II. Traditional, Economic and Social Aspects that Shall be Considered as Reasons for Serving in the British Army
III. Current Events
‘“What we don't understand is why we have lost around 140 men in the first tranche and now we are losing another 400 when we have just 3,500 but the infantry, which has tens of thousands [of personnel], are only losing 500 across the board”’ (BBC News 2012).
In January 2012 the BBC News reported that the British Ministry of Defense had announced major job cuts in the British Army. According to the chairman of the British Gurkha Welfare Society, Major Tikendra Dal Dewan, these retrenchments were about to affect the Gurkha Brigade the most. During the past decades, the Brigade has repeatedly been faced with several problems of similar kind. The working conditions of the Gurkha soldiers have always been very poor compared to those of their fellow soldiers serving the British Army, which becomes most obvious when looking at the different incomes: a Gurkha soldier earns only around one third of the salary of a British soldier. Furthermore, their pension is by far not as high as the pension of those former soldiers being of British origin. Additionally, once retired, they were not allowed to stay in Great Britain with their families for a long time. Instead, they were sent back to Nepal (BBC News 2012). In the face of all the inequities and disadvantages the Gurkhas have been experiencing over the last decades, the question arises, why the British Army is still able to recruit Gurkha soldiers to such an extend?
The name Gurkha, also Gorkha or Goorkha,
is derived from the Nepali word ‘“Gorkhali”’. […] Gorkha, literally signifying ‘Defender of cows’, means a man of Mongolian ancestry, from the ancient princedom of Gorkha about fifty miles to the west of Kathmandu, whose King, Prithivi Narayan Shah, constituted the Gorkhali army (Rai 2009:1).
Surely, not all Nepalese soldiers had or have Gurkhali ancestors in their families. Nevertheless, the label ‘Gurka’ is uniquely used for all Nepalese soldiers who serve the British Army. Using a certain variety of spellings, the military still continues to label the ethnically diverse group of Nepali soldiers as Gurkha and by doing so manifests the term as a stereotypical designation that was obviously shaped by western imagination (Caplan 1995:11).
For a period of nearly two hundred years, starting with the end of the Anglo- Nepalese War, which lasted from 1814-1816, until today, the Gurkha Brigade has served the British Crown and the former Kingdom of Nepal has thereby turned into one of the bravest allies of the British Empire. The Gurkha War, as it was also called, was originally caused by the idea of vast expansion on both sides. In 1816, when the end of fighting was finally at sight, peace was marked by the Treaty of Sagauli, also spelled ‘Sugauli’, which forced Nepal to counter-sign and surrender part of its territory to the British East India Company (Shrestha). The treaty also “gave permission to establish residency in Kathmandu, and the recruiting of Gurkha volunteers in the army began” (Rana 2008:8). Although it is often stated that the treaty included the approval for the British to recruit soldiers, this right was originally negotiated as a consequence “from a convention agreed with the Nepalese commander in the western region (Amar Singh Thapa) in May 1815, i.e. before the war had ended” (Caplan 1995:19).
During the Anglo-Nepalese War the British “recognized that the Gorkhali soldiers were a great fighting force who if befriended could be a source of strength for the Indian Government and a course of danger if alienated” (Rana 2008:1). Therefore, already during war, small irregular units of Gurkha battalions were raised, which, as Rana declares, by this time were not highly admired by the British.
The recruitment of Gurkhas into the British East India Company Army began on the basis of the idea that Nepal would refrain from invading British territories. Due to the fact that the Nepalese government was not in favor of the recruitment, recruiting agents were sent to Nepal and the procedure was secretly completed (Rana 2008:2). Caplan states that the Nepalese oppositional attitude became obvious during the time of the Bengal Army’s rebellion in 1857, when the former Nepalese Prime Minister Jang Bahadur Rana
viewed the interest of the British in the Gurkhas as a sinister design to denude the country of its fighting population and weaken it. He had strong reasons to suspect that the Gurkhas served the British as suppliers of military and other information which he wanted to keep secret” (Caplan 1995:20).
Convinced by his opinion, the Nepalese Prime Minister enacted laws that forbade the legal emigration of Nepalese without the approval of the government, which was surely not granted to those who wanted to enlist in the British East India Company Army. These restrictions were enlarged by the prohibition for Nepalese families to join their soldier husbands and fathers. Moreover, recruiting agents were threatened with execution. These restrictions also continued to persist after the death of the Nepalese Prime Minister Jang Bahadur Rana, but the British found a way to bribe the Nepalese government with the supply of modern arms, and in return, gained Nepalese recruits in exchange. Moreover, the recruiting conditions improved along with the increasing dependence of the Nepalese government on the British for arms after 1884 (Caplan 1995:20).
By the end of the 19th century, the number of Gurkha recruits in the British Indian Army grew with the result that by the beginning of the 20th century “there were ten Gurkhas Regiments each with two regular battalions” (Caplan 1995:22). After the independence of India in 1947 the Gurkha brigade was split between the new Indian armies and the British Army. Four regiments became part of the British Army whereas the other six remained in India. At that time, Nepal continued to allow the recruitment of Gurkhas into the battalions as they signed a tripartite agreement with India and Britain (Caplan 1995:23). Caplan therefore argues, that “India’s Independence and the division of the regiments marked a turning point in the history of the Brigade” (Caplan 1995:23). Still, it was not until 1966 that the number of Gurkha soldiers in the British Army got sharply reduced to around 7,000. Another change was decided in 1971 when one battalion was stationed in the United Kingdom (Caplan 1995:23).
Caplan furthermore states that a number of soldiers he spoke to
recalled the period of cutbacks as a traumatic time. During this immediate post-war years the Brigade of Gurkhas had made its mark in the British army […]. The Gurkhas were regarded as the experts in jungle warfare, and officers with other regiments looked on secondment to the Brigade as good for their careers in terms of broadening their experience, and of course an opportunity to live for a time outside Europe. […] But with the end of these ‘insurgencies’ in South East Asia, and the dramatic cutbacks in the size of the Brigade, British officers with the Gurkhas began to apprehend that their ‘finest hour’ had passed, indeed, that the very existing of the Gurkhas was at issue (Caplan 1995:23-24).
Over the past decades, the Gurkha Brigade has been faced with increasing doubts about its benefits to the British Army. In British society, on the contrary, a transfigured image about the Gurkha Brigade has evolved due to a certain kind of “romantic appeal” (Caplan 1995: 24), which is further reinforced by the British media.