Loyalty versus Equality

"It's better to die than to be a coward."

"It's better to be clever than dead."

"It's better to die than to be a coward. For what?

For bread? For right? Or for nation?"

These three short slogans mark moments in the long, strange history of imperialism that has joined parts of the globe together in unlikely ways. The first, popularised by British officers of the Gurkhas, is said to be the Gurkhas´ own motto, a concise summation of their bravery and warrior spirit: It´s better to die than to be a coward.

The second is a pragmatic revision of the first, coined a decade ago by an ex-Gurkha to describe foreign military service as a form of long-distance wage labour of men doing their best to survive. The third appeared on a bright red banner outside the Kathmandu City Hall last January during a programme organised by the Gorkha Bhutpurva Sainik Sangh (Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen´s Organization, or GAESO) to promote their campaign for equal treatment for Gurkhas within the British army and redress of past financial and other discrimination.

In 1996, GAESO presented four demands to the prime ministers of Nepal and Great Britain: 1) Pensions for those made "redundant" during reductions of the army and sent home pensionless; 2) Gurkha pensions equal to those of a British soldier of the same rank and length of service; 3) Assistance to establish educational and training institutions for Gurkhas´ children; and 4) Right to work permits in Great Britain after retirement.

While GAESO´s specific demands mainly concern retired Gurkhas, their campaign has important implications for serving Gurkhas, and for Nepal´s international reputation. All their demands refer back to two core principles. First, that Gurkhas clearly be accorded equal status as an integral part of the British Armed Forces (through equal pay, pensions, benefits, etc). Second, that the taint of the mercenary label be removed forever (by making clear the Gurkhas´ equal status as an integral part of the army).

If GAESO is successful, current Gurkhas will serve under conditions of full equality. Whether successful or not, GAESO has already challenged the nation to think about why Nepali and British governments have quietly allowed Gurkhas to be treated as second to their British counterparts, even while their British officers proclaimed them to be second to none.

Are they Mercenaries? The Traffic in Gurkhas

Over the past 182 years, men from the Nepal Himalaya – so often described as "closed" and "unchanging" until the mid-twentieth century – have reached virtually every corner of the world, as Gurkha soldiers of the East India Company, then of the Raj, and still today as members of the Indian and British armies, and the Singapore police. From one political perspective, this history is read as a record of glorious military service and unparalleled loyalty. From another position, it is read as a history of mercenaries, fighting fascism and independence movements with equal enthusiasm, and as a blot on the record of Nepali sovereignty.

Some might wonder why the label ´mercenary´ should be an issue at all for soldiers famous the world over for their exceptional loyalty. Indeed, nothing raises the ire of those who respect the Gurkhas more quickly than the mercenary label. But the idea that Gurkhas are merely hired killers is not a new nor a particularly uncommon one, as evidenced by Nepal´s Rana rulers´ insistence in 1947, when Gurkha service in the British army was being negotiated, that the "stigma of ´mercenary troops´ may for all time be wiped out".

As the legitimate right to muster armed forces became increasingly reserved to nation-states, and military service became tied to citizenship and patriotism, the term ´mercenary´ had, by the 20th century, taken on increasingly ugly connotations. Definitions vary, but all except those that celebrate "soldiers of fortune" understand it to be a damning description. Who has tried to pin the mercenary label on the Gurkhas? And who has tried to deny it? What has been at stake and what´s at stake now?

Jang Bahadur Rana was the first Nepali ruler to assist the British militarily. He did so not by enabling Gurkha recruitment (which was obstructed by Nepali governments before, during, and after his time) but by personally leading Nepali army troops against the so-called "mutineers" at Lucknow in 1857. Meanwhile, Gurkhas in British employ were fighting, by all accounts valiantly, at the "Siege of Delhi". What was the difference? The difference, for Jang Bahadur, was that leading his own nation´s troops in aid of the British showed the strength, sovereignty and independence of Nepal, while accumulating a debt that might be used to advantage later. Allowing his subjects to enlist directly in British service had the opposite implications.

By the late 19th century, Rana resistance to Gurkha recruitment had eased, and during World War I the government even assisted in a massive recruitment drive, often amounting, as historian Prem Uprety has shown, to conscription. But the Ranas´ concern over the effects of Gurkha recruitment for Nepal´s international stature had not lessened, rather it was ameliorated through elaborate diplomacy. The Ranas were constantly garlanded with honorary titles. More substantively, they were granted an annual "gift" of one million Indian rupees after WWI in appreciation of their (i.e. the Gurkhas´) contribution to the war effort. And in a 1923 treaty, the British finally formally acknowledged Nepal´s sovereign status.

The Ranas cared not about whether individual Gurkhas were or were not mercenaries but about whether the bartering of citizens for the Ranas´ own gain (which could well be termed mercenary) would make Nepal look like a subsidiary state, and thus diminish their own prestige as its rulers. These concerns over appearances did not disappear along with Rana rule in 1951. Instead, Gurkhas have been disappeared from national history because, as another historian Pratyoush Onta has shown, their service under foreign flags cannot comfortably be accommodated within the dominant national narrative of unvarnished independence. Successive governments have continued quietly to allow recruitment while being unwilling to bring notice to the practice. It was not until GAESO began its advocacy in 1992 that the conditions under which Gurkhas serve have come to national attention. And it was only on the initiative in 1994 of another ex-Gurkha organisation, the Gurkha Memorial Trust, that Gurkha Victoria Cross recipients were publicly honoured in Nepal.

A different set of claims about Gurkhas as mercenaries, this time in the affirmative, came from Indian nationalists and from Nepali anti-Rana activists resident in British India. Indian nationalists were acutely aware of the utility of Gurkhas as a counterforce against their movements. Nepali nationalists found the whole practice of Gurkha recruitment humiliating to the nation, and a practice that kept parts of the peasantry from clearly reflecting on the oppressive conditions of Rana governance within Nepal. Gurkhas were variously urged to cast their lot with Indian freedom fighters and settle in an independent India, to recognise their "blood brotherhood" with other Hindus, and to atone for their sins in supporting the British in 1857 and massacring civilians in Amritsar in 1919. The mercenary charge was often blunt, even while ultimate blame for Gurkha conduct was directed at the Ranas and the British:

Today the Gurkhas stand like boulders and thorns on the road to Indian independence….The Gurkhas have now become a martial class. All that their mothers have got to do is to bring forth babes to make food for powder in war in defence of the British Government. And such things as patriotism, motherland, culture of human community have no value whatever in the eyes of those babes. The English also know too well that such useful and cheap soldiers cannot be had anywhere else. So they hold the Ranas of Nepal in so much regard and remain fondly attached. (Naya Hindustan, 6 May 1939)

After the end of Rana rule, the left within Nepal continued to criticise Gurkha recruitment as a blot on Nepali sovereignty, especially while Gurkhas fought communists in Malaya in the 1950s and 1960s. Nor have views of Gurkhas as mercenaries been confined to the Subcontinent. Most recently, during the Falklands war the Argentinean press criticised the British for using mercenary troops when they sent Gurkhas into battle.

The British line of defence against such charges follows the wording of an Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. On the basis of that document´s definition, they argue that Gurkhas cannot be called mercenaries because they are not recruited specifically for a particular armed conflict, are not compensated "substantially in excess" of other combatants in the British army, and are "integral members" of the British armed forces. Gurkhas are not side-switchers and in this sense no one could reasonably call them mercenaries. But Gurkhas swear loyalty to foreign powers, and in this sense some will probably continue to call them mercenaries, no matter how the Geneva Conventions define the term, and whether or not they receive equal treatment as GAESO demands, within the British army, or any other armed force in which they serve.

The uncomfortable implications of foreign military service for Nepali sovereignty help to explain why passions often run high when questions about Gurkha service are raised. But to understand why British Gurkhas, whether one considers them mercenaries or loyal soldiers, are not already treated equally to their British counterparts, requires revisiting the long strange history that has brought Nepali men to be departing British Hong Kong for the UK dressed in British military uniforms.

"Good Value for the Money"

GAESO´s demands are forcing reexamination of the curious recruiting arrangements made in 1947 by Britain, Nepal and newly-independent India. It has often been stated that the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli, under which Nepal ceded territory at the end of the Anglo-Nepali war and allowed a British resident in Kathmandu, also granted the British the right to recruit Gurkhas. The Sugauli treaty remains a potent symbol in the politics of sovereignty in Nepal today, as the first in a long series of compromises with foreign powers, but it did not grant the right of recruitment. In fact, recruitment remained a matter, first, of subterfuge (sending serving soldiers back home to slip new recruits across the border) and, later, of elaborate diplomacy right up to 1947.

The question of Gurkhas being incorporated into the British army was raised by the Viceroy, Field Marshal Wavell, in 1945. Wavell, who commanded Gurkha troops during the war, considered them to be "probably among the best soldiers in the world if properly officered and trained". He was joined in his advocacy by Commander-in-Chief of the Indian army, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck. Both men joined a sharp eye for British military interests with a sense of obligation and gratitude to Nepal and the Gurkhas (though Auchinleck pictured them, perhaps prophetically, as becoming a kind of "Foreign Legion" within the British army). But the decision then passed to military strategists in the UK, who had larger strategic concerns on their minds.

In Britain, it was not a foregone conclusion that Gurkhas should be brought into the British army. After much discussion, the War Office determined that Gurkhas might be useful as an imperial garrison force in Southeast Asia. The assessment of the Chiefs of Staff was that a division of troops was necessary "to protect our interests in Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia", and that "it will probably be cheaper to maintain a British/Gurkha Division than a purely British Division". Despite all the soaring rhetoric advanced in public about Gurkha bravery and loyalty, it was this military and economic calculation ("good value for the money," as a British Defence Committee put it in 1989) that governed decisions then and undoubtedly govern them now.

"Expose the Least Surface Possible"

The tri-partite agreement (TPA) eventually signed by Britain, India and Nepal in November 1947 was hammered out as the British hastily quit India, and bears many traces of the unresolved conflicting interests that lay behind it. The ruling Ranas of Nepal, as a matter of national pride and sovereignty, wanted it made clear that Gurkhas were not mercenaries. Therefore, they insisted that Gurkhas be treated on an equal footing with the other soldiers of the armies they served.

But, despite contributing the most important clause on behalf of Gurkha interests, the Ranas let India and Britain work out the details, and signed a very sketchy document. They also allowed to stand a bi-partite agreement between India and Britain that contravened their stipulation of equal treatment for Gurkhas by tying British Gurkha salaries to the Indian army pay code. India had, ironically, inherited the British interest in Gurkhas as an impartial internal military force that might be used to control communal violence, and wanted to keep them in the new Indian army. Britain wanted, above all, to establish an agreement in principle for recruitment, realising that such an odd arrangement would be impossible to establish later. The Gurkhas themselves, as usual, had no representative present as their fate was being determined.

The British strategy was, as one negotiator put it, "to expose the least surface possible". An example will show how they played their cards. British negotiators soon discovered that India´s main objection to British recruitment was the possibility that British Gurkhas would be used to fight against independence movements elsewhere in the Empire. Besides an objection on principle, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru also thought that, since Gurkhas had long been Indian army troops, it could "appear as a continuation of the Imperialist link with India."

The position of the British Government was as follows:

In any given Colonial territory the primary responsibility for internal security rests with the troops raised and maintained by that territory, e.g., in Malaya, the Malay Regiment. Nevertheless, other troops whether British or Gurkha cannot in practice stand aside should the situation become such as to require their assistance and it could not be the policy of His Majesty´s Government to refuse to allow troops to be used in this role. Any restriction on the use of Gurkhas for internal security purposes is therefore wholly unacceptable.

But the negotiators were told to stress that the force in Southeast Asia, of which the Gurkhas would be a part, was to be a "strategic reserve" and to simply state that:

Responsibility for internal security in any Colonial territory under the British Crown lies primarily with the troops raised and maintained by that territory.

When this half-truth did not do the job, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was sent personally to meet with Nehru. There was yet more British subterfuge involved in rushing Montgomery to the scene. The British wanted to keep the Andaman and Nicobar islands for their own military purposes. As the Viceroy explained in a secret telegram of June 1947, in the event of a delay, Nehru "will have discovered proposal to exclude Andamans from India. This latter proposal may well enrage him to point of exercising option given him by Maharaja of Nepal to refuse India´s agreement to use of Gurkha troops by British. Only way to force quick issue on Gurkha question before he discovers about Andamans." By Nehru´s own account, written immediately after the meeting (and unaware of the Andamans scheme), Montgomery assured him that,

These troops [Gurkhas] were not to be used locally and certainly not against any peoples´ movements for freedom. They were not to be used at all, in fact, unless war came. Malaya was a suitable place for them to be stationed; otherwise they had nothing to do with Malaya.

According to British military history, war never did come to Malaya, only a protracted "emergency", but nonetheless Gurkhas were heavily used. According to that same version of events, of course, Gurkhas didn´t fight against a "peoples´ movement for freedom", but rather against "communist insurgents". In any case, Montgomery´s assurance was only a tactic to bring India back into negotiations, and India subsequently failed to ensure that it was written into the recruiting agreement. But there were other assurances written into the 1947 TPA, and GAESO now argues that those agreements have been broken. The most critical passages are the following:

  • "In all matters of promotion, welfare and other facilities the Gurkha troops should be treated on the same footing as the other units in the parent army so that the stigma of ´mercenary troops´ may for all time be wiped out" (Nepalese Suggestions, Annexure III, Section G) [emphasis added]
  • In his letter to the Maharaja of Nepal dated 7th November, the terms of which were acknowledged and confirmed by the Maharaja on the 9th November, Mr. Symon made clear that "subject to the limitations of finance and supply, welfare facilities would be provided for Gurkha troops on similar lines to those provided to British (United Kingdom) troops". In a Tripartite meeting at Katmandu [sic] on the 7th November, attended by Indian representatives and by the Maharaja of Nepal, Mr. Symon emphasized that the United Kingdom Government in no way regarded Gurkha troops as mercenaries, and that they would form an integral and distinguished part of the British Army. (Footnotes to Annexure III, Section H).

However, the Bi-Partite Agreement between the "Government of the Dominion of India" and the UK that was attached to the TPA contains a crucial and contrary stipulation, namely that: "The basic rates of pay admissible to Gurkha Officers and soldiers serving H.M. Government shall approximate to those laid down in the present Indian Pay Code". Although it went on to provide for an additional allowance for overseas service, this stipulation put Gurkhas and British soldiers on a different footing from the very beginning. And because pensions are figured on the basis of basic rates of pay only, Gurkha pensions have remained far lower than those of British soldiers.

A preamble to the TPA stresses that the "whole basis of the arrangement…is mutual goodwill between the Governments of the United Kingdom, India and Nepal" without which British recruitment of Gurkhas "would inevitably be rendered impracticable". In the present dispute over whether Britain has lived up to the terms of this agreement, much may turn on the legal interpretations of "welfare facilities", and "limitations of supply and finance" which appear in the TPA. Whether the bi-partite agreement between India and Britain is binding on Nepal or not (GAESO lawyers argue it is not) will also be important. But however these issues are argued, the Nepali government´s intent, as inscribed in the agreement, was very clear: "In all matters…the Gurkhas should be treated on the same footing". And despite the clever language of the British agreement to this condition ("subject to finance and supply") it seems clear that the British should join GAESO in assessing Gurkha treatment against the "same footing" standard, if not out of genuine concern for their Gurkha troops, then at least for the sake of "mutual goodwill".

"Mind the Gap"

In 1947, as negotiations were getting underway in earnest, there was an announcement in the House of Lords: "We shall see that fair treatment is accorded to these gallant men to the best of our ability." In the negotiations over Gurkhas there has always been an escape clause on the British side: "To the best of our ability", "subject to finance and supply"… But as the British well know, Gurkhas rarely let those who wrong them escape. Former Gurkhas are now saying that the British have not only failed to exert themselves to the best of their ability, but have failed even to meet the legal requirements of the TPA. If the governments of Britain and Nepal do not soon work out revised conditions of service for Gurkhas that satisfy their demands, GAESO is preparing to file a suit in a British court.

What is already clear, looking back to the 1947 negotiations, is that British decision makers had things other than "fair treatment" of Gurkhas on their minds, namely cheap and able soldiers to protect a dwindling empire. Despite considerable individual goodwill in the House of Lords and among the British public again today, there is no reason to think that the situation is substantially different now.

When the doors to a London underground train open, a recorded voice helpfully reminds passengers to "mind the gap" between train and platform. The voice is cheerful, but the message is serious, for a misstep could be lethal. As ex-Gurkhas pick their way through the booby-trapped terrain on which the terms of service of British Gurkhas have been hammered out, there is no concerned British voice to guide them.

During their 50 years of British service, have the Gurkhas been treated "on the same footing" as their British counterparts? They have been paid less. They have received far smaller pensions. Gurkha officer messes have been separate from those of British officers. Their promotional structure differs from that of British soldiers, and very few have reached the higher ranks. They are rented out to the Sultan of Brunei. During "redundancies" Gurkhas have been cut proportionately more than British units. These and other differences look more like signs of a segregated army, or the "Foreign Legion" within the army that Auchinleck envisioned in the 1940´s, than a situation in which Gurkhas are treated on "the same footing" as British nationals.

The "least exposure" principle seems still to be at work. Far from reminding us to "mind the gap", a praise-song of devotion, proud tradition and mutual goodwill was sung publicly, drowning out the pragmatic voices discussing the basic economic and strategic defence considerations that guided British decisions during the latest reduction of the Brigade and its relocation from Hong Kong to the UK. Although public assurances of fair treatment were made as the Brigade was reduced and prepared for transfer, serving Gurkhas did not know the terms under which they would serve in the UK before they were transferred. The Nepal Government appears neither to have been consulted nor to have inquired. Even the British Government´s own House of Commons Defence Committee, charged with assessing the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas after 1997, had a difficult time extracting the information it needed to compare Gurkha and British soldiers´ conditions of service. How much more difficult, then, for ex-Gurkhas who are raising issues that the British military would rather not have examined.

Ayo Gurkhali!

Among the favourite British images of Gurkhas is one of them rushing eagerly into battle, khukuris raised shouting "Ayo Gurkhali!" (The Gurkhas have come!) to strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. Retired Gurkhas are appearing today in new places: at press conferences and in Gurkha Welfare Trust offices asking questions about the disbursement of funds, in meetings all over Nepal discussing among themselves their rights, and exchanging information about their past treatment. They have lawyers at their sides rather than khukuris in their hands. This may not strike fear into anyone´s heart, but they do seem to have annoyed and discomfited some.

The British embassy in Kathmandu felt it necessary to call a press conference to defend British conduct as in accord with the TPA. A high ranking former British officer described GAESO as "self-serving" and a "fringe" group (South China Morning Post, 7 January 1997). The press, in Nepal and abroad, has been very favourable overall to GAESO, but some journalists do suggest that their campaign could result in the end of British recruitment. The Nepal Ex-Servicemen´s Association, which is requesting only a pension increase and not full equity, charges that GAESO is putting serving Gurkhas livelihoods in jeopardy. How representative of former and serving Gurkhas is GAESO? And what are the implications of its campaign for serving Gurkhas?

Ex-Gurkhas are dispersed throughout Nepal and many find it financially necessary to work abroad again after retirement. Thus GAESO´s potential constituency is far-flung, but available evidence points to broad support. GAESO has "Action Committees" in most of the districts of Nepal headed by ex-Gurkhas from across the political spectrum (which contradicts allegations that GAESO is only for United Marxist-Leninist party supporters). Regional meetings around the country over the past year have been attended by hundreds, including elderly and disabled veterans from surrounding villages who went to great effort to attend. A GAESO rally in Kathmandu in March 1997 was attended by an estimated 15,000 people. Support among serving Gurkhas is most difficult to assess since their employers are under criticism. But, off the record, serving soldiers say that the common sentiment in the barracks is: It´s about time!

What about the notion that GAESO´s campaign might result in elimination of Gurkhas from the British army altogether, either by rendering them too expensive, or due to "politicisation" of the Gurkha connection? First, if the British army cannot afford to expend equally for 2900 of its soldiers (the current number of Gurkhas) as for the other 100,000 or so, then it should certainly reduce its forces by that number or more. But if finances alone are at issue, there is no reason those eliminated need be Gurkhas. Second, the Gurkha connection has always been political. GAESO´s activities have simply begun to make it necessary to add Gurkhas´ needs and rights into those political calculations.

If the Gurkha connection is ended it will most likely be because of assessments of military needs in an ever-dwindling British Empire, though if it happens anytime soon, some might try to place blame on GAESO for what would be an unpopular decision. But even if those who suggest that GAESO´s activities might bring the end for British Gurkhas are right, one can ask whether current employment for 2900 should outweigh the needs of thousands who have already given their youth and sometimes their health.

Pay and Pensions: What Price Loyalty?

In February Nicholas Soames, the British Minister of State for Armed Forces, announced to Parliament that married accompanied service will be allowed in the UK, and that, as of July 1997, Gurkha salaries will be brought "broadly into line with that received by British soldiers". This is good news, but remembering to "mind the gap", we should take note of the phrase "broadly into line" and watch to see what that will mean in practice. The British have made much of this announcement as an answer to Gurkhas´ grievances. In its press releases, GAESO too has called this step a victory, and so it is, as an indication that the pressure they are exerting is having an effect. But it is not so great a victory as it appears at first glance.

Married accompanied service will continue to be available at any given time only to 25 percent of serving Gurkhas below commissioned ranks, for a single period of three years during their service. Pay will continue to be pegged to the Indian Pay Code. What has been changed is the amount and the applicability of additional allowances. Prior to the announced change, Gurkha basic pay represented about 10 percent of their total pay, the rest being added in the form of overseas and married accompanied allowances. These criteria for determining additional allowances has been abandoned – all Gurkhas wherever they happen to be stationed, with or without their families, will receive the same additional allowances to bring their salaries "broadly in line" with British ones. But this move does nothing to redress one of the central demands of GAESO, equal pensions.

Pensions are figured on the basis of basic pay only, which the British claim is in keeping with the TPA, though nothing there precludes adding pension allowances, or figuring pensions on the basis of total pay (i.e. base pay plus allowances). Mr Soames´ announcement included no change in the current unequal pension rates applied to Gurkhas. The pension issue is fundamental, for a recognition that the TPA does not prevent payment of a full pension (or indeed, recognition of its more fundamental provision for equal treatment) would result in significant increases to thousands of ex-Gurkhas and perhaps necessitate retrospective compensation as well. The pension issue is also fundamental because it is here that the limits of British understandings of equality for Gurkhas become evident.

A London Times editorial entitled "Home for the Brave" (18 February 1997) reported approvingly on the announced plan to equalise Gurkha and British salaries. But this otherwise sympathetic editorial had the following to say about pensions: "What cannot be entertained is equal pension benefits: Gurkhas retiring will live not in Britain but in Nepal, where the cost of living is far lower." Not only does this show an insulting ignorance about the financial demands faced by ex-Gurkhas. The colonialist arithmetic that lies at the heart of this British "common sense" about pensions should not be missed. If the British military appears to be concerned that ex-Gurkhas might acquire unseemly wealth in comparison to their neighbours, we should ask whether this is a sudden (and very partial) expression of communist sentiment in an unlikely place, or just a familiar old imperialist tactic: acquire them cheaply, and take every advantage of their poverty.

The Times editorial concludes by saying, "Yesterday´s changes are intended to show that the welcome is as warm here as it was in the last garrison of the Empire." But the comment on pensions inadvertently shows that, for Gurkhas, the "last garrison of the Empire" is to be Great Britain itself.

The End of Empire?

Like most military affairs, the story of the Gurkhas is not, when looked at closely, as uniformly glorious as it is often made out to be. Gurkha history includes many feats of bravery and sacrifice. It also includes the infamous Jallianwalla Bagh massacre in 1919, where Gurkhas were among those firing on unarmed Indians on behalf of the British. Gurkha history includes generations of Ranas enriching and empowering themselves by trafficking in the sweat and blood of their countrymen. It includes the British getting and keeping the most advantageous deal they could make for themselves at any given moment in order to acquire troops they have found extremely adaptable to meeting their military needs.

Thus to lay all the blame for the sordid sides of Gurkha history on the shoulders of individual Gurkhas, by condemning them as mercenaries, would be a denial of a much larger collective responsibility, first and foremost that of successive British-Indian, British, Indian and Nepali governments who have, each for their own reasons, happily trafficked in Gurkhas.

Successive Nepali governments have failed to advocate for their citizen-soldiers. As GAESO gatherings have grown large, the political parties have rushed to the scene with words of support. It remains to be seen whether they have simply realised that winning the "Gurkha vote" could mean wider gains in the janajati (ethnic minority) communities from which British Gurkhas are overwhelmingly recruited – a significant consideration in Nepali politics today. If a Nepali government really becomes serious about ensuring equal treatment for Gurkhas, it will terminate the messy agreement of 1947 and develop a new one that clearly implements the principle the Ranas set out, "In all matters…the Gurkha troops should be treated on the same footing".

To do so, however, might well bring under public scrutiny the potentially volatile issue of Nepalis serving in the Indian army (estimated variously at 40,000 to 100,000). While the symbolism of British recruitment is more striking, with its imperial past, in real numbers it now pales beside Indian recruitment. Perceived Indian encroachments on Nepali sovereignty have long been a potent issue in Nepali politics. The Mahakali hydropower treaty, Mechi border dispute, and Indian army deployment in northwestern Nepal make it a flashpoint today, and there may not be a government brave enough to risk adding fuel to that fire in the interest of impoverished ex-British Gurkhas or the few thousand citizens serving in the British army today.

This may also explain why the Indian government has thus far declined to make the obvious statement that a few thousand Nepalis serving in the British army poses no challenge to India´s ability to recruit Nepalis for its own army – and thus that there is absolutely no need today to tie the British Gurkhas´ remuneration to the Indian army pay code. Indeed, despite the fact that Britain says its hands are tied by the bi-partite treaty with India, the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu tells GAESO that this is a matter for the British and Nepali governments to decide.

The eyes of poverty often see the world more clearly than those shielded from its harshest realities and blinded by protective instincts towards private wealth or public power. Many Gurkhas, though they have not had access to all the documents that tell the tale of what has been done and said in their name, have long been critical of the conditions that make foreign military service an opportunity to be grabbed. Former Gurkhas now working to become their own historians, and to develop a comprehensive interpretation of Gurkha history will, in the long run, have to grapple with the contradictions inherent in that history. But for the moment other aspects of the Gurkha past rightly take precedence, those that have created the very difficult living conditions of thousands of retired Gurkhas, and the unequal conditions of service that continue today. An examination of that history leads directly to the doors of government in Britain, Nepal and India.

As GAESO has raised its voice, Gurkha loyalty has come under question by opponents. This is a management strategy familiar to workers the world over who demand improvements in their conditions of labour. The more pertinent question concerns responsibility. In the final analysis, a simple question can be posed to the British military. Having proclaimed far and wide, for over a hundred years, that Gurkhas are among the best infantry soldiers in the world, how can it be just that they have received less rather than more than other British soldiers for their service? GAESO, modestly and generously, is only asking for equality. As has happened many times in the past, Gurkhas are showing their British employers the way to high ground. Let us hope that they follow as willingly as when Gurkhas have led them out of danger on the battlefield.


THE BRITISH first called them 'Goorkhas' or 'Ghoorkhas', and finally 'Gurkhas', the name under which Nepalis have become famous as soldiers the world over. This term was a mispronunciation of 'Gorkha', the central Nepal hill state from where Prithvinarayan Shah, the first king of the current Nepali dynasty, had ventured forth in the mid-18th century to expand his kingdom. The expansion of Gorkha territory did not stop after his death but continued until it reached Sikkim in the east and Kumaon and Garhwal in the west. It was during this expansion that the Gorkhali state came into confrontation with the East India Company, at the end of which Gurkha service under the British began.

But the British were not the first to recruit soldiers from the new Gorkhali state of Prithvinarayan Shah. The term 'lahuray', by which Gurkhas, from both the British and Indian armies, are commonly referred to within Nepal, derives from this earlier history. In the course of the Gorkha Empire's westward expansion, its troops were stopped at Kangra by those of the Sikh leader Ranjit Singh in 1807. Whether defeated soldiers were recruited at that time, as the British would do eight years later, is unknown. But by 1809 there were Nepalis serving as infantry in Ranjit Singh's armies. The term 'lahuray' harks back to this earliest known service in a foreign army, deriving from the name of Ranjit Singh's capital – Lahore.

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