Gurkhas of Imagination

Warrior Gentlemen: "Gurkhas" in the Western Imagination

Warrior Gentlemen is not merely an addition to the voluminous literature on the Gurkhas of Nepal (see 'The Gurkha Guide' Himal Jul/Aug 1991). It presents an entirely new perspective that will provoke those attuned to the stereotyped genre. The term 'Western imagination' in the subtitle of the book may invoke Edward Said's Orientalism (London, 1978), but the reference here is entirely to English or British imagination. After all, the Gurkhas have never served under officers other than British (and Indian after 1948). The extensive bibliography the author provides includes 311 published entries, of which, only three are non-English.

Caplan's book is well-researched and organised. The introduction is a review of Gurkha texts and Gurkha involvement in British service. The second chapter relates Gurkhas to their homeland in economic, social, and political context. The third chapter is an interesting description of that particular species of British officers who lead Gurkhas. The next two chapters are essays into the image construction of stereotyped Gurkhas. The concluding chapter attempts to synthesise how the text and colonial power are interlinked to produce the imagined Gurkhas.

To begin, the author relates available literature to the social and cultural settings, from which the officers themselves come. In this discourse, there are only romantic approvers, since the same 'tatterdemalion bands' (Pemble, 1971, p.28) as Nepalese soldiers are transformed into beau ideal soldiers under the British. One of the most distinguishing features of this literature is the strong sense of disciplined continuity. The series of Gurkha handbooks include Buchanan-Hamilton (1819), Hodgson (1833), and Vansittart (1894) and their versions on ethnic qualities. Early Gurkha heroic tales and their loyalty to the British are recounted as sacral mantra. The author discovers that the Gurkha is a creation of military ambience.

Caplan, an anthropologist, explains that Nepal has no category of people referred to as 'Gurkhas,' only certain ethnic groups preferred it in military service. These Mongoloid tribals constitute an overwhelming majority in foreign armies, but in Nepal itself Caucasoid Chhetris predominate. He also clarifies anglophile Jung Bahadur's ambivalent role in restricting Gurkha recruitment by the British. Formal agreement was reached only in 1886, with the accession of Bir Shumshere who sought British support in his power struggle against Jung Bahadur's son.

Gurkha Economy, Gurkha Society

The chapter on 'Gurkhas at home' is of much interest from the Nepalese perspective. Caplan cites anthropological studies and official data on the economic benefits from Gurkha service. On the latter, the officially quoted are some £ 22 million as annual pay and approximately £ 5.6 million as pension. It would be much higher in the case of pay and pension from the Indian army, as Gulmi district alone receives an annual pension of IRs 1.5 crore in Indian currency.

Caplan raises the question of annual subsidy paid by the British for permission to recruit Gurkhas; a subject on which Nepal government has remained silent. According to available information, this amounted to Rs 10 lakh annually since 1919, and Viceroy Wavell raised it to Rs 20 lakh per year in 1945. The last time this amount was transferred from the State Bank of India to the Nepal Rastra Bank was in 1976/77 (B. Lal, Himal 2047, Nepali edition, p. 15). However, some information on the British grant made in recognition of the "service rendered by her people and her rulers during World War I" (see Pahari, Himal, Jul/ Augl991) may be useful here. Part of this grant was used for the construction of Bir Military Hospital in Kathmandu.

This was followed by a grant of IRs 76 lakh after World War II known as the Post-War Reconstruction Fund, initially handled by a joint Nepal-Indian committee, the Central Coordination Board. It is now operated by India, and the Sainik Nivas building at Thamel and the various District Soldiers' Boards are the outcome.

Gurkha remittance has much economic significance, and the increasing pressure for army service suggests the deteriorating economy of the hills. Caplan cites Macfarlane (Resources and Population, 1976) and Des Chene (In Service of Colonialism, 1988) to indicate the past negative attitude to enlistment among Gurungs. In early days, the headman used to assign youths from poor and indebted households as recruits to the gallawala (recruiting agent). Nowadays, the recruiters are bribed by the wealthy to send their sons to the foreign army.

Another important change is in the direction of flow of army income. Once, the only form of cash flow to rural areas, it is now being diverted to urban areas for investment in real estate and new enterprises. As Caplan points out, there has been considerable migration of ex-Gurkhas to Kathmandu, but they have also spawned colonies in Pokhara, Butwal, Chitawan, Dharan and elsewhere.

Caplan touches on the social effect Gurkha service has had on rural Nepal. Although there is no clear evidence of demographic disequilibrium on the fertility level, large-scale male out-migration increased the autonomy of women of the soldiering communities, but also increased their burden. The role of ex-servicemen in spreading education has been noted by several observers. Once illiterate tribal youths, the soldiers exposed to Roman Nepali and the regimental Brahmin chaplain, return home as role models of Nepali speakers and neo-Hindus, along with economic resource.

What has remained problematic is the political implication of Gurkha service. The ex-servicemen have co-existed with traditional elites, or taken over leadership roles according to local circumstances. In the majority of cases, they have emerged as community leaders. At the national level, they are handicapped by the power structure of high-caste dominance, both in politics and administration. The very fact that military service abroad drains the best talent from their community makes them unable to compete for positions of power within Nepal. This long tradition of seeking the external alternative has certainly marginalised them within Nepal.

On the sociology of Gurkha officers, while the chroniclers continue to emphasise peculiarities of Gurkha ethnicities, the Gurkha soldiers are not necessarily concerned with the pedigree of their officers. Caplan, however, enlightens us on their public school heritage and empire model in education. The accounts of hierarchy among Royal and Indian officers, elitism of Gurkha regiments, their corporate identity, and 'muscular Christianity' epitomised in sports, make interesting reading.

Biological Determinism

Some Nepalese were categorised as 'martial races' based on the doctrine of biological determinism. This ethnic classification was based on hearsay, as only a few military officials were permitted to visit Nepal. Despite the close ties of the Rana regime with British India, Nepal had only 153 European (mostly British) visitors during the period 1881-1925 (P. Landon, Nepal, Vol.II, 1928).

Gurkha literature consistently emphasises the utter loyalty of the soldiers to their British officers, and the bond of trust between them. That the handbooks emphasised simple youths from remote parts as ideal recruits, fit well with the pervasive anti-intellectualism of the army. To gain unquestioning allegiance, the Gurkha authors contrasted the colonial subjugation of India with Nepal's spirit of independence. The mystic bond was based on paternal patronage in which the British led and the Nepalese followed. A feature article in The Economist (London) last year, suggested raising a UN peacekeeping force of Gurkhas with British officers. The myth of unique loyalty was exploded by the 'comparatively dour and quicker anger' of an eastern regiment at Honolulu in 1986, however.

Another burden is the blind bravery of Gurkhas that Sir Ralph Turner memorialised as 'bravest of the brave.' Indeed, since the Victoria Cross was instituted in 1856, Gurkha regiments have claimed 26, and half of these were awarded to Gurkhas rather than to their British officers. These include six Magar, four Gurung and one each Limbu, Rai and Tamang.

However, Caplan recounts the fearful memories of ex-servicemen he met in Ilam who equate bahaduri (bravery) with medals and not of the Baynes (No Reward but Honour?) variety. Gurkha courage seems to be related to absolute obedience; and that Gurkhas also experienced fear is clearly presented by P. Onta (Himal, Nov/Dec 1994), referring to the French front during World War I.

The 'miniaturisation' process of Gurkhas that evolved from long association with the British is being replicated in the Indian army. In essence, whatever you call it – Gurkha project or Gurkha syndrome – is an expression of Nepal's dependence. Caplan makes reference to Nepali intellectuals who decry Gurkha service as a vestige of colonialism. They need to consider the exploitation that compels these hill men to fight and die for others. Nepalese elites should have certainly realised that 'foreign is not familiar' as when abroad, they all have had to resort to Mount Everest, Sherpa or Gurkha to locate their Nepalese identity!

This book is about the marginalisation of a group of people at home and abroad. Gurkhas do not have the choice of mercenaries as epitomised in Sir Walter Scott's Quentin Durward. Their supposed juvenility and exoticism are ideological constructions harking back to an imagined time. As analysed by Caplan, Gurkha literature is basically a colonial discourse.

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