Manufacturing courageThe history of Gorkhas is a case study of colonial mindsets and Nepali rulers’ failures
The Victoria Cross citation reads, ‘At Taungdaw, in Burma, on the west bank of the Irrawaddy, on the night of 12th/13th May, 1945, Rifleman Lachhiman Gurung was manning the most forward post of his platoon. At 0120 hours at least 200 enemy assaulted his Company position. The brunt of the attack was borne by Rifleman Lachhiman Gurung's section and by his own post in particular…One grenade fell on the lip of Rifleman Lachhiman Gurung's trench; he at once grasped it and hurled it back at the enemy. Almost immediately another grenade fell—directly inside the trench. Again this Rifleman snatched it up and threw it back. A third grenade then fell just in front of the trench. He attempted to throw it back, but it exploded in his hand, blowing off his fingers, shattering his right arm and severely wounding him in the face, body and right leg… [Yet] For four hours after being severely wounded Rifleman Lachhiman Gurung remained alone at his post, waiting with perfect calm for each attack, which he met with fire at point-blank range from his rifle, determined not to give one inch of ground.’
Rifleman Lacchiman Gurung (1917-2010) was among the best known Victoria Cross recipients because of his civic struggle to ensure Nepali Gorkhas serving in the British Armed Forces could settle in the UK. His valour, his courage and his mettle in the face of danger are now lessons in the ideal of ‘Bir Nepali’. But how was he recruited in the British forces in the first place?
Gurung’s account of his recruitment is recorded in Nepali writer Jhalak Subedi’s account of Gurkha soldiers, British Samrajyaka Nepali Mohra (‘The British Empire’s Nepali Pawns’): ‘In those days, one couldn’t say no to recruitment. My father had a tobacco habit, and when I went to buy some for him, a galla, a recruiter, picked me up from the road itself. No one at home knew about this; it was only when a recruitment letter reached them that they found out (translation mine).’ Gurung was not the only one. Another historian records a Gorkha subedar breaking down after the death of a rifleman in Italy in the Second World War: ‘Abir was his nephew...[and] had been killed before his seventeenth birthday and to make Chaturman’s [the subedar] guilt worse, he had…[told] Abir to falsify his age on enlistment.’
The promise of wealth, coercion, honour, royal command—all of these were important factors that sent at least 400,000 Nepali men to serve in the British forces in the two World Wars. Gallas would be sent to villages across Nepal to recruit able-bodied men into the war effort, and recruitment was so heavy that in the 1940s, Juddha Shamsher wrote to the British, ‘I am afraid the quality of the recruits that can be made available now will be poorer.’
Imperial spin doctors
In many ways, the two world wars were colonial wars for the subcontinent, including for Nepalis even if it wasn’t a British colony. Rana rulers heartily supported the British war effort and supplied them with men and materiel. Even if they were being fought in distant theatres, a colonial extraction of human resource allowed British forces to preserve their upper hand. The return, however, was a ‘white-washing’ of history, where the world wars seemed to have been fought only by white people, relegating the erstwhile ‘colonies’ to the footnotes.
Despite this, the contribution of the Gorkhas to the wars of the British has been written about in much detail, and the soldiers eulogised for their exemplary bravery in the face of death. Popular western media continues to present them as ‘fiercest fighters on the planet’ and the ‘most savage soldier in the world’, a portrayal handed down since the days of imperialism. The Gorkhas’ contribution in securing Nepali sovereignty has also long been discussed, such as the eulogies on commemorative occasions like last week’s Armistice Day. The portrayal of Gorkhas as a warring tribe capable of superb courage allows the Nepali people to feel a sense of pride.
But what if this portrayal is nothing but a simple public relations achievement? Come to think about it, how else could British forces convince other people to fight their wars if not by telling them they were the bravest of the lot? After all, the British, adept as they were at lip service, had also told the Garhwalis, the Kumaonis, the Jats, the Sikhs, the Rajputs, and the Marathas, among others, that they were a warring people whose skills were best utilised in the military. Such stereotypes of masculinity continue to this day. The courage of men can never be doubted when under fire, but by fixating on manufactured colonial imaginations, we allow ourselves to be deceived.
‘The soldier’s pain in the battlefield was legitimised as part of one’s necessarily sacred duty to the Nepali nation,’ historian Pratyoush Onta has written, to create a narrative around loyalty and bravery of the Nepali soldier. In his excellent essay based on letters written by Gorkha soldiers in the two world wars, he outlines a picture of desperation and stoicism in the face of fire. A March 1915 letter to a sister begins, ‘And the firing of bullets goes on, and sister, I would like to see it. Several hundreds of thousand of men have been killed and there is no hope of survival. The water (in the trenches) is up to the knees. Ishwar (God) is ruler. What can one do? Do not worry about me.’ Another: ‘Parmeshwar showed me great favour, on the day on which I was wounded my fellow bandsman was killed.’ And then, finally, comes this clincher: ‘Anybody who sends an able young person to the army to experience all that dukha is guilty of paap. I cannot do such paap. I cannot recommend anybody to join the army,’ Lachhiman Gurung told an interviewer in 1993.
The history of the Gorkhas serves as a case study into the colonial mindset and the hollowness of nationalism, along with an abdication of responsibility towards its citizens by Nepal’s rulers. Several ex-soldiers refused to return to Nepal after the world wars, veered away by better opportunities in the hills of India (and also began to participate in the overthrow of the Ranas). Only 3,838 of the 11,000 Gorkhas in the Indian army disbanded after WWI returned to the country. To placate Chandra Shamsher, the British government banned the employment of Gorkhas in the military police, in tea gardens and other non-military services as such employment would reduce ‘their martial calibre’. The Ranas were worried for the right reasons. Ex-soldiers were taking the lead in fomenting anti-Rana views. Bhim Shamsher wrote the British envoy in 1930, ‘What I am most anxious about is that the Gurkhas [sic] in British India may become contaminated by their association with or be seduced by Indian malcontents from the right path of associating themselves with their government at home in firm friendship with the British.’
Essentially, the British wanted to retain Nepali men as cannon fodder, and the Ranas saw in the practice a means to hold on to power. Everything else was a lesson in spin-doctoring.
A galla state
In the 21st century, when the threat of a destabilising global war like in the previous century has greatly reduced, serving as a Gorkha soldier brings considerably less risks and significant material gains. We continue to see large numbers of Nepali youth vying for jobs in foreign armed forces. But the continuation of the policy allows our rulers to get away with non-performance, simply because youth employment does not form part of their mandate. The Gorkha recruitment is, in many ways, similar to the migration of unskilled Nepali workers to other countries; in both instances, the Nepali state’s only function is that of an intermediary, a middleman like the gallas of yore. We may not have the forced recruitment abundant in earlier years, but without a domestic alternative, a career as a Gorkha soldier is high on the list of those who seek foreign employment.
This could also be why, despite calls to ban Gorkha recruitment, no party—including the Maoists, whose initial 40-point demand before the war called for an end to such recruitment—has moved ahead on it. The diplomatic consequences aside—India, the UK, and Singapore are chief beneficiaries of this policy—it would require a leadership of deep imagination to ask for a halt to Gorkha recruitment without providing for avenues of alternative employment. Such a move would be deeply unpopular, and not without repercussions.