Nepal’s Gurkha Recruitment Conundrum Under Agnipath Scheme

Over the years, joining the Indian Army had become not only a practice but also a tradition for the Nepalese. There used to be a time when having worked for the Indian Army was considered highly prestigious. But after India introduced the Agnipath scheme, such recruitment has been officially abruptly stopped —if not ended— since 2022.

Indian Army chief Manoj Pande interacting with Gurkha personnel.

The journey of Nepalese joining the Indian Army began over 200 years ago in April 1815 under British rule. While there no exact figures, there are around 40,000 Nepalese Gurkhas currently serving in the seven Gurkha regiments and 39 Gurkha Battalions. There are also around 1.22 lakh regular pensioners. 

For a long time, Nepalese Gurkhas have been bringing a good amount of remittances home which has always worked as a cushion during difficult times. It is worthwhile to mention that there was a time when only ‘Gurkha Lahures’ used to bring ‘hard cash’, which certainly helped to resuscitate the village economy in more than one way. By and large, over the years, joining the Indian Army had become not only a practice but also a tradition. There used to be a time when having worked for the Indian Army was considered highly prestigious.

But after India introduced the Agnipath scheme, recruitment to the Indian Army from Nepal has been officially abruptly stopped —if not ended— since 2022. The 1947 Tripartite Agreement between the UK, India, and Nepal does not necessarily provide any modus operandi for the Nepalese Gurkhas with regard to joining the Indian Army. The agreement largely entails provisions for managing Nepalese Gurkhas who were, earlier, serving in the British Indian Army. Yet the agreement allowed the continuation of the recruitment in both the British and Indian armies. For all practical reasons, the 1947 agreement is not binding either on India or on Nepal. Overall, it is an agreement, not a treaty. This could perhaps be the reason, among others, why there has been no official communication from the part of Nepal and India with regard to discontinuation of the recruitment.

Response to the Agniveer scheme is not positive. Yet the fact remains that Nepalese can still join the Indian Army through Agniveer if they wish as there are no legal restrictions on doing so. They do not have to inform the Nepalese government about that. But sensitivities run high on both sides and state sovereignty and security have become the pertinent issue. In addition to this, people are looking for better opportunities as well. The new scheme may not be attractive but can provide relief to Nepalese youth looking for jobs.

The issue of joining or not joining the Indian Army has been politicised to the point that political parties can drag each other, as they often do, and can even make the electoral agenda out of it in the days to come. There are political parties in Nepal —mostly coming from the Left and new ones as well— who certainly have serious reservations about Nepalese serving the Indian army. This section had opposed it from the beginning.

For those against Nepalese youth serving the Indian Army, the Agnipath scheme may have come as a blessing in disguise. Their argument is that Nepal being a sovereign state cannot send its people to fight for other countries. But this certainly is not true. What happens to state sovereignty when large numbers of youths are working as mercenaries around the world — where there is no security of any kind? Modern sovereignty is a two-way process, not one-way. Recently one or two Nepali youths have died while fighting in the Russia-Ukraine War and few have been taken as hostages.  Nobody has addressed questions arising out of such situations.

Yet the fact remains that the level of trust between and among the countries is at its lowest ebb due to the high level of geopolitical undercurrents running in the region. The majority of them in the region look at each other from the security perspective which may not allow them to outsource their security.

It appears that no concrete decisions will be made from the Nepalese side even in the future as there are very few options available in that regard. This may also be true for India. No country is raising this issue in the high-level visits as well. In fact, how can a country decide to ask its people to join armies of others when nationalism and sovereignty are prominently featured in the public discourse? No evidence or formal agreements, whatsoever, are available that explain provisions or conditions for Nepalese to join British or Indian armies for that matter. 

In contrast, some of the rulers in the past —like Jung Bahadur Rana— have always opposed Nepalese joining the Army of British India. He was of the view that it would weaken his regime in Kathmandu. Yet there were others who had some sort of agreement with India’s British rulers and were providing youths to join armies, as they were of the view that it would embolden their rule in Kathmandu. But in either case, it was done for the regime’s survival in Kathmandu. Context may have changed but issues of ‘politicisation’ still persist. All said, while the Nepalese government is signing one labour agreement after another with countries around the world, discontinuation of working with the Indian Army is a lost economic opportunity and tradition as well.