Breaking tradition: Why no Gurkhas in the Indian army in 2023?

Gurkha is an intrinsic part of the Indian army since 1815. However, in its impeccable history, there is an abruption as Nepal halts recruitment citing the new rules under the Agnipath scheme. Also, reports surface Beijing’s willingness to recruit Gurkha in the PLA. What is at stake?

Gurkha for Indian army
Gurkha for Indian army

The 11 Gorkha Rifles is the most decorated platoon of the Indian Army (IA). The first Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, lovingly called Sam Bahadur- ‘Sam the Brave’ was a Gurkha. He is considered to be India’s greatest military strategist and commander to date. Sadly, the Gorkha regiment is missing something which is fundamental to the tradition of soldiering in the Indian Army — the absence of Gorkha from Nepal.

Everyone has a heritage which is uniquely his, a combination of racial, national, family and individual traditions which are woven into his very being. That is largely true for Gurkha, a part of the Indian army since 1815. That is how intrinsic is the history of the Gorkha Regiment which came into existence under the British East India Company in 1815, following the 1814-16 Anglo-Nepal war.

Such a tradition further reckons like the visit of the Chief of the Army Staff of the Nepali Army to India at the earliest after assumption of the post, during which he is conferred with the rank of an ‘Honorary General’ by the President of India.

That is under threat now.

Firstly, the new recruitment scheme –Agnipath– is at the centre of debate as Nepal looks at it from a different perspective. Explaining his reservation on the new rules of recruitment, Nepal’s former Foreign Minister Khadka highlighted the 1947 agreement, on the basis of which Gorkhas are recruited in the Indian Army which does not recognise India’s new recruitment policy under the Agnipath scheme.

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According to the officials from the foreign ministry, breaking such a pact means Nepal will assess the new terms and how they may impact the fresh recruits. 

Largely the question is over the current recruitment scheme for a period of four years under Agnipath and the pensions. Adnipath scheme clearly outlines those terms After four years, based on objective criteria including performance during their four-year engagement period up to 25% of each specific batch of Agniveers will be enrolled in the regular cadre of the Armed Forces.

What is at stake?

In the beginning, two factors—permanency and pensions – were highlighted by the Nepali government.

Take a look at the total pension amount for the Gurkhas in Nepal, which is around $600 million for 1,40,000 retired soldiers.

That matters a lot, says former military personnel who proudly served the famed Gorkha regiment of the Indian army.

In fact, the pension amount surpasses Nepal’s entire defence budget, which stood at $450 million in 2023.

But the larger point is about the modernization of the Indian army itself and the steps which are taken in the spirit of reforms. And such a new set of rules and processes are already laid out in its entirety by the Indian armed forces. 

“India is a large country. Our country went ahead with the scheme as announced and the people of India have accepted this and they are going ahead with it. So, at this juncture, this becomes just an excuse for them [Nepali government]. We are not going to change these rules only for the Nepalese Gurkhas,” remarks former Army Chief General Malik.

While such issues linger, what threatens to break the entire historical framework is rather political itself; a radical

Gurkhas for China?

This opens another front which is based on certain reports that China has proposed to have Gorkhas in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

While in the past, such proposals have been forwarded to Nepal, it was never entertained for the reason which is very obvious in the overall ambit of historical Indo-Nepal ties.

Multiple reports indicate the shift in the stance of the Nepali Communist government.

However, such reports do not have any official basis, reports Nepal’s leading newspaper, The Kathmandu Post. The newspaper quotes a former Nepali Ambassador to Denmark Vijay Kant Karna, who is currently the Executive chair of the Centre for Social Inclusion and Federalism (CESIF), a think-tank: “In the current political scenario, Nepal cannot sign a new Gorkha recruitment treaty with any country, including China.”

He adds: “Such an agreement would require ratification by a two-thirds majority of parliament which is impossible. Regarding the Agnipath scheme for Gorkha recruitment in the Indian army, Nepal and India should settle it through negotiations. It is in the interest of both the countries to do so.”

While this is speculative, the core issue – recruitment for IA– remains unresolved, halting the century-old tradition in an abrupt manner. What is the way ahead?

So far, no recruitment has taken place and resolutions depend on the visit of Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal to New Delhi. Hope that will break the deadlock, as experts point out.

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First published on: 18-05-2023 at 18:47 IST