Maoist Nepal to end Gurkha
tradition 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
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",
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
"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.
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.)
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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
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.)
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."
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
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