Two centuries on, Nepal’s Gurkhas soldier on overseas

'Never had a country a more faithful friend than you'

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Gurkha security personnel overseas - AVIATIONPRINT/PIXABAY

They live by the motto “better to die, than to be a coward”.

Universally acknowledged as among the best and bravest, Nepal’s Gurkha soldiers have served in the British Army since 1815. These fearless fighters have battled their enemies not only with guns, but their lethal 8-inch-long curved kniveels known as the kukris.

Fiercely loyal to the armies they serve, the Gurkhas now face opposition from those who want to stop a 200-year-old tradition of Gurkhas enrolling in the British and Indian armies. These opponents see it as humiliating as they believe the Gurkhas are treated just like mercenaries.

The reality on the ground, however, tells a different story. Nepal’s abject poverty and high unemployment rate have put this valiant warrior tribe in a Catch-22 situation. They are torn between self-pride as human beings or the choice of a decent income and livelihood. For now, the latter prevails over the former.

Remittances sent by Gurkhas and some two million Nepalis working overseas, including domestic workers in the Middle East and security guards overseas, amount to more than $1bn every year.

About 18,000 apply and compete yearly for 230 British army jobs. Gurkha privates in the British army begin their service on $28,000 a year, on the same pay scale and with the same pension as any British soldier.

Gurkhas serve in a variety of roles, mainly in the infantry but with significant numbers of engineers, logisticians and signals specialists. The name Gurkha comes from the hill town of Gorkha, from which the Nepalese kingdom had expanded.

Besides the British army, Gurkhas also serve in the Indian army. Some 32,000 soldiers serve in 40 battalions under seven Gurkha regiments. The 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th, 9th and 11th Gurkha Rifles serve under the Indian Army with about 800 soldiers in each of them.

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Following the partition of India in 1947, an agreement between Nepal, India and Britain resulted in four Gurkha regiments from the Indian army being transferred to the British Army, eventually becoming the Gurkha Brigade.

The Nepal government has repeatedly called for a ban on Nepali youths joining foreign armies. But British and Indian authorities have not yet reacted to the possibility of Gurkhas disappearing from their forces. They probably think Nepal would find it difficult to implement such a ban.

Gurkhas have loyally fought for the British all over the world, receiving 13 Victoria Crosses. Over 200,000 Gurkhas fought in the two world wars. Over the last half a century, they have served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo, Iraq and most recently Afghanistan.

Gurkhas today continue to protect and serve Britain in regiments across the UK and the rest of the world with Nepali soldiers and officers, and British officers.

Gurkhas are recognised for their competence, combat hardiness, humour and modesty. These virtues enable them to adapt to a variety of roles – military deployments, training and public duties, and reinforcements for humanitarian efforts.

In Southeast Asia, they were initially brought to Singapore as special soldiers on the payroll of the British Army. Now, they serve in an elite security force in Singapore. The Gurkha contingent is a unit in the Singapore police and serves as a neutral safekeeping and counter-terrorism force.

Despite their global reputation as valiant soldiers, Gurkhas faced caste-based discrimination for jobs in Nepal, including in the army. There were rarely promoted to senior ranks in the army.

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Gurkhas belong to a tribe of about three million people living mostly in the Himalayan foothills of western and eastern Nepal. The Gurkhas’ fierce combat skills, loyalty and courage made a strong impression on the British army during its unsuccessful invasion of Nepal in early 1800s.

They keep to their Nepalese customs and beliefs, and the brigade follows religious festivals such as Dashain, in which – in Nepal, not the UK – goats and buffaloes are sacrificed. But their numbers have been plunged from a World War Two peak of 112,000 men to just 3,500 now. During the two world wars, 43,000 men lost their lives.

The selection process has been described as one of the toughest in the world and is fiercely contested. Young aspirants have to run uphill for 40 minutes carrying a wicker basket on their back filled with rocks weighing 32kg.

Gurkhas have another quality which you could say some British regiments had in the past, but it is doubtful they have now, ie a strong family tradition. Within each battalion, the Gurkhas usually have close family links, so when they were fighting, they were not so much fighting for their officers or the cause, but for their friends and family.

After the Gurkhas retire from the British army, they receive a British pension, payable in Britain, where they may settle, or in Nepal. But the Gurkhas have been short-changed.

More recently, Gurkhas have been engaged in a different battle in Britain over differences in pensions between Gurkha veterans and British veterans. On 7 August 2021, three members of a group representing Gurkha veterans – Gurkha Satyagraha – went on a hunger strike outside Downing Street.

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A signature petition was launched on 19 August 2021, calling on the government to pay Gurkhas the same pension as other British veterans of the same rank and service. Over 100,000 people signed this petition requiring Parliament to consider it for a debate.

Coronation Street and New Avengers star Joanna Lumley, born in India, has been the public face of the campaign on behalf of the Gurkhas. All retired Gurkha veterans who served in the British Army before 1997 won the right to settle in the UK. This followed a high-profile campaign led by Lumley, whose father served with the 6th Gurkha Rifles.

To honour the services of Gurkha soldiers to the British Crown, a Gurkha Museum was opened in Winchester, (about 70km from London) on 21 June 1974. This museum, where the Gurkha heritage is celebrated, depicts the history and culture of the Gurkha soldiers and their continuing service to Britain.

Perhaps Prof Sir Ralph Lilley, a former Gurkha officer, summed it up most meaningfully: “Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country a more faithful friend than you.”

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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