Gorkha soldiers and Nepal’s changed context

Nepal has not been involved in a war with any country since the one with East India Company and British forces in 1814-16. But for close to two centuries, brave Gorkha soldiers (or Gurkhas as they are known in the British Army) from Nepal have fought numerous wars for others.

But the era of these brave men laying down lives for causes not associated with their motherland could soon come to an end.

As a new Nepal tries to emerge from the rubble of a civil war and demise of the 240-year-old monarchy, Gorkhas serving the British and Indian armies could become a thing of the past.

The Committee for International Relations and Human Rights of Nepal’s parliament recently endorsed a policy paper (‘Nepal’s Foreign Policy in Changed Context’) which besides offering suggestions on foreign policy also seeks an end to soldiers fighting wars under foreign flags.

“Gurkha recruitment gave the youth a small opportunity for employment, but serving foreign military powers has not always allowed the country to hold its head high…Since, ultimately, Gurkha recruitment will have to end, it is necessary to create alternatives,” the paper recommended.

If such a ban on recruitment is indeed put in place, it will end a unique chapter in military history where citizens of one country served in armies of others and fought against enemies with whom they had no enmity.

Recruitment of Gorkhas, first into East India Company and later into British Army, began during the 1814-16 war when impressed with their bravery the East India Company started enlisting them. The first Gorkha regiment, Nausiri Battalion, was formed in 1815.

Gorkhas proved their tenacity in many wars and later became part of British Indian Army when it was formed after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. They served the British during the First and Second World Wars with distinction in many countries and the legend of the Gorkha as the ‘bravest soldier’ and his ‘khukri’ took firm shape.

After India’s independence, both Britain and India decided on retaining services of Gorkha regiments in their armies as per the Tripartite Agreement signed with Nepal. In the past 200 years, Gorkhas have earned battle laurels in over 20 countries for Britain and India during wars and peace-keeping efforts.

At present there are 39 battalions in seven Gorkha regiments of Indian Army. Nearly 30,000 Gorkhas including 120 officers are serving in these regiments. Every year thousands more join these brave men through recruitment drives conducted in Nepal.

Besides those serving, Nepal has 79,000 Indian Army pensioners, 11,000 widows of ex-servicemen and 17,000 retired Assam Rifles personnel. Indian Army pays them over Rs 1,200 crores annually in pension and provides other benefits to their families as well.

Britain’s Brigade of Gurkhas comprise of 3640 men recruited from Nepal. Such is the level of trust enjoyed by them that they were recently entrusted the task of protecting Prince Harry, third in line to the British throne, when he was secretly posted in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

All that tradition could soon fade away as Nepal mulls changes in foreign policy with the intention of holding its head high among as an independent, sovereign republic.

“The elimination of Gurkha recruitment, indeed, is a test of whether the new republic can settle the debate over her semi-colonial status and become a proud member of fully sovereign community of nations,” writes columnist Gyanu Adhikari in The Kathmandu Post.

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