Nepal’s foreign ministry earlier this month warned its citizens against joining militaries of countries with which Kathmandu does not have agreements, highlighting the potential dangers these men may face there.

Despite a long history of being enrolled into the Indian military, the hiring of Nepal-domiciled Gorkhas has now been hurt by India’s new Agnipath short-term recruitment policy for its armed forces, observers say. Amid the stalemate between Kathmandu and New Delhi over Agnipath, Nepali Gorkhas are reportedly exploring opportunities in other armies.

Observers have varying interpretations about what their joining foreign armies means for India, but they agree that China is unlikely to be able to take advantage of this situation.

Gorkhas and Agnipath

Gorkhas began to be recruited into the British East India Company’s forces under the 1816 Sugauli Treaty with Nepal. By the time India became independent in 1947, the British Indian Army in the subcontinent had 10 Gorkha regiments.

At that point, the United Kingdom, Nepal and India struck a deal under which six of those regiments would join the Indian Army and the rest would remain with the British. India eventually raised one more Gorkha regiment.

Before Agnipath was introduced, India recruited around 1,400 Nepal-domiciled Gorkhas every year based on this 1947 tripartite agreement. Indian Gorkha regiments had approximately 35,000 Nepali citizens as of 2015.

However, the Agnipath policy has hit recruitment of Nepal-domiciled Gorkhas by the Indian military. Under Agnipath, 75% of the recruits below the officer level are being hired for only a four-year period. This denies them permanent tenures, and makes them ineligible for pension and other benefits such as healthcare that were previously available. As Indian and Nepali recruits are treated equally, these changes impact Nepali aspirants too.

Agnipath’s terms have made joining the Indian military unattractive for Nepal-domiciled Gorkha aspirants, say some military observers such as Ashok Mehta, a retired lieutenant general in the Indian Army. “The terms of being an Agniveer are unattractive to them,” Mehta told Scroll. “Nepal is known for long-term recruitment.”

Mehta, who was a member of India’s 5th Gorkha Rifles regiment, added, “Indian recruits may be accommodated in paramilitary forces after completing their four-year service. But this arrangement is not equal as [Nepali Gorkhas] aren’t being extended this opportunity.”

Tim Gurung, a Nepali writer who previously served in the British military, concurred. “If Gorkhas are sent home only after four years of service, it’ll ruin their livelihood, as it’s useless for them,” Gurung told Scroll. “They would be still too young with no job or future at hand.”

The Memorial to the Brigade of Gurkhas in London, United Kingdom. Credit: Nachiket Deuskar/Scroll
The Memorial to the Brigade of Gurkhas in London, United Kingdom. Credit: Nachiket Deuskar/Scroll

Meanwhile, arguing that the 1947 agreement does not have provisions for policies such as Agnipath, the Nepali government reportedly wants India to review it. It has suspended Nepali Gorkhas’ recruitment by India in the interim.

Some of Nepal’s political parties, including the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), that have historically opposed Nepali youth joining foreign militaries, are finding it difficult to negotiate recruitment under Agnipath due to their domestic political considerations.

As a result, the matter has hit a diplomatic deadlock and no Nepal-domiciled Gorkhas have been recruited by India since June 2022 – when the Agnipath recruitment policy was introduced.

Exploring other opportunities?

This may be among the factors leading Nepal-domiciled Gorkhas to look for other avenues, say observers such as Binoj Basnyat, a retired major general in the Nepal Army. “Going to the Indian Army was an option for the Nepali youth earlier,” Basnyat said. “With that option gone, they’re going where there’s an opportunity.”

In recent months, several Nepali youth have reportedly joined the Russian military and also the Russian state-backed mercenary force, the Wagner Group. Similarly, some Nepalis have reportedly joined the Ukrainian resistance fighting the Russian military.

In May, a report suggested that China may also seek the Nepali government’s approval to enlist Gorkhas into the People’s Liberation Army. However, some have disputed such reports. An unidentified senior Nepali government official told The Kathmandu Post that there has not been any such proposal from China so far.

In June, open-source intelligence platform Bellingcat geolocated footage of several Nepali-speaking soldiers training in a Russian military camp. The scale of such recruitments is unclear. But some claim that the number of Nepali citizens joining the Russian military is in the hundreds.

Earlier this month, Nepal’s foreign minister cautioned against this trend. “Everyone is requested not to go for security-related work in war-torn countries on the basis of false information,” the ministry said in a statement.

This trend has been fuelled by unemployment and poverty, Basnyat said. “The youth is vulnerable because of the domestic situation and are therefore joining foreign armies,” he said. Nepal’s unemployment rate in the working age group was 11% in 2022, data visualisation platform Statista showed.

While Mehta concurred that Agnipath is a factor, he highlighted that the easier access to Russian citizenship also contributes to this trend. In May, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree easing norms for citizenship for foreign nationals who sign a one-year contract with the Russian military. In addition, Russian language proficiency is reportedly no longer necessary for foreign recruits.

What it means for India

What does the phenomenon of Nepali Gorkhas reportedly joining foreign militaries mean for neighbouring India? Observers have varying interpretations.

Basnyat said that India should be concerned by Nepali citizens joining armies of countries with whom Nepal has no such agreements. “As these soldiers return [to Nepal], their skills can be used by other actors,” Basnyat told Scroll.

However, Rishi Gupta, a Nepal researcher at the Asia Society, and Gurung argued that India had little to worry about for now. “The number is still insignificant at the moment,” Gurung told Scroll.

Mehta said that the current situation may lead to the eventual “winding down” of India’s Gorkha regiments. “It’s possible that [India’s] Gorkha brigade will disintegrate in the future as people comprising them will retire over time,” he argued. “This is because Nepal provides a bulk of the Gorkhas.”

Recruits to the Indian Army's Gorkha regiments train at Sabathu in Himachal Pradesh. Credit: Dipak Kumar/Reuters
Recruits to the Indian Army's Gorkha regiments train at Sabathu in Himachal Pradesh. Credit: Dipak Kumar/Reuters

‘Possibility almost zero’

Some observers contend that Nepali citizens joining the Chinese military may pose security problems for India. India and China are locked in a military standoff and are vying for geopolitical influence in South Asia.

The Opposition has also attacked the Indian government on this. “There are disturbing reports that China is seeking to recruit Gurkhas, exploiting the vacuum created by Agnipath,” Congress leader Jairam Ramesh alleged in a tweet on June 27. “In its misguided and unilateral attempts at ‘reform’, the Modi government is once again destroying political, cultural and social capital built over decades and endangering our national security.”

However, Mehta and Basnyat argued that Nepali citizens will not be allowed to join the Chinese military. “The Nepali government won’t allow this as politicians will be aware of the [negative] diplomatic implications,” Basnyat argued. “And, the Nepali citizens themselves won’t go there [join the PLA].”

Mehta, an advisor to the Gorkha Memorial Trust, Kathmandu, pointed out that China is recruiting Tibetan soldiers in Tibet. “There’s nothing better for the PLA than Nepalese joining them,” Mehta said. “The Nepalese have used this as a lobbying leverage with India. But, the Nepalese government won’t allow this as it knows its red lines.”

Gupta and Gurung concurred. “The possibility of this happening is almost zero to none,” Gurung predicted.

Said Gupta: “The Nepali government would never want its people to join the PLA and then fight against their people in case of a faceoff. If anyone in their capacity is willing to join PLA, it’ll cause a diplomatic stir in Nepal-China relations.”