Why India Should Be Worried About Chinese Army's Plans to Recruit Nepali Gorkhas

The proposed move, former Indian Army officials say, is part of China's strategy not to pass up on any opportunity to hound New Delhi. The Indian Army's routine intake of the fabled Gorkhas came to a halt after the Agnipath scheme was introduced.

Chandigarh: Disquieting media reports had emerged recently regarding China’s plans to recruit Nepali Gorkha soldiers into its People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as the annual routine intake of some 1,400 of them into the Indian Army remains suspended after the Agnipath scheme was introduced.

“The ongoing imbroglio (between China and India) and the presence of a favourable dispensation (to Beijing) in Nepal paves the way for Gorkha soldiers with a history of 200 years of gallantry, into the PLA” declared the EurAsian Times, an Indo-Canadian digital news site. China may actively seek the Nepali Communist government’s approval to allow Gorkhas to join the PLA, the website reported last week.

For several decades the PLA had intermittently, and somewhat half-heartedly, expressed interest in enlisting Gorkhas, fabled for their fighting prowess and fearlessness on the battlefield. But Kathmandu had steadfastly rebuffed Beijing’s overtures, considering its previous treaties with India and Britain, under which both their armies recruited a large number of Gorkha soldiers each year, alongside New Delhi’s controlling influence over Kathmandu.

But last August, five days before the IA’s month-long enlistment of Gorkhas was to begin, Nepal informed India that its Agnipath scheme to recruit Agniveers for a limited tour of duty (ToD) did not conform to provisions of the Tripartite Agreement between Nepal, Britain and India concluded by the Joint Partition Committee in November 1947, three months after India’s independence.

Under this Agreement, six of 10 Gorkha Rifles (GR) regiments opted to remain with the IA, whilst four – 2GR, 6GR, 7GR and 10GR – voted to soldier for the British. India thereafter raised its seventh Gorkha Regiment, comprising Nepali Gorkhas who had refused to be transferred to the British army.

However, unlike the British Army, India imposed no restrictions on Gorkha’s becoming commissioned officers, with many of them, in time, rising to senior positions. Another agreement alongside decreed that all Gorkha troops in both the Indian and British armies would be paid the same wage and would subsequently receive analogous pensions. These terms were revised in the early 2000s, after the UK agreed, following an extended media and activists campaign, to substantially hike Gorkha soldiers’ wages and pensions in comparison to those in the Indian Army.

Personnel, meanwhile, in the seven Indian Army Gorkha regiments with 40 battalions, comprising some 40,000 soldiers, were recruited directly from Nepal and from amongst descendants of retired Gorkha soldiers, settled for decades across north and northeastern India. Initially, the ratio between Nepali Gorkhas and Indian-resident Gorkhas in the IA was around 70:30, dropping in some units to 60:40, and at times even lower. In recent years, numbers of the former had stabilised at around 1,400-odd personnel.

Nepal feared that if it concurred with the Agnipath recruitment scheme, 75% of its soldiers would soon return home without pensions, which comprise a major proportion of the Himalayan state’s economy. The country has 135,000 IA Gorkha retirees, who annually receive around $620 million in pensions, some $170 million more than the country’s 2023 defence budget of $450 million. India maintains three Pension Paying Offices (PPOs) at Kathmandu, Dharan and Pokhara, manned by senior officials and army personnel to disburse these monthly pay-outs.

Additionally, bilateral ties between New Delhi and Kathmandu had, over recent decades appreciably declined, especially after India blockaded Nepal in 1989, and then again in 2015, together for around 19 months. Understandably, these two sieges, prompted ostensibly by Kathmandu cosying up unduly to the Chinese, triggered Nepali resentment, which endures.

And more recently Nepali Marxist leaders had demanded a halt to Gorkha recruitment into the IA, on the grounds that these soldiers were deployed against countries-like China – with which Nepal had no quarrel. They further argued that Gorkhas serving in the Indian Army ‘abrogated’ Kathmandu’s non-aligned or neutral status and denigratingly branded them as soldiers of fortune or worse, as mercenaries.

Conversely, China’s strategic, economic and commercial influence over Nepal had greatly proliferated, augmented further by Beijing sponsoring numerous infrastructure projects in the underdeveloped country under the bilateral Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), inked in late 2017.

Hence, a cross-section of Indian Army veterans declared that China, locked in a military face-off with India in eastern Ladakh for three years, would pass up no opportunity, like wanting to recruit Gorkhas, to further aggravate New Delhi. “Declaring its intent to induct Gorkha soldiers into the PLA, was yet another pinprick to belittle and hound India,” said Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle of the Security Risks Consultancy Group in Delhi. If implemented, it could pose India serious problems, he warned.

That said, the issue of Gorkha recruitment under Agnipath remains unresolved and will most definitely feature prominently in talks during Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s visit to New Delhi later this year. This dialogue could also include India’s concerns over Kathmandu permitting Gorkha recruitment into the PLA, said a senior security official, declining to be named.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or ‘Prachanda’, Nepal’s PM. Photo: Twitter/@cmprachanda

Gorkhas and Indian Army

The first Gorkha Regiment came into existence under the British East India Company in 1815, following the 1814-16 Anglo-Nepal war, initially as the Nasiri Regiment and later renamed the 1st King George’s Own Gorkha Rifles.

Earlier, however, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab had recognised the legendary fighting potential of the kukri-wielding Gorkhas, with their blood curdling ‘Ayo Gorkhali’ (The Gorkhas are upon you) battle cry and their motto “Kaphar hunnu bhanda marnu ramro (Its better to die than to live like a coward)”. The late Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, who served with 8 Gorkha Rifles after independence, added to this folklore by declaring that if a man said he was not afraid of dying, he was either a liar or a Gorkha.

Till the mid-1990s, gallah wallahs or recruiting sergeants from the Indian and British armies annually traversed eastern and western Nepal’s hilly regions, talent spotting Rai, Gurung, Limbu, Tamang and Magar Gorkhas for enlistment into their respective armies. But in recent years, only a fourth of the Gorkhas recruited annually were from Nepal. So much so that in March 2016, the Indian Army commissioned the Sixth Battalion of the First Gorkha Rifles (6/1GR) at Sabathu, 64 km north of Chandigarh, exclusively comprising locally domiciled Gorkhas.

But senior Indian Army veterans concurred that Nepal snubbing India over Gorkha recruitment was potentially troublesome.

Military analyst Lieutenant General H.S. Panag (retired) is of the view that Gorkha soldiers were not only fighting men for the Indian Army, but India’s ambassadors to Nepal upon retirement and had ‘contributed immensely’ towards maintaining good relations between the neighbours. “China,” he declared in The Print late last year, “is waiting in the wings and India cannot afford to forsake this diplomatic leverage”.

General Panag offered two options to overcome the Agnipath hurdle with regard to recruiting Nepali Gorkhas. The first, he suggested, was to make an exception and continue with the prevailing Tripartite Agreement system of recruiting Nepali Gorkhas. His second option was to offer similar incentives for a second career to all Nepali-origin Agniveers, as were on offer to their Indian counterparts upon demobilisation.

Plans for Agniveers

Under the proposed Agnipath plan, India’s three services aim to annually recruit 30,000-40,000 Agniveers or personnel below officer rank (PBOR) aged between 17.5-19 years for 48 months, in a bid to curtail the military’s ballooning pension bill that currently averages some 23% of the annual defence outlay and was rising.

Once recruited, the shortlisted Agniveers undergo six months of training, before being deployed to active field units and to other locations across the country for their remaining three-and-a-half years ToD. From then on, all Agniveers would be discharged, and after a brief hiatus – which is yet to be finalised – 25% of them, predicated upon their previous performance, would be re-inducted, to complete an additional 15-17 years of colour service. This, in turn, would entitle them to full retirement benefits, but their previous four years in the military would not contribute towards this determination.

However, as envisaged in the Agnipath proposal, 75 % of Agniveers – eventually numbering over 25,000, if not more, each year 2026-27 onwards – would, upon discharge, receive a tax free gratuity of Rs 10-12 lakh via the Seva Nidhi scheme, a third of which they would mandatorily have contributed towards whilst in service. Each Agniveers starting monthly salary would be pegged at Rs 30,000, rising eventually to Rs 40,000 in the fourth year. Of this, 30% would accrue each month to their discharge fund, to which the government too would contribute an equal sum, to comprise the final severance package.

Thence onwards, the federal and state authorities would reportedly assist in facilitating the discharged Agniveers resettlement and rehabilitation, that is expected to include absorption into the paramilitaries, state police forces and associated ancillary security organisations.

Providing alternate employment in government, public and private sectors, based on each Agniveers qualifications and aptitude, too would be advanced, based on the underlying assumption that four years of disciplined military service will have rendered these youths ‘highly employable’.

In conclusion, not having either consulted or informed Nepal about its Agnipath scheme and now facing the consequences, India had simply added to its ever expanding list of un-resolvable woes in its immediate neighbourhood.

And as many military veterans and defence analysts concur, it needs to evolve a pragmatic and doable solution out of this preventable imbroglio.