Nepal has the dubious distinction of being a nation that has existed in peace for over a century, but whose citizens have girdled the globe fighting in the two Great Wars of the twentieth century, and in virtually every military confrontation to which either India or Britain has been party.
Indeed, it is the Gurkhas’ service in foreign armies for more than 170 years on which the Gurkha legend was born. But what lie behind the “stuff” of legend are men and women with lives and circumstances rooted in the Nepali hills. For hundreds and thousands of these hill people, the tenure in foreign armies was and remains the chief means to a livelihood and, often, a better life. It has provided generations of youth prestige in their own societies and exposure to the outside world.
Today, four decades after Nepal supposedly stepped into the modern age, the largest single employer of Nepalis (not counting His Majesty’s Government) remains, anomolously, the Indian military. Remittances by Nepalis serving in the Indian and British armed forces probably ranks among the fourth largest sources of the country’s foreign currency earnings, and definitely account for the biggest infusion of cash into the economy of the hinterland.
Who the Gurkhas are, and how they came to be, is a tale situated at a historical crossroad where the political economy of nations and Empire intersects with the lives of peasants, kings, nobles and colonisers. A Nepali saying, “Lahara tanda pahara gat-fine,” (Tug a vine and start a landslide) might aptly describe any attempt to delve into the Gurkhas’ story. But it is a vine worth pulling, for the quaking hillside will reverberate with deep and unadorned truths about the people and society of Nepal. And out of an understanding of the past will come the confidence to tackle a future that is increasingly uncertain and could include the eclipse of the Gurkha as we know him today.
GORKHALIS TO GURKHAS
In 1743, Gorkha was a mini-state in the central hills of present-day Nepal. The people of Gorkha, subjects of Hindu Shah Kings were collectively known as “Gorkhali”. Gorkha was composed of a racial and ethnic make-up typical of the medieval hill-states—Bahun. Chetri, Damai, Gurung, Kami, Khas, Magar, Sarki, Thakuri, among others. The Army of the King of Gorkha — with natives of the territory of Gorkha as the predominant recruits — became known as the Gorkhali Army within and outside of Gorkha.
From Kathmandu Valley, which they took over in 1769, the Gorkhalis launched a series of military campaigns to the east, north, south and west. In the process, the Gorkhali Army expanded both in numbers and in regional and ethnic coverage. By 1814, the Gorkhali Army (by then controlling territory from the Tista to the Sutlej) was no longer a fighting force composed of men from Gorkha. Through the slow process of conquest, and social and political osmosis, the Gorkha Army was eventually permeated by disparate “non-Gorkhali” recruits. Any hillman who fought on the side of the Kathmandu-based Gorkhali regime automatically became a Gorkhali. Originally, political allegiance, not race, was the primary consideration in the making of a Gorkhali.
The transition from “Gorkhali” to “Gurkhas”— a designation destined to evolve a life of its own — entailed more than a linguistic mishap, although, at the hands of the British, it was also surely that. In March 1816, after a series of fateful battles between Nepal and the East-India Company, Kathmandu signed the Treaty of Sugauli. For Nepal, what began in the late eighteenth century as a bid to annex the eastern and western portions of the lower Himalayas ended in lost territory and an enforced pact of “perpetual peace and friendship” with British India.
The Gorkhali State had been halted in its expansionist tracks, but there remained other impediments to British colonial expansion in the Sub-continent. In the east Nagas. Abors and Manipuris were a constant threat while in the north and north-west Sikhs, Pathans, Mashuds and Afghans were fully capable of putting up a stiff resistance to the British. The Marathas in the west, too, were militarily ambitious. Poised as they were to dominate a greater part of the Subcontinent, the British felt an acute shortage of cheap and reliable military manpower with which to undertake the work of conquest.
General David Ochterlony, as he prepared to engage the legendary Gorkha General Amar Singh Thapa, was already looking ahead to the future value of Gorkhalis in British uniform. Even before the Anglo-Nepal War ended, he recommended to his superiors that Gorkhali soldiers be recruited to the British side. The “Capitulation Act of 1815” signed by Amar Singh Thapa after his defeat in Malaun included the following clause:
“All the troops in the service of Nepal, with the exception of those granted to the personal honour of the Kajees Ummer Sing and Ranjur Sing, will be at liberty to enter into the services of the British Government, if agreeable to themselves and the British Government choose to accept their services…”
In early 1815 the first three “Gurkha” regiments were constituted from among the defeated and disbanded Gorkhali Army of Amar Singh Thapa; 1st King George V Own Gurkha Rifles (the Nasiri and later Malaun Regiment), 2nd King Edward VII Own Goorkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles), and the 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles. (Gurkha Rifles = “GR”).
All three regiments consisted mainly of men from Kumaon and Garhwal — regions not only remote from Gorkha, but outside the present borders of Nepal. In the course of raising the “Gurkha” Regiments, it seemed to matter little to the British where their soldiers came from just as long as they were from the Himalayan midhills and belonged to vaguely defined groups of “martial races”.
The transition from “Gorkhali” to “Gurkhas”was, thus, irreversibly set into motion by Nepal’s defeat in the Anglo-Nepali War (1814-1816). In its essence, the transition entailed the large-scale migration of peasant-soldiers from the patronage of the now greatly incapacitated Gorkhali military-machine to that of the regionally ascendant Imperial Indian Army. The Gorkhali expansion had ended, but the process of re-directing the momentum of Nepali peasant-warriors to the task of Empire-building was only beginning.
PLOWMEN TO RIFLEMEN
It was not only their soldiering skill, nor any mercenary zeal, that brought Nepali hillmen by the thousands to the recruiting centers of the East India Company. Rather, it was the slow decline of the Nepali economy, which, by the end of the eighteenth century had rendered large sections of the population in the interior destitute.
In the early 1800s, Nepali society was strictly divided into two groups – the tagadhari (eg, Bahun, Chetri, Thakuri) and matwali (eg, Gurung, Limbu, Magar) castes. The ritually “pure” Hindus condemned alcohol-drinking and wore the “sacred thread”. The latter were ranked low in the orthodox Hindu hierarchy. The original Gorkhali Army was closed to Bahuns and the “untouchable” castes. Thus, Prithivi Narayan Shah’s Army in 1745 consisted largely of Chetris, Thakuris, Magars and Gurungs.
A major source of employment and subsistence for the gradually expanding population of the hills had been the business of conquest undertaken by the Nepali State. That came to a halt in 1816 with the Treaty of Sugauli. With no scope for territorial expansion, and available resources distributed through highly unequal feudal arrangements, the ranks of those without subsistence swelled. The effect of this process was especially potent among the Tibeto-Burman population.
Meanwhile, the consequences of a Nepali military obliged to abandon its expansionist designs further marginalised the matwali community. An Army that had bred soldiers was gradually transformed into an Army that bred patrons and clients: tagadhari patrons began to prefer soldiers that were of their own kind. At all levels, Kathmandu’s fighting force became the monopoly of nineteenth century Nepali elites. This was equally true of what little civil employment there was in the country, as well as of privileges associated with land-ownership.
The majority of people in the mid-hills were, and are, farmers and pastoralists. But land was largely subject control and monopoly, which left the average peasant’s access to year-round subsistence tenuous at best. Universally high rents, obligations to supply free labour and produce to the state when called upon, and a variety of other demands — these were the origins of poverty and agricultural backwardness in the hinterland. These conditions ensured, over time, the need for peasants to pursue full-time soldiering as a means of attaining “subsistence”.
“BEST ASIATIC SOLDIERS”
The British were not the first to cash in on the supply of fighting men from Nepal. The term Lahuray had an established meaning decades before the British raised their first Gurkha battalions. Lahuray —one who goes to or returns from Lahore — was the name assigned to any hill-man who sought his fortunes in the armies of states to the west of Nepal. One such Army was that of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Punjab. Other kings and chiefs in the Western Provinces also employed Gorkhalis. When the famous Gorkhali commander Balabhadra Kunwar was defeated near Debra Dun in 1815, he and a handful of soldiers enlisted in the Sikh Army. Under the British, however, lahuray recruitment was to reach staggering proportions.
Why did the British place such tremendous value upon the fighting abilities of Nepal’s hill peasants at a time when the plainsmen of all India were available within their Indian domain? Certainly, there was the first-hand experience with Gorkhali gallantry. But, other regional powers – Bihar, Oudh, Punjab, Kashmir – also had illustrious martial traditions.
The decision to opt for cheap and effective Nepali military manpower was governed by three related considerations. To begin with, the fighting ability and physical endurance of Nepali peasants were, for the British, a matter of demonstrated truth. Second, until recently an enemy, Nepal had become a “friendly” nation with whom no future wars were likely. Third, with many regional native powers still intact, recruitment within India was fraught with strategic risks.
There were many things that the British wished to acquire in India. But from Nepal they sought only “peace and friendship” — and a steady supply of Gurkha soldiers; more than likely, the former as a means to clinch the latter. This, was clear in the 1922 statement by British Under Secretary of State, Sir Arthur Hirtzel: “It is, after all, mainly because of the Gurkha element in the Army that we value the friendship of Nepal.”
Between 1815 and 1856, the British made no effort to raise new Gurkha regiments in addition to the three already in existence. These were deployed in many regional confrontations in the first half of the 1800s. The Sirmoor battalion (2GR) was the first Gurkha unit to fight under the British, in the Pindari War of 1817. The same battalion later served in the Maratha Warof 1817-1818. The Sirmoor and Nasiri (1GR) battalions took part in the battle for “Bhurtpore” in 1825-1826. The Sirmoor and Nasiri battalions also saw action in the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-46), when Gurkhas in the Indian Army faced several battalions of Gurkhas-fighting on the side of the Sikhs.
But if there was one single factor that tilted the scales in favour of retaining the Gurkhas as an integral part of the Imperial Indian Army, it was their role in quelling the Indian Mutiny of 1857. In May of that year, the Sirmoor battalion marched south from Dehra Dun to take part in the “siege of Delhi”. Still unsure of Gurkha loyalty, British officers had clandestinely instructed artillery units to fire upon the Sirmoor soldiers “at the slightest sign of mutiny”. But the Sirmoor fought on the British side and in the course of battle lost 200 men, out of a starting force of490. The fight the Gurkhas unleashed in Delhi between June and September 1857 made military history; and the message was not lost on the British.
During the Mutiny, the State of Nepal itself officially sided with the British. Fourteen thousand Nepali troops under the command of Prime Minister Jang Bahadur Rana retook for the British the besieged areas of Oudh, displaying a degree of mercenary fervor.
THE GLOBAL WARRIOR
The British needed no further proof that the poor, willing and hardy hill peasant of Nepal was without equal. Also, without parallel was the State of Nepal itself, whose observance of the Sugauli Treaty was fastidious. Between the Gurkha soldiers (“the best Asiatic infantrymen”) and the State of Nepal, Britain had stumbled upon the most lucrative military.
When, in 1850, Viceroy Dalhousie had recommended expanding the Gurkha Brigades beyond the three regiments, his advice had been rejected. In the heat of the 1857 Mutiny, however, two whole new regiments were raised – the 4th Gurkha Rifles (Pithoragarh) and the 5th Gurkha Rifles (Abbotabad, in present-day Pakistan). In the decades following the Mutiny, Gurkha soldiers were actively deployed in the North-East and North-West of British India, and their role in the two Afghan Wars (1878, 1919) was decisive. Between 1860 and 1900, different Gurkha battalions saw action in Waziristan (1860, 1900), Malaya (1875), Afghanistan (1878), Cyprus (1878), Burma (1885) and China (1900). All this during an era when Hindu travel customs prohibited the crossing of kalapani (“black waters”, oceans and open seas).
Because the Gurkhas were being recruited without formal authority from the Kathmandu rulers, it came in the way of systematic military planning. Five Gurkha Regiments. existed in 1880, raised mostly by relying on recruits smuggled out of Nepal by serving or retired Gurkhas. The “British-friendly” Rana regime in Nepal continued to stall over British requests for official recruiting permission, mainly because the British competed with the Nepali Army for the service of Magar and Gurung soldiers.
The British, taking matters into their own hands, set about creating large Gurkha settlements in the hills and valleys outside Nepal. Gurkha soldiers were encouraged to settle with their families in these “hill stations” — Shillong, Darjeeling, Dehra Dun, Dharmasala, and so on. The hope was that in-migration and a steady population expansion would avert strategic dependence on Nepal. In practice, these “soldier farms” did not meet the demographic expectations. Also, curiously, sons of Gurkha soldiers born in the Army settlements (“line boys”) were never preferred over raw peasant-recruits from the hills, despite (or, as some argue, because of) their superior education. The bias in favour of the raw hill recruit continues to the present day, both in the British and Indian brigades.
The recruitment scenario changed in 1885 when Bir Shumsher became Prime Minister of Nepal. Partly to Fortify his new regime, Bir Shumsher permitted recruitment into the Indian Army on an unprecedented scale. In return, Nepali rulers tacitly urged the British to lift restrictions on arms imports into Nepal. Till then. Nepal had relied on smuggled arms just as the British had on smuggled soldiers. What followed can only be described as an “arms for soldiers” deal. The first formal Gurkha recruitment depot was established in Gorakhpur in 1886. and a year later four new Gurkha battalions were raised and more were in the making. At about the same time, Nepali rulers began to receive official consignments of the newest European rifles at duty-free prices.
A tentative agreement was reached between Bit Shumsher and the British Viceroy in Calcutta in 1893 sanctioning the ongoing “exchange”. On the strength of this deal, Viceroy Landsdowne, referring to the Nepali Army’s preference for Magars and Gurungs, felt qualified to offer Bir Shumsher the following advice – “…avoid poaching on our preserves.” Whether or not Nepal was a “soldier farm”, British perception, evidently, had already made her out to be one.
Although there were many other forms of employment opening up in British India at the time (plantations, timber, construction, railways, and so on), Nepali rulers and the British collaborated formally and informally to close non-military employment to the so called “martial races” of Nepal. To an extent, this explains why the Magars, Gurungs, Rais and Limbus remained predominant in the Indian and British forces.
However, the concept of “martial race” was a social rather than a racial category. For example, the Tamangs of Central Nepal, racially akin to the Gurungs in the West, living under identical natural and environmental conditions, cannot be any less “tough” than the Gurungs. Even though the Tamang population is higher than that of the Gurungs, however, their numbers in foreign Armies has always been disproportionately low.
The fact of the matter was that Nepali rulers preferred to retain their “monopoly” over Tamangs, who lived close to Kathmandu Valley. The Tamangs were used as semi-captive labourers for everything from portering to soldiering, mining, and construction. Their bondage to the state and Kathmandu elite was often formalised through an arrangement known at the time as rakam. To date, the proportion of Tamangs in the foreign Armies is small, while their relative strength in the Nepali police and army is significant.
THE WORLD WARS
As the hills of Nepal rang out with word of ready employment and high pay in the army to the south, the number of Gurkha battalions increased to 16 by 1904. The maximum peace-time strength of ten Gurkha Regiments (20 battalions) was reached in 1908. Between 1910 and 1917 there was another massive recruitment drive in preparation for World War I. Chandra Shumsher, Bir Shumshere’s long-reigning successor, personally campaigned to convince hill peasants to enlist in the Imperial Indian Army. From 26,000 in 1914, the number went up to 200,000 within a couple of years.
In the course of the World War I, virtually any willing and minimally fit youth from Nepal was enlisted via one of the seven depots operating along the southern border. Gurkhas fought the bayonet and trench battles of World War I in France, Belgium, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Iran, Palestine, Greece and Soviet Central Asia (See map, “The Gurkha’s World”). When the War ended, two Nepalis had won the coveted Victoria Cross. On the other hand, 20,000 had lost their lives, and an unknown number were wounded or disabled. For his support, Chandra Shumshere was decorated by the British like no other Prime Minister of Nepal was or would be. For a country not even directly involved in the War, Nepal suffered per capita the highest casualties among the troops of all the countries fighting. In 1915, Nepal’s population was no more than 53 million and the impact of the War was devastating in the hill villages. As Francis Tuker wrote:
“The War was over and Nepal…had bared herself to the bone to send her men to Britain’s aid. In the fields were only the women, the children and the old men: her youth had flowed out along the mountain ways into depots in India and away over the wide seas.”
In recognition of the service rendered by her people and her rulers, Nepal was granted an annual “subsidy” of Rs. 1,000,000 in perpetuity. But for Nepal, the major political pay-off of the War was the signing of the 1923 Treaty of Friendship with Great Britain in which the British, for the first time, recognised Nepal’s independent and sovereign status.
Nepal’s sovereignty was, thus, no historical accident. Peasant-warriors, under Prithivi Narayan, gave their lives to unify Nepal in the late eighteenth century. Nepal managed to escape being drawn into the political map of British India once again because of the Gorkhali soldiers. Since 1815 and till the early 1920s, enough hill-peasants had laid down their lives in service of the British Empire that the rulers of Nepal could, with justification, demand from the British a fully independent status for their country.
Gurkhas spent most of the period between the two World Wars patrolling the frontiers of India, in particular the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where sporadic resistance to British occupation continued well in to the 1930s. From the Third Afghan War, which began as soon as World War I ended, to the time India was partitioned, Gurkha battalions continuously manned the disputed borders of the NWFP.
World War II exacted an even heavier demographic toll from Nepal than World War I. The existing 20 battalions of Gurkhas were increased to 51. Every kind and quality of male labour that Nepal offered was absorbed into the War effort. When offered, the British did not refuse the services of Nepali convicts. They were used in the Bearer Corps during most of the War.
In all, 250,000 Gurkhas were engaged in World War IT. Nepali hill-men fought in North Africa, Italy, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Indian North-East. The Gurkhas almost singlehandedly checked the Japanese advance in Burma. Ten soldiers were conferred the Victoria Cross. Gurkhas suffered more than 10,000 dead, and 23,655 wounded or disabled. The annual subsidy to Nepal was raised to Rs. 2,000,000. Juddha Shumsher, Prime Minister during the War years, was also liberally decorated with British medals.
By late 1945, the war over, Gurkhas poured back into the subcontinent from war stations all over. Retired and discharged Gurkhas returned to Nepal in large numbers, causing an immediate glut of foreign money and unemployment. Two years later, India became independent. Rana rule in Nepal had withered away by 1951. The Gurkhas, however, were to survive not only the two World Wars, but also the perils of political change in South Asia.
F:etween 1945 and 1947 Gurkhas witnessed a different kind of war raging closer to home – the Indian freedom movement and its aftermath. But this was not a military war and, unlike during the Mutiny, the British made scant effort to use Gurkhas against the freedom movement Gurkhas became the keepers of peace as the violent throes of Partition gripped India. Millions of Hindus and Muslims were on the move to geographic destinations separated by a sea of carnage. In this dark period of Indian history, the Gurkhas were among the handful of units in the Indian Army that carried out orders with impartiality.
Amidst the confusion of Independence and Partition, the future of the Gurkha Brigade was being secretly negotiated between Indian politicians and the departing British, who were keen on retaining as many Gurkhas as possible in their own British Army. The Indians were reluctant to allow this, and evidence suggests that Jawaharlal Nehru conceded only when Lord Mountbatten threatened to retain the Andaman and Nicobar Islands if the Gurkhas were not released to the British. In August 1947, it was revealed that the first two battalions of the 2nd, 6th, 7th and 10th Gurkha Rifles would go to Britain while the rest (19 battalions) would remain in India. Without altering the basic Regimental numbering scheme (1GR – 10GR), Gurkhas now began to serve under two non-Nepali flags, those of Independent India and Britain.
The only formal agreement between Nepal, India and Britain regarding the Gurkhas is the Tripartite Agreement signed in Kathmandu on 9 November 1947. It permits India and Britain to employ Nepali citizens in their respective Armies; to maintain recruiting depots in the region; to reserve the right to increase or decrease the number of Gurkha battalions; to determine (between India and Britain) a mutually agreeable scale of remuneration.
Many details of the Agreement like the terms and !imitations governing the use of Gurkhas, the status and amount of “subsidy” paid to Nepal since 1920, appear in annexes which are not available to the public. It is widely known, however. that the Annexes contain the following provisions: 1) Nepal must be “informed” about the future use of the Gurkhas, 2) Gurkhas are not to be used against other Gurkhas, 3) Gurkhas are not to be used against “Hindus”, unarmed civilians and against popular movements. The third clause has been violated by both India and Britain.
On the insistence of India, the pay-scale of Gurkha troops, Indian and British, was pegged to the prevailing Indian Army rates. Accordingly, the basic salary of a soldier was fixed for both Armies at Indian Rupees 350.00 ($40.00). The British, wishing to pay their Gurkhas higher rates, later devised a system, of “allowances” over and above the basic salary. Because of this arrangement, a British Gurkha earns several times more than a Indian Gorkha of similar rank.
At the time, the Gurkhas selected to go with the British opted in the last minute to stay with the Indian Army. In order to accommodate the unexpected body of “unattached” Gurkha soldiers, the Indian Army raised the 11th Gurkha Rifles after Independence. No more Gurkha regiments have been established since. The last of the British Gurkhas had left India for Malaya by 1948.
In a space of little more than one hundred and thirty years, the Nepali peasant had traversed the distance from common hill foot-soldier to a global warrior — from serving the kings of an isolated and impoverished Himalayan State to defending a latter-day economic and political colossus — the British Empire.
THE INDIAN BRIGADE
After Independence, the process of “Indianisation” of the Indian Gorkha Brigades, deferred since the 1920s, began in earnest. British officers had long held that Indians could not command the Gurkhas because they would not get the respect of the soldiers. In reality the anti-desi air in Gurkha regiments was a social, racial and strategic distance carefully cultivated by the battalions, rather than a reflection of the Gurkha soldiers’ “dislike” for plainsmen. The myth was dispelled after Independence, when Indian officers successfully took over command of Gurkha battalions from British officers.
Soon after Independence, the Indian Army adopted the name”Gorkha” in place of “Gurkha”. Many other symbolic and organizational changes followed. The underlying logic behind the “Gorkha connection”, however, remained unchanged – the Gorkhas were a cheap, reliable and effective fighting force, as they had been under the Imperial Indian Army. India’s army inherited and continued the Gurkha tradition.
The Gorkhas tasted battle in the Indo-Pakistan frontier immediately after Partition in 1947. They were used again in 1948 to subdue the princely State of Hyderabad. In 1961-1962 a contingent of Gorkhas was sent to the Congo as part of a United Nations peace-keeping force.
India’s war with Pakistan (1965, 1971) and China (1962) occasioned the heaviest use of the Gorkhas. In 1962, soldiers of 9GR faced the very first wave of Chinese attack in Ladakh. The Indian Army’s casualties in this war were heavy, and those of the Gorkha battalions are said to have been particularly high. Because they were deployed in the intense battles along the high frontiers.
The extent of Gorkha involvement in India’s wars with its neighbours and the number of Gorkha war casualties are matters about which little is known, either to the people or the government of Nepal. India maintains characteristic silence. In the Nepali villages, people reconstruct their sense of Sub-continental wars on the basis of accounts of returned veterans, which spoke of high casualties in the Indo-China and Indo-Pak wars. These accounts of veterans have often found their way into the songs of gainays, the travelling minstrels of the hills.
Gorkha battalions continue to be among the preferred military units deployed in India’s land frontiers. In the process, Gorkha battalions serve in some of the highest theatres of operations in the world, including the Siachen Glacier. Recent deployments of Indian Gorkhas include their use against the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka as part of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) as well as a brief interlude in the Maldives.
Today, the total number of Gorkhas of Nepali domicile in the Indian Armed Forces ranges anywhere from 90,000 to 150,000. Educated estimates put the figure at over 100,000, making the Gorkha component of the Indian Army three times as large as the entire Royal Nepali Army. In addition to the seven regular Gorkharegiments (1GR, 3GR, 4GR, 5GR, 8GR, 9GR, 11GR), Gorkhas are employed in the Assam Rifles, Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, Garhwal Regiment, Kumaon Regiment, Naga Regiment, Border Security Force and the Territorial Army. The Central Reserve Po lice and the Bihar Military Police also employ a sizeable number of Gorkhas. Military support units including the Engineer Corps, Signals, Military Transport, and Pioneer Corps, each has its share of Gorkhas.
In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between “Nepali Gorkhas” and “Indian Gorkhas” in the Indian Army. First, millions of Nepali speakers are domiciled in India. A fair share of young men from this diaspora also joins the Indian Army. Second, Nepal’s open borders with India makes it impossible to keep track of population movements. Third, India has no incentive to advertise the actual number of Nepali citizens employed in its military, indeed, from India’s point of view, it would be strategic to downplay the ‘foreign” component in its Army. Finally, Nepal is content not to pursue details about the Indian “Gorkha connection”, for all the political and economic implications involved.
In contrast to the British Army, in the Indian Army today, the term “Gorkha” no longer carries the weight of nationality. It has become a “nation-neutral” term and refers to soldiers who display a diffuse racial and linguistic similarity. Indeed, Nepali soldiers have the option to settle in India upon retirement and, as in the past, many do. Still, the bulk of the Indian Gorkhas remain citizens of Nepal (though there is no saying what percentage), and Nepal will continue to be the chief source of Gorkha recruits in the future.
ON HER MAJESTY’S SERVICE
On 15 August 1947 the British Brigade of Gurkhas consisted of about 10,400 Nepali soldiers serving under four regiments. Among the most strategic decisions made by the departing British was to negotiate the right to retain Gurkhas in their forces. Even in the post-war period, Britain’s need for cheap and effective soldiers was acute. The Empire was collapsing, but for the British it was crucial that it collapse the “right” way. From 1948 to 1970, from Malaya and Borneo to Belize and Cyprus, Gurkhas became the agents through which Britain set out to preserve a post-colonial world from the remains of its Empire.
It was literally from the frying pan into the fire for the Gurkhas that landed in Malaya in early 1948. The countryside was “infested” with rebels and Gurkhas were given the task of counter-insurgency. For 11 years, Gurkhas laboured in the jungles of the Malayan peninsula, tracking and engaging what the British had labeled “communist bandits”. In the end, Malaya did not “go communist”,
With their proven ability in guerilla warfare, in 1962, Gurkhas were subduing Indonesian rebels in Brunei, the oil-rich Sultanate in Borneo. In 1965, they were secretly engaged in fighting Indonesian troops in what was Indonesian territory. The last Gurkha to win the V.C., Rambahadur Limbu, did so in this particular operation.
In the two decades leading up to 1968, the Gurkhas quietly achieved in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia what proved to be an intractable venture for the United States military in Indochina. Certainly, with Gurkhas helping, Britain did not get bogged down in a potential “Vietnam” in Malaya. Indeed, at the time there were perhaps no better jungle warriors than the Gurkhas. No unit in any western Army had operated in tropical jungles more intensively and extensively; the Gurkhas had seen action continuously since the late 1800s.
In 1970 the Brigade of Gurkhas moved its headquarters to Hong Kong, where it has remained since. The strength of the Brigade between 1948 and 1966 stabilised at 14,000. By 1971, however, there were only 7,000 in service. Many British officers complained publicly about the cut-back and Walter Walker, Major General of the Brigade of Gurkhas, was stripped of his rank for championing the Gurkha cause too enthusiastically. The present strength of the Brigade is about 8,000 Gurkhas. However, the British Government on 23 July announced plans to reduce the strength of the Brigade to 2,500 in the next few years (see page 15).
Presently, of the five Gurkha battalions, three are in Hong Kong, one in Brunei, and one in Britain. Hong Kong battalions are mainly employed to provide security and to patrol the borders with mainland China. In 1987 alone, 22,000 illegal immigrants were interdicted. For this service, the Government of Hong Kong foots more than 70 per cent of the annual cost of maintaining the three Gurkha battalions.
One battalion is formally stationed in Brunei through an agreement it has with Britain. Brunei bears the entire running cost of the battalion, provides schools, hospitals and other facilities and in addition pays 1.5 million Pounds annually to the British Government. Brunei also employs roughly 1200 Gurkhas (mainly retired) as private State Guards in addition to the full battalion of British Gurkhas leased from the British. It is widely believed that in the mid-1980s, Nepal refused Brunei permission to lease Gurkha battalions directly from Nepal’s Army.
There are today more than five hundred Gurkhas in the Singapore Police and their recruitment and pension is handled by the Brigade of Gurkhas. Since 1989, Singapore has wanted to lease a Gurkha battalion from the British, but has received no response. The battalion stationed in the United Kingdom participates in exercises in Belize, Falklands and, to some extent, in the NATO countries. There were 300 Gurkhas among the British forces in the Gulf War, but, apparently, they saw no action. The Gurkha Transport Regiment provided drivers for an ambulance unit. The Falklands confrontation (1982) was the most recent war in which the British Gurkhas took active part. The 1st Battalion of the 7th Gurkha Rifles (then stationed in UK) was involved in the recapture of Port Stanley. A great deal of war propaganda accompanied the introduction of Gurkhas into the Falklands which, many claim, did more damage to the enemy morale than the actual fighting. As one British officer pointed out: “When all is said and done, if we can win by reputation, who wants to kill people?” No Gurkhas have been used in Ireland – a policy that Britain has carefully maintained.
In anticipation of the 1997 take-over of Hong Kong by China, Gurkha retention or retrenchment was an issue that recently warranted a series of discussions in the British Parliament. The House of Commons’ Defence Committee seemed to be of the view that there was a need and role for the Gurkhas in the British Army well into the twenty-first century. The Government, however, has taken steps to reduce the strength of the Gurkhas.
Today, 176 years after the first Gurkha battalions were raised in India, the Brigade of Gurkhas is a mirror image of its long time employer, Great Britain — humbled by time, increasingly unable to reproduce itself after its own memory. The Indian Army employs more than ten times the number of Nepali soldiers employed by the British Army.
It seems all too likely that the British Brigade of Gurkhas will ultimately fade away. In fact, a fear among some ex-British Gurkhas in Kathmandu is that any debate about the status of the Gurkhas is likely to provide the British with the excuse not just to reduce, but to close recruitment altogether. That the low costs of maintaining the Gurkhas vis-à-vis British soldiers is reason enough for a cash -strapped Great Britain to retain the Gurkhas seems to have been negated.
In whatever scale the British Gurkhas are maintained, it is the continued recruitment into the Indian Gorkha regiments that will be more significant, not only in terms of employment provided, but in terms of the impact on the hill economy of Nepal, and the geo-political considerations that continuing recruitment would raise.
Given that relations between India and her two largest neighbours are likely to remain bumpy in the near future, and also because India may be fax from lasting internal peace, there is no reason to expect that the Indian military will voluntarily phase out its Gorkha recruitment. In fact, so entrenched and integral a part of the Indian Army are the Gorkhas, it does not seem likely that they will be disbanded in the foreseeable future.
As to the level of recruitment, barring an outbreak of long drawn-out war for which the Indian Army would require new soldiers, it seems unlikely that Nepali State can continue to look to the Gurkhas as a safety valve for its expanding population.
Nepal, after the recent political changes, has yet to review the question of Gurkha recruitment. Until such a time as it does (and perhaps even after), it seems that the relationship forged in the early nineteenth century will remain on the tracks it was placed on in 1947 through the Tripartite Agreement, particularly with India. In the meantime, the Gurkha issue has become openly politicised in Nepal. The leftist parties are the strongest critic of recruitment and they raise the issue periodically. A recent musical play, “Simma”, which played to packed houses in Kathmandu, evoked strong responses from the audience for its emotionally charged messages against recruitment into foreign Armies.
COST AND BENEFIT
Realistically, the future of the lahuray is not likely to be determined merely through the rhetoric of political parties in Nepal. There is no denying that until better alternatives to soldering become available on a large scale within Nepal, its young men will continue to seek to enlist in foreign forces, as long as the avenues remain open. At the moment, Gurkha recruitment offers the only lucrative and prestigious employment to Nepali hillmen, who would otherwise have to seek menial labour in Nepal, India and elsewhere.
At the same time, unlike other kinds of out-of-country employment, military service in foreign armies by citizens carries with it implications that a sovereign democratic country must weigh with great seriousness. For Nepal, the immediate cost of discontinuing recruitment will be economic hardship for communities throughout the hills. The long-term costs of continuing the recruitment are there, though often invisible and hard to calculate. These can range from a chronic shortage of labour in agriculture and industry in Nepal to the constant potential for international embarrassment when either India or the United Kingdom goes to war.
One thing, however, remains certain. The long period of recruitment into foreign Armies has left indelible and contradictory impressions upon Nepalis. For over a century, the hills hummed with the bustle of lahurays coming and going. An entire economy, folklore and lifestyle evolved around the men in green uniform, For large sections, foreign army service was the primary means available to break a cycle of extreme poverty and indebtedness. It was a route to individual escape from conditions that oppressed individuals. The lingering irony is that the oppression of individuals, in new and old forms, is still the rule in the mid-hills even after hundreds of thousands have made their individual “escapes”.
Pahari is a sociologist doing research at the University of Wisconsin in the United States.