By Ashis Biswas
With Nepal disallowing the Indian Army’s proposal to recruit Gorkhas to join its new Agneepath scheme, India’s uneasy relations with its regional neighbours have surfaced again. Under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, often perceived as being ‘right wing’, India cannot apparently avoid its diplomatic missteps in dealing with its smaller neighbours.
The BJP’s troubles do not begin or end with Pakistan in South Asia. Even friendly Bangladesh complains of being shortchanged by Delhi on the Teesta river water sharing issue. As for Nepal, niggling problems with India have been plaguing bilateral ties since 2015, a year after the first BJP-led NDA Government assumed power in 2014.
Somehow, the BJP led Government is perceived to be throwing its weight around while addressing sensitive regional issues, often unfairly. Bitter feelings in Kathmandu persist about the unfortunate economic blockade, the post 2015 earthquake relief operations, the status of Lipulekh and adjacent areas. Kathmandu’s present reservations about Nepali youths being recruited for the controversial Agneepath scheme is another unfortunate addition to the series of setbacks that do not seem to end.
While Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar has made a decisive impact as a consummate statesman in the international arena, India seems to be faring much worse diplomatically in its own backyard. Delhi policymakers must work harder to counter the general perception of the NDA government as being insensitive to regional sensibilities.
Nepal has just politely rejected India’s offer to recruit Gorkha youths to join its controversial Agneepath scheme. Under the scheme, youths need to undergo military training for four years before 75% of them will be discharged, receiving one time severance pay. There are no post-training benefits/guarantees like pensions, allowances etc. .
The scheme has been widely condemned by the opposition parties and human rights groups in India. They see in it a clever move to engage the bravest of unemployed youth to expose them to great physical risks, but — in true corporate style — not caring minimally about their future. There have been angry protests and high octane media outrage against the idea.. GOI has announced there will be no roll back. Recruitment has begun.
Indian authorities did not convincingly address the main opposition argument backed by Defence analysts: what happens to the discharged 75% of militarily trained youths who will swell the overcrowded ranks of the jobless? It does not require rocket scientists to figure out that such youths may be more prone to resort to mindless violence if their frustrations are not addressed— at what cost to the larger society?
However, with fewer than expected number of youths applying to join, it is doubtful whether the ambitious target of enrolling 46,000 youths will be met.
The NDA government may have felt it was doing Kathmandu a favour by inviting Nepali youths/Gorkhas known for their fighting fervour, to join Agneepath. Not without reason – Nepal is passing through some really hard times. Its troubles began from the massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake, continued through successive waves of covid 19 pandemic, culminating in a disastrous slump in tourism — the country’s biggest revenue earner.
As the worldwide economic downturn continues, Nepal has now been hit by landslides and devastating floods. Unemployment is rife .Prices of fuel have shot up dramatically post Ukraine war .The Sher Bahadur Deuba Government finds it difficult to make ends meet.
Even so, Nepal authorities have ordered a postponement of the proposed recruitment. Nepalese Foreign Minister Mr Narayan Khadka informed the Indian Ambassador Mr Naveen Srivastava that there must be wider consultations among local political parties and others to ensure a unanimous decision on joining Agneepath.
Nepalese media reports suggested that the generally negative reactions and protests in India against the scheme had been taken note of in Kathmandu. The long term social impact of the scheme had not been addressed, it is pointed out.
Analysts also noted that in its present form, Agneepath would violate the terms of the 1947 agreement worked out among the UK, India and Nepal. Its provisions had ensured that Gorkhas could join the Indian army with full benefits at all levels with Indian soldiers including pensions. There are no such guarantees in Agneepath.
Further, Nepal was not really consulted before Delhi made its offer. True, the Indian army had sought Kathmandu’s official response to the proposal to include Nepali youths in the training programme. But Kathmandu was yet to send a formal reply before GOI announced the launch of its drive recently.
Perhaps Indian authorities felt that there would be a three- fold gain for India in securing Nepali participation for the scheme : (a) job opportunities for unemployed Nepali youth would please Nepal; (b) the participation of Gorkhas among Indian armed forces would strengthen India’s defence , if it became necessary to confront Chinese soldiers again in Doklam and other areas in the high Himalayas; and (c) Nepalis joining Agneepath would help blunt the negative campaign of the Indian opposition parties and HR groups against the scheme.
In sum, the record of bilateral diplomacy between Nepal and India has been none too positive since 2015. Extremist Hindu opinion within the BJP was agitated over the changes made in the Nepalese constitution, shedding Nepal’s status as the world’s only ‘Hindu’ country. Violent protests were held by Madhesias (people of Indian origin) in parts of Nepal, tacitly endorsed by Delhi-based Hindu hardliners. The Modi Government suspected Kathmandu of moving closer to China. The communication gap between the governments of India and Nepal continues and now Agneepath issue has been another discomfiture. (IPA Service)