British Army Gurkhas – Dissolving Imperialism’s Residue
by Peter Tobin
This year will mark the 200th anniversary of the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli brought about by the defeat of Nepal in the Anglo-Nepalese war that began in 1814. Among the many onerous conditions of defeat including substantial territorial loss and the general reduction of the country to neo-colonial status, was retrospective sanctioning the recruitment of Nepalese nationals – as ‘Gurkhas’ into the British Army, a process already underway on an ad hoc basis from the previous year. (After 1846 the Rana leader, Jonge Bahadur, negotiated a price per recruit, acting as a glorified gallaawallah (recruiting officer) for the British.)
The British establishment and military top brass have therefore decided that 1816 marks the beginning of this arrangement and are celebrating it with events throughout the year, including a march-past Buckingham Palace.
In the intervening two centuries Gurkha brigades have fought and died in almost every British war or major military engagement and have earned admiration for their professionalism, toughness and martial spirit. From Hindu Rao’s house at the Siege of Delhi during the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion to Hangman’s Hill at Monte Cassino in 1943 and subsequent breaking of the Wehrmacht’s Gustav Line on the Italian front during the Second World War, Gurkha units demonstrated breath-taking courage and tenacity in holding vulnerable positions against greater odds and in each case suffering near annihilation.
These two examples, among many more, show why Gurkhas are pro rata the most decorated soldiers in the British Army. The warlike ardour that so impressed the British when they fought them at Nalapani in 1814 never dimmed, even in the service of an empire over which ‘the sun never set’ (‘because God didn’t trust it in the dark!’ as one Irish republican added)
Fighting for a progressive cause as in the Second World War was however an exception to the rule for Ghurkha brigades as their typical military exertions over the two centuries have been in the service of the British Empire; from the predatory colonial wars in India of the 19th century, to the anti-communist counter-revolutions throughout Asia in the 20th, and including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in this century. In the reduced imperial circumstances of these last martial imbroglios the British establishment skin-crawlingly re-imagined itself in a ‘Special Relationship’ with Washington that justified enthusiastic toadying and trailing behind a warmongering WASP American empire seeking ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ as the new global hegemon.
While Ghurkhas in the British Army share many characteristics with mercenaries as defined in Article 47, Protocol 1, of the Geneva Convention in selling their services for private gain and originating from countries not parties to specific wars and conflicts in which they engage, they are exempted because under clause (d) as members of UK armed forces they act solely under the authority of that state. Their situation is analogous to that of the French Foreign Legion which was similarly formed to serve France’s equally brutal and rapacious colonial Empire.
Like the Legion the Ghurkhas have often been used to do the dirty work of empire, but have had to argue and agitate for similar conditions as those agreed by a French government in 2009 where a legionnaire can claim French citizenship after three years’ service and which is granted automatically if wounded in action under the principle ‘Francais par le sang verse’ (spilling blood for France).
Contrast this with the treatment shown to the Gurkhas, past and present, by their British masters who have continually resisted according them equality in the Three Ps; pay, promotion and pensions with British and Irish nationals in army ranks. Even the rights of residence for them and their families only succeeded through an imaginative campaign organised by brigade veterans and fronted by Joanna Lumley that ended in a parliamentary defeat for Brown’s New Labour administration. Pensions also had to be wrung from an ungrateful establishments through the courts with justice for the 35,000 pre-1997 veterans still pending.
Promotions are still a matter of contention as it remains through the ranks despite having moved on from the original racial division between white officers and Gurkha rank and file. When commissions were conceded there was still a caveat that any Gurkha holding one was subordinate to any British officer regardless of rank and even now there appears to be block to rising above the rank of major.
A brave Lt. Gauchan challenged the promotion system at a tribunal in 2002, where he also exposed the ‘up or out’ clause in Conditions of Service (TACOS) then extant, enabling summary discharge of servicemen, willing or unwilling. Together with peremptory disbandment and merging of brigades, the 200,000 who served in the ’39-45 conflict has been whittled-down to a single brigade of under 4,000 in the British Army with two other 2,000 strong contingents sub-contracted out to Singapore and Brunei. The practice of compulsory discharge was not abolished until 2009.
Even in death there was no equality, as was shown in 1999 when Blair’s government tried to short-change the widow of Staff Sergeant Rai killed on active service in NATO’s Kosovo imbroglio, itself an ignominious stratagem within an ignominious campaign to dismember Yugoslavia under the cover, provided by compliant UN, of a ‘peace-keeping mission’.
As with campaign for rights of UK residence, the political and military elite had to be shamed into putting justice before parsimony, and have continually hidden behind the 1947 Tripartite Agreement, where they shared the previous Raj’s Gurkha regiments with the new Indian regime , concurring that terms of engagement for Gurkhas in each army would be ‘broadly comparable’. It obviously suited the British to benchmark against the indices of an unreformed, increasingly failing Third World state.
Considering that over 250,000 Gurkhas served in both 20th century World Wars and that 45,000 have died in British uniform since 1815, they have been ill-served by masters still imbued with the racism of empire. Sentimentalising them, as the British establishment does, as ‘our gallant friends’, ‘loyal allies’, ad nauseam shows that racism takes condescending as well as confrontational forms. It harks back to imperial delusions about ‘loyal natives’ who, like Kipling’s Gunga Din in the excruciating, eponymous doggerel, without question give their lives faithfully serving the White Sahib.
“Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
“By the living God that made you
“You’re a better man than I am Gunga Din!”
And despite all the hard-won improvements in terms and conditions the recruitment of Gurkhas in Nepal remains a blatantly racist exercise. It is a degrading spectacle overseen by a British officer where up to twenty-five thousand Nepalis compete for two hundred places! What happened to one recruit, Bhagat, a few years ago as described by documentary film-maker is proof that the British cannot break the habits of empire and still want their quota of Gunga Dins:
“I was taking pictures during Central Gurkha Selection in Pokhara, west Nepal, and it was the day of the feared Doko race — a gruelling three-mile endurance run over almost vertical, uneven paths and gravely roads, mercilessly uphill, carrying a basket, the Doko, containing a 55-pound bag of sand, to be completed in 48 minutes or less. The track is so steep, slippery and full of boulders that it’s even uncomfortable to walk. Bhagat was doing well, but a little over half a mile before the finish line, he went over on his ankle, hard. Desperate to complete the race and not fail the selection, he ignored the exploding pain in his foot, kept running and still finished in 45 minutes, ahead of a large number of his peers. He was accepted into the Gurkhas not only for his exam results but also for the toughness and tenacity he displayed despite a debilitating injury.”
All lard-arsed wannabe British squaddies have to do is sign-up over tea and bikkies at the nearest Army Recruitment Centre and once inducted are whipped into shape by army training! Aspiring Gurkhas still have to jump through hoops meeting, and expected to maintain, exacting physical standards that would cause uproar if applied to UK nationals.
Establishing Gurkha regiments in the British Army was always a racist project and remains one, both in structure and deployment. It began as consequence of Bhimsen Thapa’s defeat, flourished under the later neo-colonial humiliation of the Rana century that ended in 1950 and since then has continued under Nepal’s successive reactionary monarchical and parliamentary regimes.
The campaign to end it is without prejudice to the accrued rights of serving and veteran Gurkhas, or outstanding claims against the British government. We presently support the claim for equal terms and conditions with British soldiers while opposed in principle to the British Army’s Gurkha contingents, wanting to them abolished as soon as is politically possible.
There can also be no criticism of past and present Gurkha soldiers who due to socio-economic realities in the mother country see service in a foreign army as a viable option. It is the same stark choice that has in recent years seen a surge in Nepali youth migrating to work abroad for the same want of opportunity at home. Where once the Ranas sold Nepalese as cheap soldiers for the British Empire, the Brahminocracy of today sell them as cheap workers into helotry under international capitalism. The overwhelming irony for the latter is that many are building the infrastructures of other counties when that of Nepal was either non-existent, primitive or crumbling, even before the terrible Quake, and still is after twenty-five years of corrupt, aphno manche ‘democracy’.
It is also a vivid illustration of the relentless, vampiric nature of modern imperialism that sucks even the living from Third World failed states in collusion with their suborned, ruling comprador classes, or castes. By keeping such societies under-developed and aid-dependant, IMG debtors it can take its pick of the flower of their young peoples, who are consequentially surplus to domestic requirements.
Ironically the one sector of growth in Nepalese society has been in the military and paramilitary arms of the state apparatus, each seeing an exponential increase in modern weaponry and numbers since the turn of the century. The NA, for example, has increased in this period from 45,000 to nearly 100,000 today, the paramilitary Armed Police Force (APF) from 15,000 to 45,000 in same period. That is 150,000 armed and highly visible members of the state repressive apparatus in a country with a population under 30 million. Since 9/11 the Americans have stuffed the Nepali Army with dollars and modern weaponry, including replacing obsolete .303 rifles with the much-improved M 16s. (Although India also supplied 25,000 of its INSAS assault rifles – an AK 47 hybrid with a troubled development and subsequent proven unreliability in combat, that, it was claimed, cost the lives of 43 RNA infantrymen and bloody defeat at the hands of the PLA in August 2005.)
Consequently NA top brass have built a flat up Washington’s arse in addition to their existing apartment up New Delhi’s. NA’s officer class, like their Indian Army homologues, are mostly Sandhurst trained and therefore pre-conditioned to act as comprador soldierly; lavish funds without strings are provided by foreign interests to ensure that the army has the numbers and equipment sufficient for internal repression when necessary. Consequently the military is the only sector in Nepalese society that has been specifically modernised in order to block the modernisation of all the others.
This writer had an object lesson in the skewed priorities of Brahminical Nepal when driving to Dolokha, 150 kilometres from Kathmandu to attend a meeting calling for a boycott of the phoney election in 2012. Part of the highway had been built by the Swiss, (for obvious topographical reasons.) in the 1960s and had not been maintained since then! Consequently it was cracked, pot-holed and in many places had crumbled away. Yet picking our way over this broken road we were stopped, questioned and inspected at four army roadblocks, manned by squads of well-armed, smartly turned-out soldiers.
There is something topsy-turvy in a society where the military apparatus is a major domestic avenue of employment for the work-starved in a country with a majority youth demographic. When I lived in Nepal, one Friday a few years ago the NA held a recruitment drive for 300 places and, like the Brit charivari described earlier, thousands of hopefuls crowded onto Tundikhel Park in central Kathmandu. A few weeks later thousands more crowded around the city’s South Korean embassy in an equally desperate pursuit of the few hundred work permits on offer. These applicants had studied Korean (Nepalese are great linguists) in the same way the myriad Gurkha and NA hopefuls came already physically and psychologically prepared to their ignominious selection contests. All are making rational choices within the existing system that wastes their native wit and commitment because its compromised ruling castes, Brahmin and Chetri, have made a Faustian pact with powerful ‘foreign devils’ that perpetuates underdevelopment and its corollary, underemployment. In a concentrated form Nepal embodies all the afflictions visited upon a Third World in thrall to presently prevailing international reaction and shows graphically why revolution is necessary.
In the case of Nepal specifically, the challenge to patriotic forces requires removing the useless, peculating, comprador, Brahminical ruling elite that rode to power on the back of the 1990 Andolan and have since deepened the nation’s neo-colonial subservience to Indian Hindutva expansionism and Anglo-Saxon imperialism or its satrapies. To unleash productive forces in Nepal would mean breaking these chains and acting as a sovereign nation developing a domestic economy that harnesses its vigorous and numerous youth to the tasks of, inter alia, creating a nationwide modern infrastructure. This would initiate land reform in order to end the present backward subsistence/semi-feudal agricultural system through a ‘land to the tiller’ programme, and also large engineering schemes to exploit hitherto untapped, vast hydro resources and establish protected domestic industries.
The youth and people of Nepal would rise to such a national challenge, as the majority who leave the homeland under the present dispensation to serve as either soldiers or workers in foreign climes, for foreign masters, like émigrés throughout history, do so with the utmost reluctance.
It is also a paradox that many who have encountered ‘things as they are’ under the international ascendancy of the First World, experience life-changing flashes of comprehension regarding the British Empire’s oppressive global project. Jeremiah O‘Donovan Rossa, the great Fenian leader, put the doggerel below into the mouth of one among the countless thousands of Irishmen who, like their Gurkha comrades took the ‘King/Queen’s Shilling’ to escape poverty and want:
“I thought to be a pauper was the greatest human curse,
“But fighting in a robber’s cause, I felt it ten times worse.
“I helped to plunder and enslave those tribes of India’s sons,
“And we spent many a sultry day blowing sepoys from our guns.”
Better a real Mangal Pandey than a confected Gunga Din!
A 2012 parliamentary report to the Nepalese government recommended phasing out Gurkha recruitment, not on principle but in a fit of pique that remittances to the Nepalese exchequer had significantly declined as a result of Gurkha veterans winning British residency. Remittances, especially those from migrant workers contribute 25% to Nepal’s GDP and helps fund the status quo’s corrupted domestic inertia.