Break the Agniveer logjam with Nepal

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Break the Agniveer logjam with Nepal

Wednesday, 04 October 2023 | Ashok K Mehta

Break  the Agniveer logjam with Nepal

India unilaterally announced Agnipath scheme without consulting Nepal and this has led to the shrinking of Gorkha regiments in the army

There is misplaced excitement over the 40,000 Agniveers recruited last year, the first batch reporting to units in August and the second batch by October. They are full of josh with the rank of Agniveer while the permanent cadre are Sepoys/Rifleman and above. Much is being made of them in Service Headquarters as Outstanding where special cells are monitoring their progress and evaluation for re-enlistment of 25 per cent after 4 years. The truth can only be discovered by conversations with their recipients as I have.  

Veterans’ critique of Agniveer has not subsided but critique fatigue has overtaken it. By 2030, at the present rate of induction, half the Army will be Agniveers. Then it will be a very unhappy Battalion Commander leading them unless he believes in destiny. Unhappier still will be the Gorkha commanders by then without recruitment of an additional 15,000 Nepali-domiciled Gorkhas which translated on the ground would mean that nearly half of the 42 Gorkha battalions would have disappeared with only Agniveer Indian Domiciled Gorkhas in the majority.

By 2024, the reduction of battalions will start to maintain minimal operational strength. By 2030, I suspect, the Gorkha Brigade will disappear losing its identity and cohesion, converted to Kumaoni and Garhwali battalions. This back-of-the-envelope calculation is on the assumption that the government is unable or unwilling to persuade the Government of Nepal to relent into accepting Agniveer on present terms. With a better package of enhanced service and larger retention (seven years instead of four years of service and 50 per cent instead of 25 per cent re-enlistment) or total exemption from Agniveer, the prospects of Communists in government and opposition accepting terms of recruitment are higher. But it seems as a Nepali ex-serviceman told me: “India has a secret plan to stop the recruitment of Gorkhas and the Communists in my country will oblige”. The stars will shortly come into the right constellation for this, he adds.

Last month, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda was to meet an ex-servicemen delegation before going to the UN and China but that did not happen. As the leader of the ten-year-old insurgency against Royal rule, he knows the value and grit of Gorkha soldiers. He also knows that today’s youth, while still attracted by soldiering are equally fascinated by service in foreign countries where they can also be educated and settled lucratively which is happening today in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other Western countries. Many Nepali Gorkhas have joined the Russian Army whose key attraction is the Right to Residency in Russia after one year of military service. Gorkhas are joining French Foreign Legion, British Army, Singapore Police and like the Sikhs once, can be found all over the world.

Still, there might be many who want to become Agniveers in the Indian Army which is regulated by the 1947 Tripartite Treaty on Recruitment between Britain, India and Nepal which Nepal believes has been violated by the Agnipath scheme. It is another matter that India unilaterally announced Agnipath without consulting a friendly neighbour, Nepal with which it claims special and unique relations. Gorkha recruitment is a key factor of the bilateral strategic relationship and has provided an assured pro-India platform in Nepal. Nepal has not done its sums on the financial benefit of Agniveer. With approximately 22,000 Nepali Domiciled Gorkha Soldiers (NDG) soldiers and 85,000 Indian Army NDG pensioners being paid on an average of INR 6 lakh and INR 3.8 lakh per annum respectively, total outlay and remittance to Nepal per annum is Rs 4500 crore. The average span of service of soldiers is 20 years and the currency of pension is 50 years. If there is no recruitment under Agniveer, the entire remittance will stop in the next 70 years years. If Nepal accepts Agniveer, the overall effect is that Rs 4500 crore will gradually reduce to Rs 1827 crore (40 per cent) which will include the pension of Permanent Cadre Agniveer and salaries of Permanent and Temporary Agniveers. Reduction in pay will be very marginal, from the present Rs 1290 crore to Rs 1242 crore with the Agnipath scheme. Reduction in pension though will be substantial is 68 per cent (Rs 3146 crore to Rs 585 crore) But this will happen in 70 years – in Nepali, (iota pusht) or one generation. Remittances are the No. 1 earner for the economy as almost one-third of the Nepali population of 30 mn is abroad at any time including in India.

It seems Nepal is shedding its mercenary tag discounting financial benefits. It is also an assertion of its self-respect and dignity. All recent Indian ambassadors to Nepal except one have acknowledged the exceptional role of NDGs and ex-servicemen in promoting bilateral relations and being a strategic asset. Most beguiling though is the silence of the Army hierarchy. Equally puzzling is inaction on the part of Gorkha veterans including a former Army Chief and scores of two and three-star Generals who put their names on various service issue petitions to powers that be. Now they are silent. But saddest of all is that the slow disbandment of the Gorkha Brigade will happen under the watch of the seniormost Gorkha officer of the Army, CDS Gen Anil Chouhan. But his re-enlistment and appointment were under a cloud.

(The writer, a retired Major General, was Commander, IPKF South, Sri Lanka, and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff. The views expressed are personal)

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