Why are the Nepali Gurkhas so Glorious

Published On: February 14, 2023 08:00 AM NPT By: Hari Prasad Shrestha

Neither Britain nor India can imagine the absence of Gurkha soldiers in their armies. As a result of their braveness and combatant superiority, both countries have high respect and trust in the Gurkha army.

The realistic song of Jhalakman Gandharva: Aamale Sodhlin ni (Mother will ask) – is still one of the most popular songs describing the misfortune of Lahures, Nepalis in foreign army and has a sense of extreme sadness. The song narrates a message sent by a soldier from a warfield in foreign land to his relatives in Nepal as his last words.  

Songs based on Lahures have been a part of the migrant culture since the 19th century in Nepal, which present a discernment into the lives of Nepali migrant workers. How ‘separation, loss and longing’ have become topics in Nepal, and are ‘reflected in the songs regardless of how exuberant they sound.’ 

The ‘happy’ songs portray the Lahures as lucky due to their ability to provide a better life for his family, but Gandharva’s emotional ballad focuses on the pessimistic social impacts. 

In Nepal, Gurkhas are also called Lahures. The word Lahure is being used as a metonym to Nepalis who work abroad as soldiers. This word describes those who migrated to Lahore as fighting men and others employed abroad in different vocations. 

It is rarely found in world history that a country which lost the war and its huge territory, received immense respect from the winning nation for their courage and bravery. It happened in Nepal,  the British after recognizing the outstanding bravery skills of the Nepali Gurkhas, had great interest recruiting Nepali Gurkhas in their army.

Acknowledging the importance of Nepal, the British Government kept the Nepal-India border open primarily for two purposes. The first was to maintain unrestricted migration of the Nepali hill people to India and to procure them for recruitment in the Indian army.

The second crucial factor  was to have easy and free access to British and Indian manufactured goods into Nepal as well as to Tibet wherein Nepal was the only easy and accessible route from India. Moreover, the British wanted to have a secure and easy supply of raw materials from Nepal into India such as timber and forest produce, herbs and medicinal plants, hides and skins, etc.

The British had an intention to take over the huge market share of Nepali traders in Tibet, which was the economic reason for the conflict between British India and Nepal. The British wanted to trade access to  Tibet through Nepal and they had made constant efforts to persuade the Nepal government to allow them. However, the Nepal government was not ready to provide the route access and they had a perception, "With the merchants comes the musket and with the Bible comes the bayonet."

The political reason for the conflict between Nepal and British was the occupation of Terai of Butwal from 1804 to 1812 by the Nepalis, which was under British protection,  leading to the Anglo-Nepali war in 1814. 

After the war, Octherlony offered peace terms to the Nepalis demanding British suzerainty in the form of a British resident and the delimitation of Nepal's territories corresponding roughly to its present-day boundaries. At the end of the war in 1815 the British general Ochterlony evicted the Nepalis from Garhwal and Kumaon across the Kali River, ending their 12-year occupation, which is remembered for its brutality and repression.Nepal's refusal to accept the terms led to another campaign the following year, targeting the Kathmandu Valley, after which the Nepalis surrendered. Thereafter, the Sugauli Treaty was signed between the British and Nepal and Nepal lost its huge territory.

There is a perception in some elites that Nepal could have saved its lost territory  from the British if it had dealt well diplomatically with the British before the war and before they left India.

Before the final war of 1914, the British army attacked several locations of Nepal to seize Nepali territories, however it was very difficult for them as the British  were used to fighting in the plains, but were unacquainted with the terrain of the hills, the formidable topology.

Amidst the wars fought between  British and Nepal, the most memorable was the battle of Nalapani. The Nalapani fort's garrison was commanded by Captain Balbhadra Kunwar, while Major-General Rollo Gillespie was in charge of the attacking British troops. Gillespie was killed on the first day of the siege . After the end of the war, Nepali forces left the fort safely.  The British high authorities praised the bravery of the Nepali Commander and his male as well as female forces and constructed a statue of Capt. Balabhadra there.

History has many pieces of evidence that Nepalis 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!

After Indian independence, and the partition of India, in 1947 and under the Tripartite Agreement, the original 10 Gurkha regiments consisting of the 20 pre-war battalions were split between the British Army and the newly independent Indian Army. 

Gurkhas fought in almost all wars as part of the 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 British used Gurkha soldiers extensively to suppress rebels in different parts of India. During World War I and II, hundreds of thousands of Gurkhas served in the British Army, suffering tens of thousand casualties, and receiving almost 2,000 gallantry awards in both wars. They also fought in several countries as part of the British Army.

Currently, there are around 60,000 Gurkha soldiers in the Indian army and Nepali Gorkhas make up almost 70 percent of the Gorkha Regiment, while “Indian domicile Gorkhas'' from places like Dehradun, Darjeeling, and Dharamshala constitute the rest.  Besides India, currently around 4000 Nepali Gurkhas are serving in the British Army. 

Nepalis have also been recruited in Singapore Gurkha Contingent. Moreover, there are around 500 Nepalis in Brunei Gurkha Reserve Unit. The Gurkha Reserve Unit (GRU) is a special guard and elite shock-troop force in the Sultanate of Brunei.  

Currently, Gurkha recruitment in foreign armies is not out of controversy. Nepal asked India to halt the recruitment of Gurkhas into the Indian Army under a new scheme for shorter military contracts until it was clear what would happen to them when they retired.

The Gurkha Justice Campaign  in the United Kingdom is also fighting for the rights of the Gurkhas.

It wanted the Gurkhas who fought for the UK to gain the same rights as their British and Commonwealth counterparts. Essentially the group wanted the law to be changed so that all Gurkhas who fought for the UK would gain a right of abode in Britain.

In Nepal, there are two thoughts regarding the recruitment of Nepalis in foreign armies.  People who support the recruitment say that the Gurkhas have been an integral part of world warrior history, which is a subject of great dignity and pride for the Nepali people. And people who are against the recruitment say that the recruitment in the armies of foreign countries should be stopped. Fighting on behalf of a foreign country against another friendly nation by Nepali nationals has no positive implications for Nepal and could affect Nepal’s diplomatic balances in the long run.

Hitherto, both Britain and India can't imagine the absence of Gurkha soldiers in their armies. As a result of their braveness and combatant superiority, both countries have high respect and trust in the Gurkha army.

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