Since the Gurkha safety valve cannot operate indefinitely, it would be wise to start planning for the day when it will close. The announced reduction of British Gurkha down to two battalions is a warning.
Gurkha recruitment has allowed successive Kathmandu regimes over the last two centuries to evade the challenges of developing the national economy. With the best and the brightest of the mountain people finding easy escape into Gurkha regiments and their high volume remittances helping maintain the economy of the hills, there has been little incentive to push hard for developing the Nepali heartland.
The sun has long set on the British Empire, and it is waning on the British Brigade of Gurkhas. Thankfully, the rumblings thus far have emanated from London and not New Delhi, whose military and pare-military forces employ more than ten times the number of Nepalis than the 8,000 presently with the British Gurkhas. But it is entirely possible that India might, for economic, strategic or internal political reasons, decide one day to reduce, or eliminate altogether, the enlistment of Nepalis from Nepal into its military and pars-military forces.
Opposition to Gurkha enlistment has come traditionally from either the members of the Kathmandu elite who consider it a cause of national shame, or leftists who perceive recruitment as a neocolonial arrangement, strange bedfellows though they make. Their criticism is harsh and often unsympathetic to what has been a source of lucrative employment for ethnic groups of the mid-hills.
While it is easy to make resounding calls for closing the “Gorkha bharti kendra”, it would be more responsible to make contingency plans for such an eventuality. A government which has been relying entirely on the welfare schemes and pension offices of the Indian and British armies must plan for the day when the soldiers come marching home — to unemployment.
The Gurkhas, long known for their integrity, courage, loyalty and diligence, can be expected to be eminently marketable. The government could begin by commissioning a study of global job prospects for future Gurkhas. The possibilities range from bilateral agreements to send Nepali soldiers as defence personnel, to an organised “market promotion” of new roles for Gurkha soldiers as personal bodyguards, industrial police, banking security, and so on.
Besides, since Nepal has in the past been willing to facedown international embarrassment when Gurkhas fought for India or Great Britain, why now hesitate to send soldiers to serve in the defence forces of, say Belize or the Bahamas, where the diplomatic fallout would be negligible? Examples of gainful employment for Gurkhas which also seems politically acceptable to the Nepali State are the service of the 500 or so Nepalis in the Singapore Police, and the Gurkha Reserve Unit, an elite paramilitary unit of retired soldiers on the payroll of the Sultan of Brunei.
Earlier this year, Papua New Guinea expressed an interest in recruiting 1,000 former Gurkhas, to be increased to 5,000 eventually, to train its proposed National Guard. But the PNG Government seems stumped for funds to carry this out, and recently decided to abandon the plan. Several years ago, PNG was interested in recruiting Gurkhas for its police in order to curb the rampant lawlessness and violence in its capital but that plan, too, failed to materialise.
Many Middle Eastern states are already hiring Nepali security personnel provided by private contractors. In recent years, ex-servicemen have found ready employment as industry workers and security guards in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. However, these jobs are relatively low-paying and without security. For the large number of Nepalis who work abroad informally, government-to-government contracts might ensure better terms.
According to Shyam Bhurlel, a historian who has done extensive research on the Gurkhas, in whatever capacity Gurkhas serve in the future, the Nepali Government must take an interest in their pay, post-retirement employment, pension and other benefits.
Some who are engaged in supplying manpower to the Arab states say that the security-related market will be quickly saturated. If so, it is necessary for the Nepal to start training its manpower to target the higher-level labour market. The “labour contractors” say that there is demand internationally for Nepalis trained in heavy equipment and machine tool operation, specialised construction, electrical assembly, and so on. There are possibilities for lucrative employment in the decades ahead not only in the Arab, countries, but in Japan, Taiwan and the newly industrialised economies (NICs) of South-East Asia. If government-to-government agreements made Nepali manpower available with the guarantee of service and return, it is entirely likely the “Gurkhas” would figure high on the list of sought employees.
A less likely, though far more attractive, role for future Gurkhas would be service in a permanent United Nations peace-keeping force. Having served in . various United Nations theatres, including the continuing role in UNIFIL in Lebanon, the Royal Nepali Army has proven that the soldier of Nepal are the ideal for a “Blue-Helmet” army under the world body.
With the thaw in East-West relations and a shift in favour of collective security, the United Nations has emerged as a powerful body. As more and more military confrontations are placed before the United Nations for resolution, the Security Council and General Assembly might well decide to maintain a peace-keeping force permanently on stand-by. Mana Ranjan Josse, who recently served as a Nepali diplomat in the United Nations, says Nepal should join together with other like-minded nations and pursue the idea of a permanent peace-keeping force.
“Disbandment (of the British Gurkhas) would be a knock for Nepal’s economy,” wrote the Economist in an editorial two years ago, referring to a possible break-up of the British Brigade of Gurkhas. “It would be a shame in a wider way. The world still needs these fierce and loyal fighting ,men… The UN now has a better chance of being a proper peace-keeper…(It)could therefore use a small, permanent force of willing fighters. A force of 5,000 or so Gurkhas, professionals to the khukuris in their fingertips, would do just the job.”
L. Shrestha is reporter for the Rising Nepal.