A Re­la­tion­ship of Trust

The Nepalese Gurkhas have been serv­ing in the Bri­tish Army for more than two cen­turies.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Muham­mad Omar Iftikhar

The Gurkhas are the in­dige­nous in­hab­i­tants of Nepal’s western and east­ern re­gions. Although they have been serv­ing in the Bri­tish Army for more than two cen­turies, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity still refers to them as ‘mer­ce­nar­ies’ in­stead of reg­u­lar sol­diers. They meet all the re­quire­ments of Ar­ti­cle 47 of Pro­to­col I of the Geneva Conventions, re­gard­ing coun­tries and mil­i­taries hir­ing mer­ce­nar­ies in the mil­i­tary. This gives the Gurkhas a mil­i­tary sta­tus sim­i­lar to that of the French For­eign Le­gion, which was es­tab­lished in 1831 and com­prised for­eign na­tion­als.

The Gurkha sol­diers be­long to the area of Nepal that was known as the King­dom of Gurkha un­til the 1930s when it be­came a part of Nepal. The term ‘ Gurkha’ is de­rived from the Hindu war­rior and saint, Guru Go­rakhnath, who lived in the 8th Cen­tury.

The his­tory of the Gurkha-Bri­tish Army re­la­tion­ship dates back to the Gurkha War of 1814 when the East In­dia Com­pany fought against Nepal’s Gurkha King­dom. Fol­low­ing the war, which lasted for two years, the East In­dia Com­pany signed the Treaty of Su­gauli, giv­ing the Bri­tish Army the right to re­cruit Gurkha men on a con­tract ba­sis. By 1815, there were al­most five thou­sand Gurkhas serv­ing in the Bri­tish Army. The Bri­tish still main­tain a Gurkha mil­i­tary bat­tal­ion.

The Gurkhas won the trust of the Bri­tish dur­ing the In­dian mutiny of

1857. For nearly three months, Gurkha sol­diers held Raja Hindu Rao’s house, which had a strate­gic po­si­tion for the Bri­tish Army. The Gurkhas later fought for the Bri­tish Army in the Pin­da­ree war (1817), Bharat­pur (1826), and the first and sec­ond An­glo-Sikh Wars (1846 and 1848). Although their term

of con­tract ended in 1857, the Bri­tish were highly im­pressed by their fight­ing style and de­cided to make them a per­ma­nent part of the Bri­tish In­dian Army dur­ing the In­dian Re­bel­lion of 1857.

The Gurkhas also ren­dered ser­vices in the World War I and

fought along­side the Bri­tish in Afghanistan, In­dia, Burma, Pales­tine, Per­sia, Egypt, and France. Un­til the early 1900s, there were 20 Gurkha bat­tal­ions in the Bri­tish Army. Nearly 200,000 Gurkha sol­diers took part in the World War I.

At the time of par­ti­tion, Gurkha reg­i­ments were split into two. One merged with the Bri­tish Army and the other with the In­dian mil­i­tary. This di­vi­sion oc­curred as per the Tri­par­tite Agree­ment, with the Bri­tish Army keep­ing four reg­i­ments and the In­dian Army kept six. The de­ci­sion to merge some Gurkha sol­diers with the In­dian Army was taken in view of the com­mon cul­tural and re­gional fea­tures be­tween Nepal and In­dia.

Apart from serv­ing the Bri­tish Army, the Gurkhas are now also serv­ing the Sin­ga­pore Po­lice Force as the Gurkha Con­tin­gent. Sin­ga­pore

hired Nepalese of­fi­cers to re­place the Sikh force that was serv­ing in the coun­try be­fore the Sec­ond World War. Sim­i­larly, the Gurkha Re­serve Unit, com­pris­ing 2,000 of­fi­cers, is serv­ing in the Sultanate of Brunei. This is a sec­ond-ca­reer job for those re­tired Gurkha of­fi­cers who have for­merly worked for the Bri­tish Army or the Sin­ga­porean Po­lice. Gurkha sol­diers also served in Afghanistan as part of the Royal Gurkha Ri­fles and played a key role fight­ing for the Bri­tish troops, which are part of the In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity As­sis­tance Force (ISAF).

Each year, nearly 28,000 to 30,000 Gurkha youth con­tend for 200 po­si­tions in the Bri­tish Army although the num­ber of Gurkha men ap­ply­ing for the posts seems to have slowed down fol­low­ing the 2007 abo­li­tion of the monar­chy in Nepal. While the for­mer king sup­ported the in­volve­ment

of the Gurkhas in the Bri­tish Army, the Com­mu­nist Party of Nepal (Maoist) be­lieves that the re­cruit­ment of Nepali Gurkhas as mer­ce­nar­ies is harm­ing the im­age of Nepal and its peo­ple.

The qual­i­fi­ca­tion process in the Bri­tish Army is con­sid­ered one of the most strin­gent as the hope­fuls must be able to do 75 bench jumps in a minute and 70 sit-ups in two min­utes. They also take part in an ex­er­cise called Doko, in which they have to cover a five-kilome­ter steep hill in 55 min­utes while car­ry­ing a bag of rocks weigh­ing 25 kilo­grams.

A few years ago, the Gurkhas who re­turned to Nepal af­ter serv­ing in the Bri­tish Army ap­pealed to the U.K. gov­ern­ment for the same post-re­tire­ment ben­e­fits as those of the Bri­tish sol­diers. The Bri­tish gov­ern­ment, there­fore, in­creased pen­sion of sol­diers who re­tired af­ter 1997 from £95 to £450 per month. Un­for­tu­nately, the liv­ing vet­eran Gurkha sol­diers who served dur­ing the Sec­ond World War didn’t re­ceive any in­cre­ment and are liv­ing on a mea­ger £6 a month that they get from the Gurkha Wel­fare Char­ity.

The re­tired Gurkhas also asked the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment to grant them per­mis­sion to live in the U.K. but their ap­peal was re­jected on two grounds. One, that Nepal is not a mem­ber of the Com­mon­wealth and two, the Gurkhas were never sub­jects of the Bri­tish Crown. More­over, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment be­lieves that per­mit­ting all for­mer Gurkha sol­diers to re­side in the U.K. would in­crease the bur­den on the im­mi­gra­tion ser­vice.

How­ever, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment should take good care of Gurkha men since they served in its mil­i­tary for so many years and ex­pe­ri­enced nu­mer­ous ca­su­al­ties. It is yet to be seen if the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment will keep Gurkha sol­diers in its army or will grad­u­ally de­crease their num­bers.

The writer is a for­mer as­sis­tant edi­tor of SouthAsia mag­a­zine. He writes on re­gional and so­cial is­sues.

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