India's Agnipath Scheme

Concerns grow in Nepal as India introduces ‘Agnipath scheme’ for Gorkha recruitment

Published On: July 13, 2022 09:55 PM NPT By: Kosh Raj Koirala  | @KoshRKoirala

KATHMANDU, July 13: The decision of the Indian government to introduce a scheme called ‘Agnipath’, which will apply to Gorkha recruitment as well beginning this year, has become controversial in Nepal as its impact on Nepali society becomes clear.

The scheme, which will henceforth be the only route for recruitment into the Indian military, has a provision to hire all new recruits aged 17.5 years or above only for a four year period till 23 years of age. It is felt that the Indian government has prepared the program to reduce burden on the exchequer, as it will avoid long tenure of service in the military, as well as pension and other benefits which are available in the current system. This scheme will bypass many things including long tenures, pension and other benefits which were there in the old system.

Government officials maintain that any such provision violates the 1947 Tripartite Agreement that governs the recruitment of Nepali youths into the Indian Gorkhas and any change in the recruitment procedures must first be approved by the Nepal government after consultation. The Tripartite Agreement 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". 

Indian media reports have suggested that the Agnipath scheme will be implemented as far as the Gorkha regiments are concerned through an intake of recruits in August. Yet, even the minimum courtesy required to inform Kathmandu authorities does not seem to have been observed, according to senior government officials in Kathmandu.

Commentator Kanak Mani Dixit argues that the Agnipath scheme will impact both Nepali society and Nepal's foreign relations. Says Dixit:  "In terms of Nepali society, the Gorkha recruitment is a legacy of Nepal's particular history, and has provided gainful employment and income to a large portion of the hill ethnic communities. It has been the hope that foreign recruitment will end as Nepal enters an era of prosperity, when citizens do not find it necessary to enter the military of another country. The Agnipath formula, however, would deprive Nepali citizens from a full career in the Indian Gorkha regiments. This is not the kind of employment conditions in mind when Nepal formally allows foreign recruitment, and so the Indian Government would be seen to be in breach of the Tripartite Agreement."

In terms of employment for the hill communities, which is at the core of accepting Gorkha recruitment in the first place, there would be a drastic reduction in numbers as only four-year service in the Indian Army is being offered before discharge for the majority. 

As per the Indian media reports, each recruit will get around IRs 40,000 a month during his four-year stint under Agnipath and gets around IRs 1,200,000 lump sum once relieved from service. "This makes Gurkha recruitment no longer attractive as there is no long-term career. Things have changed a lot. New generation Nepali youths today can easily make the amount without putting their lives at risk along the conflict-ridden India-Pakistan or India-China borders," said a retired Indian Gorkha officer who wanted to remain unnamed. 

Experts argue that the social impact of the scheme could be grievous for Nepali society.

Says a retired General of Nepal Army, who wishes to remain anonymous: "The social impact on Nepali society must also be considered, when young adults trained in warfare and weaponry are sent back to Nepal, rather than spending a full career in the Indian Gorkhas. There is even sociological evidence that such a situation is likely to raise the level of gun-violence and other types of violence in society, as Indian commentators have also suggested."

In the geopolitical arena, the formal recruitment of Nepali citizens into foreign armies has been an aberration, something that should have been discontinued as Nepal prospered and provided fine alternatives within its own economy. Not having been able to provide such possibilities as required, the state and society have been allowing citizens to join foreign armies and fight for foreign countries.

In the context of the South Asian region, made up of eight nation-states, Nepal is the only country whose citizens join the army of a second country and fight (as required) a third country that is also a member of SAARC. "The Indian Gorkhas are deployed along India's frontiers, not only with Pakistan but also with China. One can say that there is a certain amount of understanding and indulgence on the part of these countries toward Nepal, that Kathmandu has not been internationally embarrassed in the near neighborhood," says Dixit. 

He adds: "New Delhi should have appreciated Nepal's awkward international position in relation to Gorkha recruitment, and should have consulted Kathmandu before taking any actions that impacts Nepal. Gorkha recruitment is already an exceptional arrangement and it should not be tampered with as it could open up a Pandora's box."

Experts suggest that Nepal must make a formal approach to the Indian Government to stand by the Tripartite Agreement, and to insist that Nepali citizens be recruited only under the terms and conditions stipulated in the tripartite agreement. "The Agnipath program clearly takes Nepal out of the Tripartite Agreement ambit. This is something Nepal should avoid," argues a former Nepali ambassador, who preferred anonymity.


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