Maoist Nepal to end Gurkha tradition
VOL. 05,NO. 14,January 27, 2012 (Magh 13, 2068)
By Dhruba Adhikary
KATHMANDU - People who want to quickly write an epitaph of the Gurkha legacy contend that it's a scar on the country's sovereign and independent status.
To them, the tradition that began in 1815 is an example of a great anomaly, and must be put to an end in the "new", post-monarchy Nepal.
Their views are reflected in a report adopted - unanimously - recently by an all-party parliamentary committee that is dominated by Maoist legislators.
This has attracted considerable media attention, with many newspaper articles and radio/television talk shows concluding that
Nepal should cease to be seen as a country that exports "mercenaries".
"Gurkha recruitment gave the youth a small opportunity for employment ... but has not always allowed the country to hold its head high," said the committee report. It also referred to the "losses" Nepal endures when these young men are encouraged to become citizens of other countries.
The allusion primarily is to Britain, which maintains a brigade of Gurkhas, and India, which has a far bigger contingent of Gorkhas - as called in that country - in its national army.
Coincidentally, the parliamentary report became public at a time when the chief of the British Defense Staff, General David Richards, was on a visit to Nepal. His official itinerary included a trip to the tourist town of Pokhara, where he participated, on January 4, in the "attestation parade" that marked the formal induction of 176 male recruits into the British army.
"This allegiance ceremony, incidentally, is conducted with full acknowledgment of the fact that those who have decided to join the British army are citizens of Nepal," said Colonel Andrew Mills, defense attache at the British Embassy, in an interview with Asia Times Online. He concurrently holds the post of the head of the British Gurkhas Nepal.
Currently, the strength of Gurkhas in the British army is about 3,800. However, Britain announced on Wednesday that it would axe 400 of these jobs as part of defense cuts.
This number is to diminish further in coming years in view of the reductions proposed for the United Kingdom's army. India, whose yearly recruitment ranges between 2,500 and 3,000 men, presently maintains 39 battalions in seven Gorkha regiments numbering more than 30,000 men - in their prime of youth. (Neither the UK nor India has yet begun recruiting women at soldier's level.)
The first recruitment of Nepalis as Gurkhas started in 1815, immediately after Nepal's war with British India in which Nepal lost one-third of its territory. A peace treaty ended the war, and the British made arrangements with the rulers of Nepal under which they could recruit offspring of those whose bravery had impressed them on the battlefield.
About 200,000 Gurkhas fought for Britain in World War I and World War II and more than 45,000 have died in British uniform. "They have a reputation for ferocity and bravery and are known for their distinctive curved Kukri knives," Agence France-Presse reported.
At the time of India's independence in 1947, Nepal, the UK and India entered into a tripartite agreement allowing India and the UK to "maintain the Gurkha connection" with soldiers recruited from Nepal.
Even if Nepal was under autocratic rule, the prime minister of the day, Padma Shumsher Rana, approved the proposal only if his young subjects would not be "looked upon as distinctly mercenary".
The United Kingdom, which has over 25,000 Gurkha pensioners, spends 87 million sterling pounds (US$134 million) every year to pay for pensions and gratuities.
This figure alone works out to be 4% of Nepal's gross domestic product. In addition to this, there are other welfare activities funded by the British government money.
India annually remits 12 billion Indian rupees (US$238.8 million) for pensioners and war widows domiciled in Nepal. "Yes, it is a staggering task to look after people numbering over 124,000," explained Colonel Ajay Pasbola, defense attache at the Embassy of India in Kathmandu.
In an interview given to Asia Times Online, he said he had to regularly visit districts where welfare works were carried out, and which were areas for future recruits. "But sentiments are far more important than numbers," he said, alluding to the unique relationship that exists between India and Nepal.
Some of the Gurkhas in the UK have risen to the post of colonel. In India, promotion prospects for Gorkhas are even wider, one of them has already become a three-star general (lieutenant general). And the Indian army maintains a close, professional relationship with the Nepal army that regularly receives training and tertiary facilities.
They even have the reciprocal custom of giving honorary general's rank to army chiefs of the two countries.
The Gurkhas are deployable in any part of the world where the UK has military assignments. Afghanistan is one of them. That the Gurkhas enjoy an enviable level of trust and respect in Britain is demonstrated by the responsibility they recently were given to protect Prince Harry, third in line to the British throne. English football star Wayne Rooney is also reported to have hired a Gurkha to guard his mansion near Manchester, where he plays for Manchester United.
Similarly, the Gorkhas in India have been sent to places like Sri Lanka and Kashmir, where they confront Pakistanis. In 1962, Gorkhas were the part of the Indian army that fought a battle with China. This has often been a cause of embarrassment to Nepal, as China and Pakistan are not Nepal's enemies.
A similar situation arose when the Gurkhas had to face Argentina over the Falklands crisis in the 1980s.
The tripartite agreement of 1947 and a 1962 memorandum of understanding between Nepal and the UK restrains Nepal from taking any decision unilaterally. But Nepal's revolutionary leaders might ignore the provision and "take a bold step to halt foreign militaries from recruiting Nepali men", as suggested by a columnist in The Kathmandu Post newspaper.
What happens if that indeed turns out to be Nepal's official position? Both India and the UK have ready-made alternatives: New Delhi will find recruits from the Gorkhas already domiciled in India, and the British too have already a small community of ex-Gurkhas settled in the UK whose sons could provide replenishments.
"Economic benefits far outweigh the political considerations being mooted, especially in a country in transition," said Professor Lokraj Baral, a seasoned scholar who runs a privately-run think-tank named Nepal Center for Contemporary Studies.
This is just not the right time to raise this kind of issue, nor is the present legislature competent to develop such a position, he argued. (The present legislature is primarily a constituent assembly, elected in 2008 for two years and tasked to write a new constitution for post-monarchy Nepal; its extended tenure goes until the end of May this year.)
Most of the committee members are aware of the resentment of the people who have seen such recruitment as a source of employment. "Since this issue is related to the country's sovereignty, we need to be very sensitive," Suresh Ale Magar, a Maoist member in the committee, told this correspondent.
"All we want is that the halt should not be a sudden one; it should be done gradually and after we have developed alternatives."
How soon can such alternatives be available to the growing number of young men and women who are compelled to look for low-paying menial jobs in countries in the Gulf region and in Malaysia?
In the opinion of Gore Bahadur Khapangi, 68, who once served as a minister in the erstwhile regime of king Gyandra, Nepal is far from reaching a phase of reasonable prosperity.
"Presently, the Gurkhas are like a grafted plant in the British and Indian armies," he said, "which cannot be easily separated without inflicting damage to the seasoned plant."
Khapangi's father was a British Gurkha soldier before the political map of South Asia changed in 1947.
British ambassador John Tucknott finds Maoist leader Ale Magar's assessment realistic as it said "after" alternatives were provided. "Whether this happens in our lifetime is another matter."
Dhruba Adhikary is a Kathmandu-based journalist.