There is misplaced excitement over the 40,000 Agniveers recruited last year, with the first batch reporting to units in August and the second batch by October. They are full of enthusiasm with the rank of Agniveer, while the permanent cadre are Sepoys/Riflemen 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 percent after 4 years. The truth can only be discovered through conversations with their recipients, as I have.
Veterans’ critique of Agniveer has not subsided, but critique fatigue has overtaken. 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. Even unhappier will be the Gorkha commanders by then without the recruitment of an additional 15,000 Nepali-domiciled Gorkhas. This, 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, and converted to Kumaoni and Garhwali battalions. This back-of-the-envelope calculation is based on the assumption that the government is unable or unwilling to persuade the Government of Nepal to relent and accept Agniveer on present terms. With a better package of enhanced service and larger retention (seven years instead of four years of service and 50 percent instead of 25 percent re-enlistment) or total exemption from Agniveer, the prospects of Communists in government and opposition accepting the 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 supposed 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 to soldiering, are equally fascinated by service in foreign countries where they can also be educated and settle 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 the 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. Nepal believes this treaty has been violated by the Agnipath scheme. It is another matter that India unilaterally announced Agnipath without consulting a friendly neighbor, Nepal, with which it claims special and unique relations. Gorkha recruitment is a key factor in the bilateral strategic relationship and has provided an assured pro-India platform in Nepal.
Nepal has not done its calculations 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 an average of INR 6 lakh (excluding MSP, DA allowances) and INR 3.8 lakh per annum respectively, the total outlay and remittance to Nepal per annum is Rs 4500 crore. The average span of service for soldiers is 20 years, and the currency of the pension is 50 years. If there is no recruitment under Agniveer, the entire remittance will stop in the next 70 years (20 + 50 years). If Nepal accepts Agniveer, the overall effect is that Rs 4500 crore will gradually reduce to Rs 1827 crore (40 percent), which will include the pension of Permanent Cadre Agniveer and salaries of Permanent and Temporary Agniveers. The reduction in pay will be very marginal, from the present Rs 1290 crore to Rs 1242 crore with the Agnipath scheme. The reduction in pension, though, will be substantial, at 68 percent (Rs 3146 crore to Rs 585 crore). But this will happen in 70 years – in Nepali, (iota pusht) or in one generation. Remittances are the No 1 earner for the economy, as almost one-third of the Nepali population of 30 million 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 who include a former Army Chief and scores of two and three-star Generals who put their name on various service issue petitions to the 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 own re-enlistment and appointment were under a cloud.