The Gurkhas of Nepal have had the reputation of soldiers to be feared ever since 1767, when 2,400 British soldiers advanced against them and retreated with only 1,000 survivors. In a power struggle to control trade routes into Tibet, the British East India Company and the Gorkhali Army battled for almost 50 years, until a British force of 40,000 defeated 14,000 Gurkhas in 1814. In a burst of military genius, the British Army immediately absorbed three battalions of Gurkha soldiers into its ranks, making Nepal “a toothless nation.”
From that time on, in almost every war fought by the British, Gurkha troops have fought beside them. Their battle cry of Ayo Gorkhali (“The Gurkhas are upon you”) and their traditional weapon, a knife known as the kukri, have become a chilling part of British military history. From the days of Rudyard Kipling to beyond both World Wars, the Gurkhas have been mythologized. The truth, says Gorkhali native and former British Gurkha in his book Ayo Gorkhali: A History of the Gurkhas, Tim I. Gurung, is the myth conceals the tragic truth that the Gurkhas were “dispensable”, and Nepal suffered social and economic consequences as a result.
He advances his case in an indefatigable pursuit of Gurkha military history that bristles with names, places and dates. Beneath this somewhat intimidating array of facts lies a story with a wide appeal, one that tells how the Gurkhas were enshrined as legendary fighters and were exploited as cannon fodder.
In the Gorkhali region, men have had two choices. They could become soldiers or farmers, a choice that Gurung made himself in 1980, when he joined the military at the age of 17. His ambition was to become a British Gurkha rather than one who served in the Indian Army, which offered less status and lower pay. British Gurkhas, “clean and well disciplined” came home with gifts and “enough money to buy land and gold,” making them desirable husbands and causing a class disparity that still exists today.
Establishing their reputation for bravery from the start, in the quelling of the Sepoy Mutiny and during the Afghan Wars, the Gurkhas were prized forces in the British Army and additional regiments of them were formed. Their cultural values of honor, respect and loyalty, as much as their unflagging courage, made them desirable soldiers. These instilled qualities made it easy for their British commanders to place them in the forefront of an attack, boosting their courage before battle with orders to drink “a substantial amount of rum until they felt hot.”
Over 450,000 Gurkhas fought in the two World Wars. Of that number, more than 60,000 of them were killed, wounded or listed as missing in action. The survivors returned home “without pensions, medical expenses, gratuities, or severance pay.”
Within the British Army, Gurkhas were seen as cheap labor. While serving in Malaysia and Hong Kong after WWII, a Gurkha’s monthly salary was $42 while a British soldier was paid $450. Since the British wanted Gurkhas only while they were between the ages of 18-35, they were discharged before becoming eligible for pensions. Even Gurkhas who had won the Victoria Cross for extreme bravery went home without that compensation. Battle-scarred, exhausted, wounded and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, British Gurkhas became a drain on the economy of Nepal.
Not until 1969 was a trust established in England to “alleviate poverty and distress among Gurkha veterans and their families,” and Gurkhas weren’t given “right to abode” in Great Britain until 2009. This, Guring asserts, is a small installment payment on “the debt of honor” owed to the Gurkhas, a people who have been “betrayed by their destiny.”
With rich details, brief interviews with Gurkha war heroes, and his own personal anecdotes, Gurung unveils a history of discrimination and disregard, bravery and sacrifice, a hidden tragedy that has gone ignored for centuries and persists into the present. By stripping the British legend from the story of the Gurkhas, he has ensured their truth will shine, unclouded by the hagiography that has obscured who they are and how they have been used.