Should Nepalese Be Banned from Joining Foreign Armies?

3353 A brief illustrated history of Britain’s famous Gurkhas

By Hari Prasad Shrestha        9/5/2018

The slogan of barring Nepalese from joining foreign armies seems to be more political agendas to attract people’s attention rather than start dialogue with Britain and India to stop its recruitment.

In line with series of efforts to bar Nepalese in foreign armies, recently a work plan prepared by the left alliance task force formed by the CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Centre (ruling coalition) recommended barring Nepali citizens from joining any foreign army because Nepal as a member of the non-alignment movement should not send its youths to join foreign armies. It states that previous treaties and agreements governing Nepali nationals’ service in foreign armies will be scrapped through the diplomatic channel. In the past too, parliamentary panels had advised the government to stop Nepalis from joining foreign armies. Nepal’s Supreme Court gave a verdict eight years ago that recruitment of Nepali nationals in Singapore Police Force was unlawful, but that order was not executed.

Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, during an assumption of his office, in an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post This Week in Asia said that Nepal is open to review pact over Nepalese soldiers in India. “This should be internally and mutually discussed and corrected, if necessary. We live in a new world, and Nepal is starting a new journey, we have to update whatever is considered outdated and bring it in line with the modern era,” Oli said.

Regarding Mr. Oli’s interview on Nepalese recruitment in India army, Mr. SD Muni, foreign policy expert said “It will affect more Nepal than India, if we do not recruit Nepalese, Indian armed force is not going to poor in term of fighting skills, the problem would be that many Nepalese get jobs here would not be getting, you have no ides remittances which retired Gorkha soldiers get it. Baburam tried when Maoist came to power, they tried to change it, and this is an issue which is continuing since 1994-95 that they want to stop it because it is seen as a sign of subordination. The problem is that it has an economic constraint, let them Nepalese decide it if they do not want their people to fight elsewhere, good enough, if they can provide jobs for them otherwise these people go against them.”

The demand to shut down Gurkha recruitment centers was first made by the Nepali Maoists during the Peoples War, which, in official party statements, termed such recruitment as ‘dishonorable.’ The Maoists joined the UN-administered peace process and won the first Constituency Assembly elections in April 2008. However, the demand to end Gurkha recruitment was quietly dropped.

In December 2012, the Committee for International Relations and Human Rights of Nepal’s parliament had endorsed a policy paper suggesting the ban on Gurkha recruitment. “Gorkha 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,” the committee had stated.

Baburam Bhattarai government’s fresh move to eventually halt the recruitment of Gorkhas in Indian, British and other armies in line with the recommendations of its parliament’s report “Nepal’s Foreign policy in the Changed Context, 2012” was also a smart move to stop Gurkha recruitments.

It is not only the employment of Nepalis in foreign armies that raises issues but also ex-Gurkhas working for private security agencies. There are ex-Gurkhas working as security guards in many countries, including India, Israel, Iraq, and South Africa.

The history has many pieces of evidence that Nepalese have the most significant characteristic of being brave warriors. Former Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw once famously said about Gurkhas: If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha.

At a meeting in 1833, after becoming British resident in Kathmandu, Brian Houghton Hodgson introduced the concept of the martial race. He created a clear distinction between the ‘masculine energy of character and love of enterprise’ of the Tibeto-Burman Khas, Magar, and Gurung tribes and the superstition and lack of loyalty of the Hindus from the Indian plains.

He described how the sipahis, ‘must bathe from head to foot, and make puja. ., must eat nearly naked in the coldest weather, and cannot be in marching trim again in less than three hours . . . see[ing] in foreign service nothing but pollution and peril from unclean men and terrible wizards, goblins, and evil spirits’. The Tibeto-Burmans, on the other hand, are not imbued with such superstitions, and religious traditions and their ‘gallant spirit and unadulterated military habits’ cause them to be branded as ‘by far the best soldier in India.’ British Defense Committee once described the Gurkhas as “good value for the money.”

The Rana dynasty of Nepal allowed Gurkhas to the British to fight in the World Wars in return for personal riches and rewards. The deployment of Nepali nationals in the British and Indian army is still governed by the 1947 Tripartite Agreement, they are known as Gorkha army.

Gorkhas fought in almost all wars from as part of India army against the wars with Pakistan in 1947, 1965 and 1971 and against China in 1962. They have also served in Sri Lanka conducting operations against the Tamil Tigers.

The Gurkha Reserve Unit is a special guard force in the Sultanate of Brunei. The 2,000 strong Gurkha unit is made up of British Army veterans. The unit functioned primarily as a praetorian guard that protected the sultan, the royal family and oil installations.

The British and the Argentineans fought over the Falkland Islands. The conflict began on April 2, 1982, after Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. Britain’s PM Margaret Thatcher sent a task force which resulted in the death of 1,000 people, after which the Falklands (Malvinas) was liberated on June 14, 1982, the British Gurkha army was in the forefront of this war.

There is two types of Nepali speaking (Gorkhas) population in India – one is permanent citizens of India whose numbers are between 10 to 12 million, and another is a citizen of Nepal, non-Indians who serves in Gorkha battalions as well as in temporary household jobs in India. Out of 60000 Gorkha soldiers in India, Nepalese Gorkha makes up almost 70% of the Gorkha Regiment, while “Indian domicile Gorkhas” from places like Dehradun, Darjeeling, and Dharamshala constitute the rest. There are roughly another 20,000 Gorkhas in Indian paramilitary and police forces like Assam Rifles. Although the number of serving Nepalese Gorkhas is quite small to operationally matter for the 1.13-million Indian Army but so far Indian border security is concerned, they play the lead role in Indian Army.

The Gorkha Regiments of the Indian Army are raised partly by recruitment from hill districts of Nepal. Currently, about 42,000 Gorkha Soldiers from Nepal are serving in the Indian Army.

Retired Gorkha Soldiers and civilian pensioners, who had served in the Indian Army and other Central & State Services receive a pension through Military Pension Branch Kathmandu, Pension Paying Offices Pokhara and Dharan, there are 22 District Soldier Boards in Nepal, all functioning under the Defense Wing, Embassy of India. Foundation stone of new Pension Paying Office at Butwal has been laid on 04 Sep 2017. Since 1950, India and Nepal have been awarding Army Chiefs of each other with the honorary rank of General in recognition of the mutual harmonious relationship between two Armies.

During World War I (1914–18), more than 200,000 Gurkhas served in the British Army, suffering approximately 20,000 casualties, and receiving almost 2,000 gallantry awards and during World War II (1939–45), there were 10 Gurkha regiments, with two battalions each making a total of 20 prewar battalions.

Britain has already started to reduce Gurkhas in its army due to advancement in technological warfare and Gurkhas are now supposed to be conventional and traditional fighters. Britain’s “Army 2020” program to restructure and reduce its armed forces has already taken a toll on their numbers, and these may “shrink slightly” from the 2,600-2,700 now serving the crown, which peaked during World War II at more than 100,000.

In Nepal, Gurkhas are also called Lahure. The word Lahure is being used as synonymous to Nepalese who work abroad as a soldier. Lahure became the word to describe those who migrated to Lahore as fighting men and the term has since encompassed others employed abroad in different vocations.

Nepali songs on Lahure have been a part of migrant culture since the 19th century, offering an insight into the lives of Nepali migrant workers. How ‘separation, loss and longing’ have become themes in Nepal, and are ‘reflected in the songs regardless of how gleeful they sound.’ Jhalakman Gandharva: Aamale Sodhlin ni (Mother will ask) – this song is still one of the most popular songs describing the tragedy of Lahures and has a sense of extreme sadness. The words refer to lahures dying in foreign lands, the news of which can take months to reach the families still living in the hills. The ‘happy’ songs portray the lahure as lucky due to his ability to provide a better life for his family, but Gandharva’s emotional ballad focuses on the negative social impacts.

Discussions have again begun in Nepal whether Nepal should allow its citizen to be recruited in foreign armies. People who support it say that the Gurkhas (Gorkhas) have been an integral part of the world warrior history, which is a subject of great dignity and pride for the Nepali people. People who are against it say that recruitment in armies of other countries should be stopped. Fighting on behalf of a foreign country against another friendly nation by Nepali national have no positive implications for Nepal and could be counterproductive in the long run for it.