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