by Hadi Ahmadzadeh
At the beginning of the 19th century the East India Company was establishing its stranglehold on the South Asian subcontinent. They were not the only imperial force in the region however, as Bhimsen Thapa, Prime Minister of the newly founded Gorkha kingdom of Nepal, turned his expansionist gaze to the south after failing to overcome the Sikh forces led by Ranjit Singh in 1809.[i] Both the Sikh and Nepali forces posed a threat to British authority and in 1814 war broke out between the Gorkha Kingdom and the British East India Company due to the hill-men’s invasion of company territory in the south. The memoirs of John Shipp,[ii] alongside the anonymously written ‘Military Sketches of the Goorka War in India’,[iii] have both preserved the close details of the conflict, albeit from a western perspective. Most literature surrounding the confrontation heavily references the close relationship supposedly formed between the two forces alongside the unprecedented bravery of the Gorkha soldiers. A post-war orientalist discourse grouped diverse sections of the Nepali population in to a ‘martial race’, a concept that has been discussed and challenged by Lionel Caplan and John Pemble who claim that the British enforced this martial identity upon the agricultural region. Other aspects of the Gurkha identity that have been constructed over the past 200 years by the west include the reputation of the khukuri, the supposed motto of “it is better to die than be a coward” and the false cultural practices introduced during the training process. The historical misrepresentation of the Gurkhas has been documented successfully by Caplan and Pemble who reveal the Gurkha as a product of British imperialism rather than Nepali heritage. The impact that British military recruitment has had on the Himalayan region will be discussed and presented not solely through the existing critiques of British exploitation, but also through the study of recent interviews with ex-Gurkhas and their families and examples of relevant Nepali folk songs and literature. In this paper, I aim to give as much weight to the Nepali voice, to shine a new light on the background and significance of the Gurkha identity.
The Gurkhas gained their name from the town and district of Gorkha in the western middle hills where Prithvi Narayan Shah was born and from where his unification of Nepal stemmed. Before and throughout the Anglo-Gorkha war, the hill-people were referred to as ‘Gorkhas’ or ‘Goorkhali’ with multiple variations of the spelling but after the war and during the start of recruitment, the British referred to them as ‘Gurkhas’. The title ‘Gorkha’ will be used when referring to pre-1816 Himalayan soldiers and ‘Gurkha’ will be used when referring to those under British employment from that point onwards. Heather Streets has explained how the latter term ‘was more a British construction than a reflection of clear ethnic divisions within Nepal’, revealing the modern-day Gurkha as a product of western imperialism.[iv] A third label, ‘lahuré’, is the term most used by Nepalis; it ‘had an established meaning decades before the British raised their first Gurkha battalions. Lahuré – one who goes to or returns from Lahore – was the name assigned to any hill-man who sought his fortunes in the armies of states to the west of Nepal’.[v] This phrase has evolved in its meaning to encompass all migrant workers and appears in the Nepali folk songs and short stories that are analysed in the final section.
i) Orientalism and the Martial Race
Until the late 20th century most literature on the Gurkhas was written by British officials who had fought against and subsequently served as superiors to the Himalayan soldiers. Lionel Caplan has branded these works as a ‘particular mode of orientalist discourse’,[vi] and Edward Said defines Orientalism as ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’.[vii] Ronald Inden explains the limitations of this style; ‘the knowledge of the knower is not a ‘natural’ representation’ but instead ‘an artificial construct’; in this case the west are the ‘knowers’ and the east an ‘external reality’’.[viii] This orientalist way of writing often leads to an ‘exclusive stress on difference’ between the west and east but Caplan points to how ‘there is less concern to distance the Gurkhas and more to represent them as being . . . quintessentially like those very Europeans who produce the discourse’.[ix] Clear stereotypical themes exist within the military writings such as the presentation of the Gurkha as fearless, gentlemanly, playful and genetically martial; all traits that are admired by the British. The reasoning behind this unique orientalist stance will be presented throughout this section and then questioned in section 2.
The concept of the ‘martial race’ is crucial in the orientalist representation of the Gurkha. The root of the theory stems from the Anglo-Gorkha war during which multiple accounts were written on Gorkha military aptitude. At a meeting in 1833, the same year he became 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.[x] 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’.[xi]
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’.[xii] The longevity of Hodgson’s theory can be seen in military handbooks throughout the 20th century; ‘the Gurkha, from the warlike qualities of his forefathers, and the traditions handed down to him of their military prowess as conquerors of the Nepal Valley, is imbued with and cherishes the military spirit’.[xiii] The habitat of the Gorkha hill-men, alongside their ‘imbued military spirit’, has also been used by military writers such as Duncan Forbes to broaden the martial race theory to encompass northern Nepal as a whole. Forbes claims that the cooler climate alongside their common occupation as ‘freehold yeoman farmers’ bred a physical and mental sturdiness, ‘not to be found so much in the plainsman of the day’.[xiv] The region is also characterised as having a culture of independence that has transcended in to the character of its inhabitants whereas the open plains of India have belonged to multiple Empires and masters leaving them with a ‘hopeless slave mentality’.[xv] Streets mentions how, due to martial race theory, the recruiting base for the Indian army shifted between 1857 and 1914 ‘from Bengal and lower India to the Punjab and Nepal’.[xvi] This change was inspired by the martial accounts of the bravery, discipline and physical strength of the Himalayan soldiers during the Anglo-Gorkha war.
ii) The Anglo-Gorkha war
The first-hand accounts From General Ochterlony’s party during the Anglo-Gorkha war had a major impact on the emergence of the orientalist discourse in the mid to late 19th century. John Shipp recounted the fierceness of the enemy, ‘I never saw more steadiness or more bravery exhibited by any set of men in my life. Run they would not; and of death they seemed to have no fear, though their comrades were falling thick around them’.[xvii] He describes in detail a single combat between him and a Gorkha officer, a man he later identified as the much feared Khissna Rana Bahadur, a provincial governor and respected warrior, who had taken a severe wound to his leg before engaging with the British Lieutenant. Shipp’s admiration towards his adversary is evident in the way he relays the events and he also describes his admiration of the immaculate Company uniform worn by Bahadur.[xviii] A deserter later explained to Shipp that the Gorkha army had been taught the English language and modes of drill by two company deserters named Byrnes and Bell. The fact that the hill-men adopted the same military techniques as the British no doubt contributed to the shared admiration and Shipp describes how on his escort’s departure from the valley of Muckwanpore, ‘the enemy – or, perhaps, I should say our friends – flocked in great numbers, to bid us farewell’.[xix] These observations support the martial image of the Gurkha that still resonates today as well as highlighting the fond relationship between the enemies.
Map showing Gorkha territory before and after the 1816 Seghauli treaty that followed the Anglo-Gorkha war
The second account comes from an anonymous military observer who, like Shipp, travelled with David Ochterlony’s party that led the East India Company to victory. This individual begins by presenting the differences between Europeans and Asians; ‘The seapoys are men created exactly like Britons, but living in a different stage of civilisation and intellectual development. . . their only courage is apathy, and their valour consists in animal ferocity’.[xx] He explains that due to the lack of western values and society, the ‘native soldier’ does not possess any sense of heroism or honour as they have no natural allegiance to anyone.[xxi] This precedes the perception of ‘an army divided into two portions, the intellectual and physical’.[xxii] Without the guidance and ingenuity of the British officer, the native soldier is assumed useless and this lack of guidance is often used as a reason for the Gorkha losses during the war. Nevertheless, the strength and durability of the Gorkhas is still praised throughout these observations:
‘The most commanding and least accessible spot being chosen, every man sets to work. . . One party take their Wookeries (very large crooked knives) to cut down timber of the requisite size; and another commence operations on the ground with shovels and pickaxes. An inner and outer circle. . . of stakes is then driven into the soil, those in the same line being connected by means of smaller trees or branches woven between them; when the intermediate space is filled up with loose stones and earth. The Goorkas will, in this manner, erect a strong stockade in almost as little time as an equal number of our men usually require to pitch their tents’.[xxiii]
This description of the impenetrable forts that blocked the path of Ochterlony and his men clearly accentuates the discipline and superior physical abilities of the hill-men compared to the Indian sepoys and European recruits. A Gorkha assault on the 28th of December 1814 is described as bearing ‘no resemblance to a European column. . . disregarding all regularity, very like a pack of hounds in full cry’. [xxiv] This highlights the bravery and ferocity of the Gorkha soldiers but contrasts with the disciplined British formations described by Shipp. The use of this description is likely influenced by the writer’s belief that the Gorkhas were incapable of organisation without a western brain at their helm. The impact of Byrnes and Bell, the two company deserters who played major roles in organising and educating the Gorkha military pre-1814, has been recognised by most academics thus supporting the accounts of Shipp.
Prior to Ochterlony’s successes there had been multiple failures in the east but most notable was the prolonged siege of the Kalunga fort (marked in figure. 1) in the west where famed Major Robert Rollo Gillespie met his fate at the hands of the Gorkha soldiers. Gillespie was in a rush to occupy the fort and separated his forces in to four columns to launch an attack from all angles after a period of bombardment by the artillery.[xxv] The Major-General lost patience however, and called for the advance two hours earlier than planned causing confusion that lead to a defeat in which Gillespie was shot dead; meanwhile, the British forces ‘hid and cowered in the onslaught of stones and gun fire from men and women’.[xxvi] The 600 men protecting the fort, led by national hero Balbhadra Kunwar, repulsed two assaults and held out for over a month before a three-day bombardment forced the remaining 90 to flee and ‘cut their way through’ the British posts and escape.[xxvii] Eden Vansittart declared that those who defended Kalunga ‘will for ever be marked for their unsubdued courage, and the generous spirit of courtesy with which they treated their enemy’.[xxviii] A monument has since been erected on the site where the fort stood to commemorate the bravery of the Gorkha soldiers. These courageous acts, combined with the accounts from Ochterlony’s offensive in the west, inspired the martial discourse that followed.
The mutual respect earned in both victory and defeat has been consistently documented and it is this friendship that supposedly lead to the recruitment of Gurkhas and the continued independence, as opposed to colonisation, of Nepal. The Nepali Hill-men, with their ‘hereditary right to the bearing of arms and who naturally take to the army as a normal calling’,[xxix] take great honour in serving for the British army according to the military discourse. This places the reasons for joining firmly within the realm of pull factors, which stem from a genetic desire to fight and a culturally imbedded admiration of the British.
iii) The Roots of the Imagined Gurkha
In response to the orientalist martial discourse that dominates the historiography of Gurkhas, Lionel Caplan has presented the theory that the Gurkha ‘only exists in the context of the western military imagination’.[xxx] This argument is fuelled by the abundance of fiction embedded in the military discourse that has defined the Nepali soldier. The close friendship that supposedly came out of the Anglo-Gorkha war is challenged by Caplan, as for the majority of the 19th century the Nepali ‘attitude to the enlistment of Gurkhas was one of consistent hostility’. [xxxi] However, this stance had little impact on the recruitment program which was eventually accepted by the Ranas only after the British threatened to support the opposition to power.[xxxii] The tale of Britain’s relationship with the ‘model soldiers and spiritual kin’ of Nepal, cemented by ‘mutual affection and esteem’, is a myth; ‘what the British had discovered – says anthropology – were pastoral, adaptable mountain peasants. . . driven by poverty and oppression to collaborate with British imperialism and mimic its culture’.[xxxiii] This challenges the western focus on pull factors as motivation for recruitment and suggests that push factors, poverty and corruption in Nepal, played a more significant role. However, Pemble’s argument also implies that the Nepali soldiers were not as brave and martial in nature as the British have claimed, which discredits the first-hand accounts discussed previously. One explanation for this is that British failures allowed the Gorkhas to gain such unexpected victories, resulting in a western glorification of the enemy that removed the spotlight from British mistakes. there is also an argument that the accounts of the war present as much evidence of brutality and dishonesty in the Gorkha ranks as they do bravery, loyalty and kindness. These theories will be discussed in the next two paragraphs.
The lack of patience shown by Gillespie at Kalunga and the resulting lack of organisation in the offensive arguably contributed more to the failed offensive than the defensive actions of the men, women and children who repelled the British army. Vansittart claims that, ‘the defence of this post against general Gillespie was most creditable to the Gurkhas, though exhibiting extreme rashness on his (Gillespie’s) part as he had been directed to avoid strong works which required to be reduced by artillery’, [xxxiv] thus highlighting the failure of British officers to follow orders. There were also defeats for Ochterlony, mainly during the expeditions of his scouting parties. The death of a British officer named Williams was a result of a Gorkha ambush in which the Indian sepoys ‘broke in confusion and turned their backs: the enemy, plunging among the fugitives, cut to pieces all whom their swords could reach’.[xxxv] This account offers various anecdotes of other ambushes by the Gorkhas in which the British lost many men due to a continued reliance on infantry over artillery and transport blockades, a lesson that Ochterlony learned more swiftly than others. Pemble describes how, due to the offensive positions of the Gorkha armies and their superior ability to understand and traverse the land, Ochterlony had to base his offensive around ‘transport, batteries, and ballistics . . . and he owed his success to the artillerists who served him’.[xxxvi] An officer in the Bengal army exclaimed in a letter that ‘the plan of operations originally projected was intended to bring it (the war) to a very speedy conclusion’, yet ‘no attempt was made to carry into effect the most material part of the plan, by a vigorous movement on the capital’.[xxxvii] This resulted in the armies in the west facing a much larger opposition than expected causing a reliance on reinforcements to gain victory. The glorification of the Gorkhas after the war can be seen as a technique to divert attention away from military failures and inefficiency to preserve the reputation of British imperial power.
Writers have been very selective when extracting information from the accounts of the war. As well as praising the bravery and kindness of the Gorkhas, John Shipp also recalls moments of savagery and dishonesty. He describes them as ‘cruel and barbarous people. . . with hearts more callous than flinty rocks. . . more savage in their nature than the hungry tiger. . . cruel as the vulture’,[xxxviii] contrasting drastically with the gentlemanly Gurkha that has found its way in to the western imagination. At one point, he describes the discovery of the corpse of a tortured spy who’s ‘arms had been cut off, about half way up from the elbow to the shoulder; after which it appeared that two deep incisions had been cut in his body, just above the hips, into which the two arms had been thrust’.[xxxix] There is also evidence of the poisoning of streams using a grass that was lethal enough to kill the elephants as well as men.[xl] One of the motivating factors for the unique orientalist discourse associated with the Gorkha army was the British formations and uniform they used. Shipp recalls questioning a soldier on this matter and he was told of the work of Byrnes and Bell; Byrnes had taught English and Bell focused on ‘manual and platoon exercises’, but others had preceded them:
‘Three Frenchmen were in charge of the Nepali army until the middle 1790’s, and kept very busy supervising the casting of guns, howitzers and mortars, and the manufacture of gunpowder. Byrnes and Bell also cast cannon in Kathmandu, and by the outbreak of the war with the British there must have been four or five hundred guns of all description in Nepal’.[xli]
Figure 1 shows an image from Henry Ballantine’s expedition to Nepal and he describes the several thousand Gorkha soldiers going through drill movements ‘under officers dressed in English
uniforms’ who also gave their ‘various commands in English’.[xlii] This information sheds light on the European source of the Gorkha army’s power and causes one to further question the martial race theory that declares their military strength a natural or cultural embodiment. The demands of the mountainous environment may provide a physical toughness, but this does not create a ‘martial’ mind.
After the war the British focused recruitment on the Tibeto-Burman Khas, Magar, and Gurung tribes, who supposedly possessed especially martial bloodlines. Yet the Gorkha army was made up of a multitude of tribes, cultures and races causing one to question why the recruitment was so limited. The British focused on the Tibeto-Burman tribes due to their lack of association with Hinduism, which has dominated Nepal from the formation of the Gorkha Kingdom to the present. Their low status in the Hindi caste system and the practicality of their culture, highlighted by Hodgson, meant they were ideal for the British army. The recruitment process was divisive for Nepal and convenient for the British who imprinted their desired culture upon the recruits. Bidhan Golay describes how, ironically, the defeat of the Gorkhas led to the ‘discovery’ of the Gurkhas,[xliii] a military grouping defined by British ethnography. The Tibeto-Burman tribes were known as the drinking castes within a system ‘based on Hindu tradition, according to which a citizen’s rights and duties depended on his caste status’.[xliv] but there were countless variables that decided which jobs each tribe was suited for. Historically the Khas, Magar and Gurung tribes have been recruited for military service, initially in the Sikh army of Ranjit Singh and later by the British (The British also recruited men from the Rais and Limbu tribes). It is fair to say that the Tibeto-Burman speaking tribes of Nepal had a history of military employment prior to the arrival of the British, in both the Sikh and Gorkha armies. Nevertheless, it is inaccurate to suggest that this resulted in future inhabitants possessing an inherited martial identity as their low position in Nepal before the Anglo-Gorkha war no doubt contributed to their decision to join the Sikhs. The military counted for a very small segment of the Gorkha population and, ‘even if we consider only the military castes (so called), we will find that the percentage of fighting men within those castes was still small. Nepal was then, as it is now, a nation of farmers’.[xlv] Even if the concept of a martial identitywas only applied to the specific Tibeto-Burman tribes it would still be flawed due to the agrarian focus of the majority. The famously curved Khukuri (figure 2) has also undergone a martial transformation from ‘a general utility instrument’ to a ‘national weapon’ designed especially for the decapitation of the enemy.[xlvi] This links to Mary Des Chene’s description of how ‘new ‘Gurkha’ recruits were subjected to a process of socialisation into the culture of each Gurkha regiment, which reflected British visions of what Gurkha soldiers should be like, rather than indigenous customs’.[xlvii] Heather Streets references the introduction of the Dasai harvest festival during training, a festival that was ‘not actually practiced by many Gurkha home communities’, as an example of the British creation of a previously non-existent ‘Gurkha race’.[xlviii] Even the famous motto, “it is better to die than be a coward”, ‘has never once been mentioned. . . because it never was the hill-man’s motto’.[xlix]
The supposed fearlessness of the Nepali soldier has also become a major aspect of the Gurkha identity but this has been disproven by ex-Gurkhas themselves. Dharam Prashad Limbu served as a Corporal in the 2/10 Gurkha rifles from 1959 to 1974 and stated in an interview, ‘I used to be really frightened. Everyone used to be. And I didn’t know if I would die now or if I would die later. And it was really scary for me to face death’.[l] Phara Sing Pun was also a corporal and described how, ‘from the outside people perceive the Gurkhas to be so courageous and brave but the reality is that there is no other choice’.[li] Presenting the recruits as fearless warriors leads to a dehumanising effect causing one to forget that a Gurkha feels the same emotions as any other soldier. Yet their reasons for fighting differ from others as their motivation is arguably more personal due to a desire to escape a life of extreme poverty at home, a factor that has likely motivated their impressive amount of honours; the 13 Victoria crosses being the most notable.
v) Gurkhas in the 20th and 21st centuries
The construction of the Gurkha culture was an ongoing process through the mass recruitment of uneducated and impoverished young boys who, up until the last eight years, took a fraction of the pay given to their British counterparts. Since the Indian mutiny of 1857, after which the recruitment of Gurkhas increased to notable amounts, one could argue that the British have brought their mythical identity into reality through vigorous selection and training processes. Nevertheless, there is still limited evidence to suggest that the soldiers have obtained a unique loyalty towards their British employers and this is supported by the choice of a significant majority to join the Indian ‘Gorkha’ regiments instead of the British ‘Gurkha’ regiments in the referendum that followed Indian independence.[lii]
After the Anglo-Gorkha war the population of the shrunken empire was divided with the majority remaining in Nepal whilst others were left scattered in regions acquired by the East India Company.[liii] Many of the latter played major roles in the fight for Indian independence against the British, with many joining the Indian National Army. Major Durga Malla was part of the 2/1 battalion of Gorkha rifles and was captured by the Japanese in Burma. Whilst in captivity he formed the Army of Liberation for India that supplied information and soldiers to the Japanese. Malla was executed by the British after the war and his statue still stands in Delhi’s parliament today as a symbol against British colonialism. The Gorkhas who fought against the British in the Second World War had their roots in the hills of Nepal highlighting the fiction of the historical bond with the Himalayan soldier.[liv] In 1986 the Hawaii incident took place in which a British officer was violently assaulted by multiple Gurkhas who then ‘closed ranks and refused to co-operate with an official army investigation,’ leading to the whole regiment’s dismissal.[lv] In a letter to the queen from the discarded Gurkhas they explained that the officer had made comments about the Nepalis throwing away leftovers after a party and suggested that they couldn’t get good meat in Nepal. They claimed they had been ‘treated as a dog’ and that the situation was an example of the ‘oppressiveness and unjustice of British Government’ before putting forward four points of change:
- A full pension
- Family support and higher salary
- Listen to complaints from Gurkhas
- More respectful British officers.[lvi]
The depiction of the Gurkha as reliant on British tutorship was highlighted when the regiment was discharged, ‘they were an elite, now they are prospectless cattleherders’.[lvii] This view is a product of the discourse rooted in the Anglo-Gorkha war and implies that becoming a Gurkha is the sole aim of a Nepali man who, without British employment, is without prospect.
The fight for equal pay, equal pensions and British citizenship has continued to the present day, signifying the emergence of grievances that have long gone unspoken. Gyanraj Rai is an ex Gurkha who went on hunger strike in 2013 outside Downing Street, in a campaign to improve the treatment of Gurkhas by the British government. In an interview with the BBC Rai bemoaned an ‘historic injustice’ and described the way Gurkhas were treated as ‘quite cold’. [lviii] He makes the point that the pension received by Nepalis was only ten percent of what their counterparts were paid and that many of the elderly veterans never received a pension at all, 95% of whom are unable to communicate their grievances due to a lack of education in the English language.[lix] The partial success of recent movements has been due to some Gurkhas obtaining higher levels of education alongside support from outsiders, such as actress and campaigner Joanna Lumley who has gained mass publicity for the Gurkha Justice Campaign. The relationship between the British and Nepali soldiers has slowly been recognised as oppressive and in need of reform. The economic issues have only recently been addressed but the social implications of recruitment in the Himalayan region continue to impact on the lives of the Nepali people.
vi) Gurkha Voices
Thus far, the roots of the western discourse on Nepali soldiers have been presented and then challenged through mainly the western voice. Yet, to fully understand the misconceptions that are attached to the Gurkhas, one must analyse the experiences of the soldiers and their families and acknowledge their lasting impact. Gurkha Stories is a heritage project put together by Umesh Pun MVO, a retired Gurkha captain, and oral historian Juliana Vandegrift, with the aim of creating a portfolio of interviews with ex Gurkhas, offering a more personal insight in to their lives.[lx] Bhui Maya Rana was married to a Gurkha but after the death of her husband and three children she was unable to get her pension for three years; ‘because there [was] a lot of bureaucracy going on, so I had to fight for my widow pension’.[lxi] Bhui had stayed in Nepal for the first few years of her marriage whilst her husband served in Singapore. During this time her first son died three days after birth. Her only communication with her husband was a single letter every six months. She then spent a period in Hong Kong with her partner and second son before returning to Nepal once he retired. However, after having two more children he died from a fever and the children all followed. This left Bhui on her own with only the promise of a widow pension, which took three years to materialise.[lxii] This is one of many stories illustrating the suffering in Nepal that has continued despite the beneficial relationship that they have supposedly shared with the British.
It seems the hyperbolic praise that may have initially been used to distract from military failures has since been used to cover up an exploitative system of military recruitment, the benefits of which are disproportionate in the context of the lives being risked by Nepalis. Karna Bahadur Rana was a corporal in the 1960’s-70’s and he recounts his childhood during which his father served as a Gurkha for twenty years:
‘In the village there’s absolutely nothing called rest; we were constantly working 24/7 . . . if I tell you the whole story, it’s too long [shakes his head]. I can’t tell the whole story; even I can’t bring myself to do it’.[lxiii]
Karna’s emotional memories bring to life the extremely challenging living standards that existed and still exist in remote areas of Nepal and illustrate how the army presents an escape from poverty. Phakta Bahadur Pun recalls the day he joined the Gurkhas and thought to himself, ‘this is the day I have to stand up on my own feet and maybe I can help my mother’.[lxiv] He also described how he ‘didn’t know anything about what’s the difference between military and civilian, what’s the law, order, regulations’,[lxv] never mind what he was risking his life for. From these accounts one gains the impression that the young men, a lot of them young boys who lied about their age and tribe, were joining the British army not due to an engrained admiration and respect, but due instead to a desperation to improve the lives of their families. The recruitment officers would play on this and promise ‘better clothes’ and ‘lovely food’ before walking them for days from villages to recruitment centres.[lxvi] With this evidence it is fair to say that the British relied on the poverty of Nepal to motivate the boys to join the Gurkhas.
vii) The Impact on Nepal
There is also a strong argument to suggest, however, that the recruitment system has been economically beneficial for the Himalayan region due to the remittances sent back by soldiers. Caplan estimates that sixty percent of the earnings of a Gurkha go to his local area, but often the understandable aim is to earn enough money to move one’s family out of the village, to the city or another country, rather than to try and improve their homeland. [lxvii] Many Gurkhas who return to Nepal purchase land and build on it near the developed areas of Kathmandu and Pokhara instead of returning to their agricultural occupations, which results in less money distribution.[lxviii] Perhaps more significant however, are the social implications that Gurkha recruitment has had on the Himalayan foothills. After the ‘arms for soldiers’ deal was struck between Nepal and Britain at the end of the 19th century (the deal that officially legalised Gurkha recruitment), they began to collaborate ‘formally and informally to close non-military employment to the so called martial races. To an extent, this explains why the Magars, Gurungs, Rais and Limbus remained prominent in the Indian British forces’.[lxix] Pahari implies that the prevention of Tibeto-Burman tribes from pursuing careers away from the military created a culture of Gurkha recruitment in villages; one could argue that this inevitably results in a social and cultural stagnation. The Gurkhas were heavily involved in the two World Wars and after the first, two soldiers were given the Victoria Cross but, ‘on the other hand, 20,000 had lost their lives, and an unknown number were wounded or disabled’.[lxx] Nepal suffered the highest casualties per capita amongst all the countries fighting and they weren’t even directly involved in the war, their population was reduced to below 5.5 million and ‘the impact was devastating in the hill villages’.[lxxi] World War II left 10,000 dead and 23,655 wounded or disabled further impacting rural Nepal.[lxxii]
During these periods of war, the Tibeto-Burman communities had to rely almost entirely on female labour while husbands and fathers risked their lives, negatively impacting the already severely overworked female population. Pahari describes the ‘constant potential for international embarrassment when either India or the United Kingdom goes to war’, [lxxiii] as the government has no way to prevent the mass exodus of the male population. During times of conflict the British would abandon their martial race theory and recruit almost anyone, causing the impact to be magnified. Pahari finishes by referencing the slow rate of social and economic change in Nepali villages:
‘For large sections, foreign army service was the primary means available to break a cycle of extreme poverty and indebtedness. It was a route to individual escape from conditions that oppressed individuals. The lingering irony is that the oppression of individuals, in new and old forms, is still the rule in the mid-hills even after hundreds of thousands have made their individual “escapes”.’[lxxiv]
This links to the theory presented by Caplan who, in reference to the Nepali hill economy, suggests that ‘army service impoverished it, and that it was only Britain’s imperial designs which derived any real benefit from Gurkha arms’.[lxxv] However, there is room for debate as each situation is different; for example, whether the soldiers return home or move their families abroad after retirement defines whether their earnings will benefit the Nepali economy. There is a degree of dislike towards Gurkhas in Nepal due to their complicity in the spread of colonialism, their abandoning of their country to serve another and the martial reputation that has become associated with Nepal due to their employment.[lxxvi] These grievances appear in several Nepali folk songs and stories, which have received less attention than the tales of bravery told by British military officials.
viii) “I am Someone Who Leaves”
It has been made clear that the term Gurkha is a British imperial construction and the use, by Nepalis, of the term lahuré accentuates the cultural irrelevance of the former. The similarity in pronunciation and spelling with the ancient Sikh capital of Lahore is no coincidence as, After the Gorkhas suffered at the hands of Ranjit Singh in the 1809 Kashmir conflict, the Sikhs formed the first known foreign Gorkha regiments. Lahuré 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.[lxxvii] Weena Pun has written about Nepali songs that have been a part of migrant culture since the 19th century, offering an insight into the lives of Nepali migrant workers. She describes how ‘separation, loss and longing’ have become themes in Nepal, and are ‘reflected in the songs regardless of how gleeful they sound’.[lxxviii] The ‘gleeful’ can be seen as the first genre of three when it comes to Nepali songs about lahurés.
The verse on the title page of this paper ‘downplays the horrors of war and violence’ through its juxtaposition of gunfire and cigarettes before highlighting the sacrifices of the lahurés who accept that ‘love might not be for them’.[lxxix] This duet has a fast and happy tempo and when performed live is accompanied by enthusiastic dancing and smiles that disguise the laments of the lahurés.[lxxx] These songs are often misunderstood and contribute to the western image of the Gurkha as a man of ‘great sense of humour and. . . fun’. [lxxxi] The second genre of song is the ballad, or the sad songs that ‘hold a mirror to the harshness of the lahuré’s life and of the people he leaves behind’.[lxxxii]
Mother, don’t weep over me
If I live, I will send you a photo
Look what fate has in store for me
My karma is dark
In the markets of Batauli
There isn’t a stamp worth four paisa
The household head is dead
But no one at home knows.[lxxxiii]
Jhalakman Gandharva: Aamali Sodhlin ni
This song has a slower tempo and projects a sense of sadness through both the music and lyrics.[lxxxiv] The words refer to lahurés 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 lahuré 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. Pun follows this up by asking, ‘what does it mean to be lucky when the employing country takes advantage of the fact that a person is escaping poverty?’.[lxxxv] This leads on to the final genre, labelled as ‘communist’ due to the more left-wing take on migrant labour.
We will sweat and plant seeds in our own fields
If we have to die, we will die in our mother’s lap
There are sinners who gave us this pain
To annihilate those murderers, come back to your village.[lxxxvi]
Raamesh Shrestha, Manjul and Arim: Babale bhanthe ni aashish
This verse calls for men to remain in Nepal and challenge the corruption and inequality that exists within their country, ‘they talk about the futility of working abroad, killing a stranger’s enemies’ but they offer no solutions.[lxxxvii] The sadness evoked in these songs draws attention to the vicious circle that migrant labour has caused in Nepal as lahurés leave, earn money and encourage others to do the same causing a perpetuation of a destructive cycle.[lxxxviii] The songs clearly imply that migrant labour is not improving conditions for the poor in Nepal.
It is crucial, however, that the blame for continued poverty in Nepal is not placed at the feet of the lahuré but instead on the shoulders of the governments who have fuelled it.[lxxxix] The Rana dynasty of Nepal sold generations of Gurkhas to the British to fight in the World Wars in return for personal riches and rewards.[xc] The British government would then praise the Gurkhas as ‘among the best infantry soldiers in the world’ but they were paid less, rather than more, than other soldiers.[xci] ‘While the symbolism of British recruitment is more striking, with its imperial past, in real numbers it now pales beside Indian recruitment’, a fact that is often omitted by academics.[xcii] The oppressive cycle of migrant military labour and socio-economic stagnation in rural areas of Nepal has been fuelled by a demand for cheap soldiers in both India and Britain. This was accentuated in 1989 when the British Defence Committee described the Gurkhas as “good value for the money”.[xciii] The existence of a Gurkha diaspora has also effected Nepal as soldiers who leave often decide not to return to their homes to settle, resulting in the creation of a new race culturally rooted in western imperial ideology.[xciv] However, Ganesh points out that the migrant labourers from Nepal ‘continue to send a large volume of remittances, which in 2009-10 made up some 23 percent of [Nepal’s] gross domestic product’,[xcv] a stat often used to support the argument that foreign work is beneficial to Nepal. Yet this is not a sustainable way for a country to thrive and progress as wages remain capped at a low rate due to a lack of protection and subsequent exploitation abroad. This causes Nepal to remain in the same state of economic instability. The men who were labelled as ‘Gurkhas’ by the British, are in fact part of a vast lahuré population of numerous occupations motivated by poverty and oppression; an identity that contrasts with the masculine and martial men presented by the western military discourse.
ix) The Lahuré in Nepali literature
Michael Hutt has studied the representation of the Gurkha soldier in Nepali literature to ascertain how the Gurkha is depicted within Nepal. The theme of the ‘man who leaves’ is prominent in the folk songs presented by Weena Pun and it also transcends in to the literature on soldiers who fight abroad. Sipahi (The Soldier) is a short story by Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala describing an encounter between a student returning home and a lahuré soldier. The student is at first apprehensive due to the confident and powerful nature of the man, ‘I remembered the many things I had heard about the rough, cruel nature of military men’,[xcvi] but he grows fonder of him as their conversation progresses. The student describes how the soldier never enquired about his life and talked only of himself, of the enjoyment he gains from fighting and of the food and drink he is given.[xcvii] At the shop where they sleep, the soldier swears oaths to a young girl who exclaims, “enough, enough! Don’t say anything more. You say a lot of things when you are in my sight, but afterward…”.[xcviii] It is then implied that she is swayed by offers of riches and affection but in the early hours of the morning the student is awoken by his compatriot who bids him farewell. The narrator is saddened by his departure ‘but he cared for no one. He strode off down his path’.[xcix] This story presents the lahuré as a man with no loyalty to anything but himself and offers a critique of military recruitment as the soldier is devious and self-centred and has only returned to recruit more men rather than to see his family who remain in his village. Nevertheless, the student also grows to like the man suggesting that his negative traits are a product of his experiences as a Gurkha. The views of Koirala are not representative of the whole of Nepal as he lived a privileged life but he was also the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Nepal in 1959 and is seen by many as a man of the people.
Shirish Ko Phul (The Blue Mimosa) by Parijat is a famous story, partially inspired by interviews with ex-Gurkhas about an alcoholic veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. The man’s attention is grasped by a woman called Sakambari whom he meets in a bar in Kathmandu and eventually falls in love with. One day he decides to kiss her after which she walks away never to be seen again, he hears that she is ill and then that she has died. Earlier in the tale the subject of the veteran’s affection stuns him with a stinging criticism;
‘The war we fight on somebody’s command is a crime one person has to perpetrate against another, a crime which every killer should have to write on his own forehead. The crime can’t be seen from outside’.[c]
Hutt reads the soldier as ‘polluted by death and exploitation’ and ‘incapable of giving genuine love’, a curse that is apparent when ‘the sole attempt he makes to express sincere emotion proves to be fatal for the object of his desire’.[ci] The ex-Gurkha’s haunting past of exploitation and violence effects his mental state considerably and his guilt is evident when he recalls a lover whom he abused and then fled from in Burma.[cii] Parijat spoke in an interview of a pre-existing distaste towards Gurkha soldiers that was fuelled by tales of brutality that she heard as a child. She brands them as ‘rogues’ who give their lives ‘so pointlessly for others’.[ciii] Nevertheless, it seems her opinions softened somewhat whilst writing the novel as her description of the soldier as ‘polluted’ suggests his devious side is a product of exploitation. Hutt clarifies this observation by describing how ‘the Gurkha in Nepali fiction tends to be a figure who attracts some criticism but is also deserving of sympathy’.[civ] Parijat’s background as a young female growing up in a village in Darjeeling suggests that she was more in touch with the plight of Nepali villagers than other writers.
The recruitment officers persuade the young men with the promise of riches and food but fail to prepare them for the impact that war can have on the mind. Hutt describes how the theme of pollution also exists in examples of poetry such as Bhupi Scherchan’s To the Children of Partridges, Quails and Sacrificial Oxen, which characterises the migrant soldiers as sacrificial animals ‘tumbling headfirst into war’.[cv] The songs and literature that have been translated from Nepali give an insight in to the views of those who disapprove of the recruitment of young men by Britain and India. The Interviews with ex-Gurkhas themselves also highlight the impoverished conditions that force them into making such a decision, an environment not experienced by most Nepali authors. It is accurate to observe an overriding belief that the employment of lahurés of all occupations is unsustainable for Nepal as they run from their troubles at home to a new set of problems abroad. Nevertheless, there is also an acknowledgment of the lack of any solution to stem the tide of migrant labour that flows down the mountains, as the conditions in rural Nepal remain dire to this day.
For centuries, the Gurkha has been imagined as a jolly and loyal killing machine wielding an exciting curved blade that slices his enemies to pieces. This Hollywood depiction of the Nepali soldier can now be revealed as a cover up for British military failures and their desire for cheap and efficient labour. The village communities of Nepal have been severely impacted over the past two centuries due to the consistent outward flow of economically exploited migrant labourers, of which Gurkha recruitment played a major role. It is crucial to leave behind the western view of the Gurkha as separate or superior to other forms of migrant labour as the history of their imperial construction is part of the much larger issue of economic discrimination towards Nepali labourers. The justification for lower pay by the British and many other countries has been that Nepalis earn more abroad than they would receive at home. However, this is clearly exploitative as it has prevented them from earning the same pay as others for doing the same job leading to a personal and national economic stagnation. It seemed this was recognised by the British government in 2009 when they agreed to provide all Gurkhas with British citizenship equal pay and a larger pension but only if they were currently serving or had retired since 1997.[cvi] This was achieved after a long and arduous campaign but the result provided minimal benefits to older veterans, many of whom received no pension for their service in the army.
This symbolic victory marked the beginning of the end to the exploitation of Gurkhas but in the wider context it was insignificant. According to recent official figures, ‘around 1000 young Nepalis leave the country in search of work each day, mainly heading to the Gulf countries and Malaysia’, yet the unofficial numbers are likely to be much higher.[cvii] The exploitation of Nepali migrant workers has enclosed the inhabitants of rural Nepal within a cycle of poverty due to the low wages received in other countries. For example, most of those working in India earn the equivalent of between 17 and 37 pounds a month.[cviii] A cycle that was once characterised by Nepali men dying in wars that weren’t their own, is now a tale of mass migration to West and Southeast Asia where lives are risked in less glorified, and often equally as dangerous industrial occupations. The identity of the Gurkha still remains closely associated with the martial race theories of Hodgson when, in reality, the recruits make up part of an occupationally diverse lahuré dispersion characterised by discriminatory wages and rural poverty. The issue of wage discrimination, alongside the negative social impact recruitment has had on Nepal, are the most crucial elements in the history of the Gurkha. Now that this has been recognised, it is important that the information is used to discard the orientalist depiction of the Gurkha and help prevent the continued exploitation of all Nepali migrant labourers in the years to come.
[i] Pemble, John, Britain’s Gurkha War, with a foreword by John Cross, (UK: Frontline Books, 2008), p.25
[ii] Shipp, John, Memoirs of the extraordinary military career of John Shipp, Late A Lieutenant in his Majesty’s 87th regiment, (A new edition, UK London: Tegg, 1843)
[iii] Anon, Military Sketches of the Goorka War in India: in the years 1814, 1815,1816’, (London: Woodbridge, printed by J. Loder for R. Hunter, 1822)
[iv] Streets, Heather S., Martial Races, The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914, (UK: Manchester University Press, 2004), p.175
[v] Pahari, Anup, Ties that Bind: Gurkhas in History, in Himal: Nepalis in Foreign Uniform, (Kathmandu, July/August, 1991, pp.6-12), p.7
[vi] Caplan, Lionel, ‘Bravest of the Brave’: Representations of ‘The Gurkha’ in British Military Writings, in Modern Asian Studies, (UK: Cambridge University Press, vol.25, no.3, 1991, pp.571-597), p.571
[vii] Said, Edward W., Orientalism, (UK London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1978), p.11
[viii] Inden, Ronald, Orientalist Constructions of India, in Modern Asian Studies, (UK, Cambridge University Press, vol. 20 No. 3, pp. 401-446), 1986), p.402
[ix] Caplan, Lionel, ‘Bravest of the Brave’, p.571
[x] Hodgson, B. H., Origin and Classification of the Military Tribes of Nepal, in, Journal of the Asiatic Society, (India Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, vol. 2, no. 17, 1883, pp.217-234) p.220
[xi] Ibid p.221
[xiii] Morris, Major C. J., Handbooks for the Indian Army: Gurkhas. Compiled under the orders of the Government of India, (Delhi, Manager of Publications, second edition, 1936), p.52
[xiv] Forbes, D. Johnny Gurkha, (UK London: Robert Hale, 1964), p.55
[xv] Ibid, p.55
[xvi] Streets, Heather, Martial Races, P.2
[xvii] Shipp, John, Memoirs of the Extraordinary…, p.164
[xviii] Ibid, p.165
[xix] Ibid, p.183
[xx] Anon, Military Sketches, pp.9-10
[xxi] Ibid, p.10
[xxiii] Ibid, p.8
[xxiv] Ibid, p.13
[xxv] Singh, Mahendra M., Forever Incomplete: The Story of Nepal, (USA New York: Sage Publications, 2013), p.52
[xxvii] Vansittart, Eden, Notes on Nepal, 2/5th Gurkha Rifles, (late district recruiting officer), with an introduction by H. H. Risley, first published in Calcutta in 1896, (India New Delhi: Apex publication services, published by J. Jetley for Asian Educational Services, 1992,) pp.40-41
[xxviii] Ibid, p.41
[xxix] Gibbs, Major H. R. K., Gurkhas, (Royal United Services Institution, Journal 90:560, 1945), p.519
[xxx] Caplan, Lionel, Warrior Gentleman: “Gurkhas” in the western imagination, (Oxford, New York, Berghahn Books, 1995), p.158
[xxxi] Ibid, p.21
[xxxiii] Pemble, John, Forgetting and Remembering Britain’s Gurkha War, in Asian Affairs, (UK, Abingdon: Routledge, vol.40, no.3, 2009 pp.361-376), pp.373-374
[xxxiv] Vansittart, Eden, Notes on Nepal, 1992, p.40
[xxxv] Anon, Military Sketches, p.9-10
[xxxvi] Pemble, John, Forgetting and Remembering, p.370
[xxxvii] Anon, an Account of the War in Nipal; contained in a letter from an officer in the staff of the Bengal army, in Asiatic Journal and monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies, (London, printed by Cox and Baylis, Vol. 1. Jan-June 1816, pp.425-429), p.426
[xxxviii] Shipp, John, Memoirs of the extraordinary…, p.154
[xxxix] Ibid, p.158
[xl] Ibid, p.185
[xli] Pemble, John, Britain’s Gurkha War, p.27
[xlii] Ballantine, Henry, On India’s Frontier: or Nepal the Gurkhas’ Mysterious Land, (New York: J. Selwin Tait and Sons, 1895), p.122.
[xliii] Golay, Bidhan, Rethinking Gorkha Identity: Outside the Imperium of Discourse, Hegemony, and History, in Peace and Democracy in South Asia, (Vol. 2, No. 1 & 2, 2006, pp.23-49) p.29
[xliv] Vinding, Michael, The Thakali, A Himalayan Ethnography, (Chicago, USA, Serindia Publications, 1998), p.204
[xlv] Stiller, Ludwig, The Rise of the House of Gorkha: A study in the unification of Nepal 1768-1816, (The Patna Jesuit Society, 1975), p.205
[xlvi] Caplan, Lionel, Warrior Gentlemen, p.134
[xlvii] Chene, Mary D., Language and Practice in the Colonial Indian Army, paper given at the institute for Global Studies in Culture, Power and History, (USA, John Hopkins University, 1993), p.39
[xlviii] Streets, Heather, Martial Races, 2004, p.175
[xlix] Cross, John, foreword in Pemble, John, Britain’s Gurkha War
[l]Limbu, Dharam P. Gurkha Voices Oral History Project, 2015, http://gurkhastories.com/veteran-stories/dharam-prashad-limbu/ (accessed: 04/04/2017)
[li] Pun Phara S. Gurkha Voices Oral History Project, 2015 http://gurkhastories.com/veteran-stories/phara-sing-pun/ (accessed: 04/04/2017)
[lii] Caplan, Lionel, Warrior Gentlemen, p.117
[liii] Roy, Barun, Gorkhas and Gorkhaland, (Darjeeling, India, Parbati Roy Research Foundation, 2013) p.25
[liv] Ibid: p.30
[lv] Dikkenberg, John, Matter of Honour: Gurkhas go back to hills in disgrace, (Hong Kong, South China Sunday Morning Post, Aug 17, 1986), p.33
[lvi] Fox, Maggie, “Beggar” Gurkhas appeal to Queen over sackings, (Hong Kong, South China Morning Post, Aug 15, 1986), p.1
[lvii] Dikkenberg, John, Matter of Honour, p.33
[lxi] Rana, Bhui M. Gurkha Voices Oral History Project, 2015, http://gurkhastories.com/veteran-stories/bhui-maya-rana/ (accessed: 04/04/2017)
[lxiii] Rana, Karna B. Gurkha Voices Oral History Project, 2015, http://gurkhastories.com/veteran-stories/karna-bahadur-rana/ (accessed: 04/04/2017)
[lxiv] Pun, Phakta B. Gurkha Voices Oral History Project, 2015, http://gurkhastories.com/veteran-stories/phakta-bahadur-pun accessed: (04/04/2017)
[lxvi] Sahi, Iswar B. Gurkha Voices Oral History Project, 2015, http://gurkhastories.com/veteran-stories/iswar-bahadur-sahi/ accessed: (04/04/2017)
[lxvii] Caplan, Lionel, Warrior Gentlemen, p.37
[lxviii] Ibid: p.51
[lxix] Pahari, Anup, Ties that Bind, p.8
[lxx] Ibid, p.9
[lxxiii] Ibid, p.12
[lxxv] Caplan, Lionel, Warrior Gentlemen, p.53
[lxxvi] Ibid, p.50
[lxxvii] Gurung, Ganesh, Lahuré Workforce, HIMAL South Asian, December 2010, http://old.himalmag.com/component/content/article/3467-lahuré-workforce.html (accessed: 13/04/2017)
[lxxxi] Major Gibbs, H. R. K., Gurkhas,, p.520
[lxxxii] Pun, Weena, Lahuré Laments, p.1
[lxxxv] Pun, Weena, Lahuré Laments, p.1
[lxxxviii] Ibid, p.2
[lxxxix] Chene, Mary D. Loyalty Versus Equality, HIMAL, July 1997, http://old.himalmag.com/component/content/article/2659-loayslty-versus-Equality.html (accessed: 12/04/2017)
[xc] Chene, Mary D., Soldiers, Sovereignty and Silences: Gorkhas as diplomatic Currency, in, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, (USA, Durham: Duke University Press, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 & 2, 1993, pp.67-80), p.71
[xci] Chene, Mary D. Loyalty Versus Equality
[xciv] Low, Kelvin E. Y., Migrant Warriors and Transnational lives: Constructing a Gurkha diaspora in Ethnic and Racial Studies, (UK Abingdon: Routledge, Vol. 39, issue 5, 2016 pp.840-857), p.849
[xcv] Gurung, Ganesh, Lahuré Workforce
[xcvi] Koirala, Bishweshwar P., Himalayan Voices: An Introduction to Modern Nepali Literature (Voices from Asia), edited and translated by Michael J. Hutt, (USA: University of California Press, 1991), p.197
[xcvii] Ibid: p.200
[xcviii] Ibid, p.201
[c] Ibid, p.25
[ciii] Parijat, Interview in Vedana, vol. 15 no. ¾, (Kathmandu, 1987), cited in Hutt, Michael, A Hero or a Traitor?, The Gurkha Soldier in Nepali Literature, in, South Asia Research (USA California: Sage publications, vol. 9, no. 1, 1989, pp.21-32), p.26
[civ] Hutt, Michael, A Hero or a Traitor? P.26
[cv] Ibid, p.27
[cvi] Pun, Weena, Lahuré Laments, p.1
[cvii] Gurung, Ganesh, Lahuré Workforce