India’s Military Revamp Is Angering Nepal

A new recruitment system could endanger Gurkha regiments—the “umbilical bond” between the two countries.

By , a freelance radio and print journalist based in India who covers politics, health, and culture.
Armed personnel from the 11th Gorkha Rifles take part in a khukri (or knife) dance as a part of India’s 75th Independence Day celebrations at Gajoldoba Barrage, India, on Aug. 15, 2021.
Armed personnel from the 11th Gorkha Rifles take part in a khukri (or knife) dance as a part of India’s 75th Independence Day celebrations at Gajoldoba Barrage, India, on Aug. 15, 2021.
Armed personnel from the 11th Gorkha Rifles take part in a khukri (or knife) dance as a part of India’s 75th Independence Day celebrations at Gajoldoba Barrage, India, on Aug. 15, 2021. DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP via Getty Images

When India revamped its military recruitment program in June, protests erupted across the country. Under the new system—known as Agnipath, or “path of fire”—a cohort of fresh recruits will serve for four years, after which only the top-performing quarter goes on to a longer military career. The rest will be let go with a lump sum of about $15,000, without the pension or benefits career service members enjoy. Previously, recruits in India served a minimum of 10 years and could stay on as service members thereafter, and they would be eligible for a pension if their service totaled at least 15 years.

Agnipath seeks to lower the average age of the Indian armed forces and reduce government spending without compromising on manpower. But for many, it has rendered a military career, once considered a reliable ticket out of poverty, elusive. In response to the change, angry army aspirants took to the streets, vandalizing public property and sending shockwaves across the country.

The repercussions of Agnipath are also being felt beyond India’s borders, in the tiny Himalayan nation of Nepal. Every year, hundreds of Nepali men join the armies of India—and Britain—in an arrangement dating to the early 19th century. They are called Gurkhas, an umbrella term for Himalayan ethnic groups known for their fighting skill. Today, there are about 30,000 Gurkhas serving in the Indian Army and the total number of veterans of the force exceeds 100,000. The remittances Gurkhas send home have given Nepal an economic cushion during difficult times. Their contribution to Nepal’s GDP is comparable to that of the country’s fishing or transport sectors, at around 3.7 percent in 2015. The salaries and pensions of Gurkhas serving in India alone total more than Nepal’s own defense budget.

When India revamped its military recruitment program in June, protests erupted across the country. Under the new system—known as Agnipath, or “path of fire”—a cohort of fresh recruits will serve for four years, after which only the top-performing quarter goes on to a longer military career. The rest will be let go with a lump sum of about $15,000, without the pension or benefits career service members enjoy. Previously, recruits in India served a minimum of 10 years and could stay on as service members thereafter, and they would be eligible for a pension if their service totaled at least 15 years.

Agnipath seeks to lower the average age of the Indian armed forces and reduce government spending without compromising on manpower. But for many, it has rendered a military career, once considered a reliable ticket out of poverty, elusive. In response to the change, angry army aspirants took to the streets, vandalizing public property and sending shockwaves across the country.

The repercussions of Agnipath are also being felt beyond India’s borders, in the tiny Himalayan nation of Nepal. Every year, hundreds of Nepali men join the armies of India—and Britain—in an arrangement dating to the early 19th century. They are called Gurkhas, an umbrella term for Himalayan ethnic groups known for their fighting skill. Today, there are about 30,000 Gurkhas serving in the Indian Army and the total number of veterans of the force exceeds 100,000. The remittances Gurkhas send home have given Nepal an economic cushion during difficult times. Their contribution to Nepal’s GDP is comparable to that of the country’s fishing or transport sectors, at around 3.7 percent in 2015. The salaries and pensions of Gurkhas serving in India alone total more than Nepal’s own defense budget.

Just as in India, there are now worries in Nepal that most of the 1,400 or so Gurkha recruits who join the Indian Army each year will be shortchanged by Agnipath. “The concern is that these young lads will return in a few years … without the wherewithal of what to do next in their lives,” Nishchal Nath Pandey, director at the Center for South Asian Studies in Kathmandu, wrote in an email to Foreign Policy. “They can go into alcoholism, drugs and even join some sort of insurgency as they will be trained in combat.”

Earlier this month, Nepal’s government said that it would temporarily halt recruitment of Gurkhas to the Indian Army. Nepal holds parliamentary elections in November and its new government will make the final call. Nepal’s reluctance to get on board with India’s new military scheme could be another setback in the already complicated relationship between these two neighbors. It has also resurrected a longstanding debate about whether Nepali citizens should even be fighting for other countries in the first place.


Britain’s recruitment of Gurkhas dates to the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814 to 1816. Impressed by the skills of Nepali fighters, the British East India Company began recruiting Gurkhas to fight alongside its own troops. The first batch of Gurkhas consisted of about 5,000 Nepali men. Economic opportunities within Nepal were limited, and going abroad to earn money was popular.

The Gurkhas proved their loyalty to the Crown in 1857, when they helped suppress a rebellion by Indian soldiers in neighboring British India. In 1886, Nepal and Britain signed a treaty to formalize the recruitment of Nepali youth into 10 Gurkha regiments established by the British Army. By World War I, over 200,000 Gurkhas were enrolled in the British Army. When India gained independence from Britain in 1947, it agreed to a tripartite agreement to share the Gurkha regiments: Six went to India and the remaining four to Britain.

By then, Gurkha regiments had become part of Nepali culture. “Going into foreign armies was thought of as an act of bravery,” said Sanjay Sharma, a doctoral candidate at the National University of Singapore who has studied Gurkha history. Jud Bahadur Gurung, a retired Gurkha who served in the British Army for 33 years, said more than 50 Gurkha majors have hailed from his village since 1886. “It is a source of great pride for Gurkhas to be a soldier,” he wrote in an email to Foreign Policy. Over the years, Gurkhas have been deployed to fight for Britain and India in locations across the world, from the Falkland Islands to Singapore.

But in recent decades, particularly after Nepal’s 2008 transition to democracy, discontent about the Gurkha program has been brewing. Some are angry that a sovereign nation is still sending its youth to fight for others. Communist parties especially have been vocal in their opposition to Gurkha recruitment, calling the tradition humiliating and mercenary. In 2020, for example, Pradeep Gyawali, a communist who was foreign minister at the time, called Gurkha recruitment “a legacy of the past” and said the 1947 tripartite agreement has become “redundant.”

Gurung agrees that the tripartite agreement has become irrelevant but said Gurkha recruitment in both India and Britain should continue for economic reasons. Gurung said people in Nepal still aspire to be soldiers. “I had joined the army as I had no other option but if other options are available then this may change,” he wrote.

In the impoverished hilly areas of Nepal, there are few other employment opportunities besides becoming a solider abroad. While Nepal also recruits citizens for its own army, the pay is much lower compared to that offered by India or Britain. Gurkhas in the Indian Army get paid about 2.5 times more than their counterparts in the Nepali Army and have the option to settle in India after their service. In 2007, Gurkhas fighting in British regiments won the right to be paid as much as British soldiers and to settle in the United Kingdom upon retirement. This ruling only applies to those Gurkhas who retired after 1997, however, and older Gurkhas are still campaigning for parity. In 2020, Nepal’s government requested Britain review the 1947 agreement, and last year London announced that it would establish a bilateral committee for Gurkha welfare issues.

Nepal also wants to renegotiate the 1947 tripartite agreement to have a bigger say in Gurkha recruitment. Britain and India control candidate selection for their respective forces, and Nepal has long sought a more active role in the process. A few years ago, Britain announced—without consulting Nepal—that it would open up Gurkha recruitment to Nepali women. And Nepal was not involved in any discussions preceding Agnipath. That has led to Nepal feeling sidelined. “It wants to have a certain grip in controlling migration,” Sharma said.


It is unclear whether the new Nepali government will decide to reject Agnipath and halt the Indian Gurkha program altogether. The issue has been “put on the back burner,” wrote defense analyst Ashok Mehta, as Nepal remains preoccupied with other domestic matters, including a disagreement between its president and the parliament over a citizenship bill. With Nepal delaying its decision on Agnipath, India is mulling redistributing the Gurkha vacancies among other regiments, a move that could imperil the already complicated ties between the two countries.

Relations between India and Nepal are often described as “special” but, in reality, they are more of a “love-hate” relationship, said Sohini Nayak, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in New Delhi. “The relationship is also lopsided. One is a big country geographically and economically while the other is small,” she added. The two countries have cultural, religious, and linguistic commonalities and share an open border. But many disagreements have cropped up in recent years.

In 2015, Nepali communities living along the border with India staged a protest against Nepal’s new constitution, which they considered discriminatory. Madhesis, who share ethnic similarities with their Indian neighbors, accused Nepal’s hill-dwelling elite of discrimination and claimed the new constitution diluted their political representation. Demonstrators blocked a key bridge on the border for months, causing food and fuel shortages that threatened to push Nepal into a humanitarian crisis. Many in Nepal, including its top leaders, accused India—which had raised concerns over the constitution—of supporting the blockade. Then, in 2019, India released a map showing some areas claimed by Nepal within Indian territory, sparking a diplomatic row. Many other disputes have cropped up from time to time, including over water sharing, Nayak said.

India-Nepal ties are also colored by the region’s biggest power: China. Beijing has in recent years been increasing its political and economic involvement in Nepal. Nayak said Nepal is cautious in its interactions with India to avoid upsetting China. Throughout the ups and downs, the Gurkha connection has acted as a stabilizing force and is the “umbilical bond” between India and Nepal, said Harcharanjit Singh Panag, a former Indian Army commander. “Without putting in any effort, India has a huge diplomatic corps in Nepal,” he added.

When India-Nepal relations soured after the 2019 border dispute, it was the Indian Army chief who went to Nepal to break the ice and facilitate diplomatic exchanges between the two countries. Panag says India must protect the unique political clout it has in Nepal through the Gurkhas and not impose Agnipath on them, especially since Nepali soldiers make up only a fraction of the entire Indian armed forces. “There should have been no debate on this issue. India should have made an exception,” he said. “If India really thinks like a great power, it should maintain its special relationship with Nepal.”

Sushmita Pathak is a freelance radio and print journalist based in India who covers politics, health, and culture. Twitter: @sushmitza

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