The NSA Ajit Doval has not been able to figure out how to script a National Security Strategy, which he was tasked for in 2019. But Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar has already secured an extension (more to follow?) despite the debacle in Eastern Ladakh by losing control of some 1,000 sq km territory to China. Surprisingly, not many noticed that Ajay achieved this feat by simply copy pasting what China and some others are doing without examining what the implications are.

Over the last few years, China downsized the PLA by retrenching 3,00,000 troops as part of the military reforms. So the Indian Army has been told to cut down its strength by 2,00,000. It does not matter that China still wields the world’s largest military numbering 2.8 million – twice the size of the US military. More significantly, only Taiwan and India are in China’s crosshairs and Taiwan is 1/16th the size of Ukraine.

China suffered during the Galwan Clash because PLA soldiers are recruited for short tenures. Despite the CDS General Bipin Rawat pointing this out, the Agnipath system was thrust down the military; even the Army had proposed a limited experiment with 100 officers and 1,000 soldiers. Copycatting short tenures in American and Israeli militaries also helped Ajay, with the media in tow – who could question him what constraints these countries have? The fact that Agnipath would weaken the military’s combat potential, particularly the army at the cutting edge, was ignored. After all, “Ajay” means “invincible” and he must keep India’s neighbours “happy”, no matter what their intentions are.

The manner in which Agnipath was propagated left no doubt it is a political campaign. But then isn’t the military the only organization bleeding the nation? And, with Pakistan’s terror war “contained” and Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai being revived, this necessary evil (read military) needs skinning down to the bone. Ajay looked amused behind his poker face as Defence Minister Rajnath Singh presided over the mega launch of Agnipath. Doval preached separately advantages of Agnipath and targeted the Army’s regimental system but exposing he had little idea what the regimental system is all about.   

But Nepal has seen through the game of India’s Agnipath. Narayan Khadka, Foreign Minister of Nepal, has asked India to suspend recruiting Nepalese youth as Agniveers till all political parties of the country reach a consensus about India’s Agnipath scheme. According to Nepali media, Khadka summoned Naveen Srivastava, India’s ambassador to Nepal and told him to postpone the plan to recruit Nepali youth, who are drafted into the Indian Army’s Gorkha regiment, under the Agnipath scheme.

Nepal is naturally worried with Nepali youth relieved after 4-years in the Indian Army flooding Nepal with incomplete military skills but trained in handling assault rifles. The Indian government cannot afford to tell them they ‘could’ be employed as guards by the ruling political party or the favoured corporate for guarding respective enterprises or tasks like airport security. It would also be difficult to tell Nepal, some of them could be inducted into the ITBP to face China in the first tier of defence along the 3,488 km long Line of Actual Control (LAC). India can also not give an assurance that all Nepalese youth would be allowed to serve ‘full’ tenure in the military or “all” of them will be given a second job.

Agnipath being the only avenue of recruitment now, a two-star veteran-scholar assesses that assuming 1,000 soldiers from our Gorkha Regiments collectively go out annually and intake of Agniveer (selection after 4-years) is about 200, combat-ready Gorkha soldiers will reduce by about 800 every year; since  Agniveers in their 4-years tenure cannot really be combat-ready. That’s roughly one Gorkha Regiment battalion worth reduced every year.

Given the India Government’s stubborn stance and having made Agnipath a prestige issue, in all probability Ajay the invincible will pass instructions to the Army through his honchos in the Directorate of Military Affairs that if the Nepali youth don’t want to join as Agniveers, don’t recruit them – we have enough unemployment anyway. However, this will not only affect India-Nepal relations but also weaken the close bond between the Indian Army and the Nepalese Army. The Indian Army’s recruiting establishment in Nepal will be ordered to shut down.

Why would Nepali youth not look for regular service elsewhere? Why would China not recruit them with reports over the past two years of PLA recruiting Tibetan and Nepali youth? Why would Chinese intelligence not recruit them for settling down in border areas and elsewhere, like in Nepal’s Terai region bordering India? Are we so dumb to overlook Chinese plans in Bhutan and India including in Ladakh, the Siliguri Corridor and our northeast?

All this is advantageous for China all the way. In our case, the fence has started eating the crop and little is happening beyond discussing freebies, toppling state governments and retaining power,

The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.

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