Beyond Agnipath: The Gurkhas as a Martial Race and China’s Position

by Rajyavishek Pradhan - 8 December, 2023, 12:00 3668 Views 0 Comment


This year, The Eurasian Times reported that China is keen on recruiting the Gurkha soldiers of Nepal notwithstanding the continuing hostilities and the heightened tensions with India. There are many speculations that China which has been long-time admirers of the Gurkhas is considering hiring soldiers from Nepal in its People’s Liberation Army (PLA), though it is unclear if Nepal is prepared to make such a bold move.

Under a special 1947 Tripartite Agreement between India, Nepal and the UK, Nepal has permitted its ethnic Gurkha soldiers to serve in the Indian army for decades. However, doubts have been raised over the long-standing tradition of enlisting Gorkha soldiers into the Indian Army as over the last three years there has been no Gurkha recruitment due to India and Nepal’s disagreement over the much debated Agnipath Scheme. In particular, what awaits the Gorkha soldiers and whether the Martial Race Theory is likely to discontinue in the Defence policy-making cycle?

The Martial Race Theory and The Gurkhas

The British colonial practice of classifying certain ethnic groups into a military class known as The Martial Races – and assigning them to that military class has not only shaped the military recruitment policy in India but has also served to highlight the impressive accomplishment of the British Indian Army and the Indian Army post-independence. This unique theory was first developed by the British Colonial Government as a designation by Army Officials in British India following the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 in the Indian subcontinent. It maintained that some races possessed a higher level of military intellect and were capable of bearing arms because of their biological and cultural superiority. As a result, races like the Sikhs, Marathas, Rajputs, Pathans, Dogras, Jats, and Gurkhas were classified as ‘Martial Races’ because they were thought to be intellectually inferior but physically well-built for war, while other racial and ethnic groups were categorized as ‘Non-Martial Races’ due to their customary sedentary lifestyles.

After the events of 1857, The Martial Race theory took on a more formal, regulated, and tangible form. The importance of this theory continues to be sustained even today but bearing in mind a recent military policy that the Indian government has developed, there are questions on the obsoleteness of the theory in the 21st century as well as its effects on one specific Martial Race that has been adversely affected by the introduction of a policy that restricts the Indian Army’s recruitment process.

For over 200 years, Gurkha soldiers from Nepal who are renowned for their bravery, professionalism, and commitment have been enlisted in the British and Indian Army, where they have served with distinction. The Gurkhas were enlisted into the Company’s army in response to its military requirements for territorial consolidation and development. During the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814–1816, the soldiers of the Gurkha army of Nepal were first commended for their resistance to the British and were inducted into the Company’s Indian Army as a direct result of this unwavering praise for their bravery. The incorporation of the Gurkhas into the East India Company’s army centred on the rhetoric and ideology of a martial mindset which was a colonial construct. Mutual agreement served as the foundation for Britain, India and Nepal’s partnership and as a result after India’s independence in 1947, four Gorkha regiments went to Britain and six went to independent India.

Today about 35,000 Gurkha soldiers serve in the Indian Army as India maintains seven Gurkha regiments. However, to modernize the military forces’ retirement and to revamp the recruitment processes, India unveiled the Agnipath programme in June 2022 which calls for the recruitment of young people for four years of military service between the ages of 17 and a half and 21. The program’s merit-based hiring and technology inductions are intended to increase the Indian military’s readiness for combat and were extended to the Gurkhas as well.

In September 2022, Agnipath went into force and the Nepal government responded by barring the recruitment of Nepalese Gurkhas for the Army’s 43-battalion Gorkha Regiment on the grounds of violation of the 1947 agreement. It highlighted that the policy did not include a pension scheme, which did not sit well with Nepalese youth and the Communist government in Nepal as pensions bring remittances and eventually add to Nepal’s GDP which amounts to a worth $620 million.

The Perils of Possible Nexus

One man’s loss is another man’s gain, as the saying goes. Following the decision of the Nepal government, India finds itself on thin ice. Although, no substantial agreements have been reached, for several years China has made it a priority to integrate Gurkhas into its standing army. China’s expanding influence in Nepal can be observed in the country’s numerous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects and for the first time the People’s Liberation Army and the Nepal Army held two joint military exercises in 2017 and 2018 and since 2019, The PLA has agreed to provide financial assistance to the Nepali Army regularly.

As the PLA has expressed interest in enrolling Gurkhas in their regiment, and recruitment of Gurkha soldiers is expected to be a continual effort and the potential integration of the PLA and the Gurkhas can certainly hurt the Indian interest which can lead to geopolitical ramifications. In 2023, the Indian Army is facing a shortage of 10,000 Gurkha soldiers. The security threat that it poses will be a grave mistake on the part of the Indian Government. It raises various concerns about India’s border security. Not only would India lose diplomatic influence, as the Gurkhas have contributed to preserving strong bilateral relations but as a geopolitical implication, India’s relationship with Kathmandu will become even more estranged.

Way Forward

As the fate of Gurkha soldiers remains uncertain in this time of turbulence, the Policy Circle in New Delhi must recognize the tremendous contributions of the Gurkha soldiers over the years. The Indian Defence Circle needs a proper round of consultations to resolve the issue before it can add another problem to its already frosty bilateral ties with Nepal. Even if the Martial Race Theory is coming to a halt with modernization and the path forward, however, to minimize a potential security concern, India must make arrangements with Nepal to enlist Gurkha soldiers and provide adequate compensation and incentives. With the PLA on the horizon, it should be the last thing on India’s mind to distance itself from the Gurkhas and add more barriers to India’s and South Asia’s security.

Rajyavishek Pradhan
Author is an Assistant Professor at North Bengal St. Xavier's College, Rajganj. He has an M.A. in Political Science from the University of North Bengal. His research interests include International Relations Theory, US Foreign Policy, Indo-China Relations, and Defense Studies. His recent works have been published in The Diplomatist, Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE), and Netaji Subhas Open University (NSOU) Journal.

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