sharma has told the local media that more “understanding from the highest level” is expected.
He added, though, that talks are underway between India and Nepal over the future recruitment process for Gurkhas under “Agnipath”. He added: “It is election time in Nepal. All political parties are in discussions and they will come up with a decision soon.” The ambassador’s statement that all political parties in Nepal in a huddle over Agnipath clearly brings out the criticality of this scheme for Nepal, which should be carefully factored in by the Indian government.
Nepal has rightly been worried about the adverse financial impact of the Agnipath scheme on its fragile economy. The salaries of 35,000 Gurkhas and the pensions of 1.40 lakh ex-servicemen total nearly $620 million, which is three per cent of its GDP, while Nepal’s defence budget is only around $430 million. Thus, the announcement of the Agnipath scheme has met with severe criticism in the Nepalese media. This point will also have been surely discussed during the just-concluded five-day visit of Indian Army Chief Gen. Manoj Pande to Nepal and hopefully some of the Nepal Army’s concerns would have been addressed by Gen. Pande. As is the tradition between the armies of India and Nepal, both the respective Army chiefs are conferred the honorary rank of general in each other’s armies and Gen. Pande was accorded this honour by Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari in Kathmandu. During his visit, Gen. Pande also gifted some non-lethal defence equipment to Nepal’s Artmy chief.
New Delhi is more than aware that in the last few decades the Chinese have gone all out to carve out their areas of influence in Nepal in diverse fields. Exploiting their deep pockets and ideological closeness to Nepal’s Communists, the mandarins in Beijing have eminently succeeded in making credible inroads into Nepal’s development, its economy and political systems. Consequently, China would look for any opportunity to come its way to diminish India’s image and poison the latter’s traditional and close relations with Nepal. According to some China-watchers in Nepal, the former may try to recruit out-of-work retired “Agniveers” and other Nepalese youth into the Chinese Army -- a step that will be fraught with danger for India. India’s defence ministry must therefore weigh the adverse impact on serving and retired Gurkha soldiers of the Indian Army of such mischief by China. As is well known, Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence has a well-established presence in Nepal from where it directs many of its terrorist activities against India. It is clear that the ISI will spare no effort to intensify its anti-India propaganda in Nepal in the wake of the Indian Army’s Agnipath scheme.
India must never forget that its fraternal ties with Nepal are a strategic imperative for it in its restive neighbourhood, keeping in view China’s and Pakistan’s consistent machinations towards India. The Gurkha regiments have served the Indian Army with matchless gallantry and glory. Importantly, they have contributed largely to deepening mutually beneficial relations between the two nations. We need to further cement our brotherly relations with Nepal and for that, if we have to modify or even discard the Agnipath scheme for recruitment in Nepal, we shouldn’t hesitate, and then switch back to the old system of recruiting the valiant Gurkhas to serve in the Indian Army....