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Friday, March 1, 2013

The Gurkha legacy: Nepal's National Shame

I believe soul-searching is very important, both in the lives of individuals as well as the societies. Arrogance and hypocrisy largely result from the fact that most people do not bother reflecting on their own deeds and keep themselves at the center of universe as an infallible entity. Nepal may be one of the least prosperous countries in the world but that per se has nothing to do with our dignity as citizens of this modern world. Foreign friends who have been helping Nepal financially deserve our sincere gratitude but by no means a voiceless servility. Moreover, while our individual identities are obviously significant, our collective identity as a people is no less significant. In this pretext, I intend to dissect the legacy of 'Gurkha recruitment', a process in which Nepali youths have been serving in the foreign armies for more than a century now.

First, I doubt even my nationalist credentials, let alone being a chauvinist or a jingoist. I am also one among large number of people who are highly skeptic of history in the conventional sense. But I abhor the notion of so called post modernists that history does not exist. Second, I know how it feels to dream of an ultimate utopia to be achieved through the proletariat revolution. But now that I am at safe distance from those romantic ideas, that matters little to my judgement. Third, I have enormous empathy to poor Nepalis who were forced into performing some of the worst and unwholesome jobs in the world and continue to do so till date. While I consistently blame the system and the institutions that benefited from it, I place no blame at persons who were either lured or forced into the arrangement to be discussed in this article. With this clarification, I intend to give a Nepali perspective of a process by which Nepali youths have been offering themselves for service in foreign armies. The immediate background of this article is a thought-provoking recent book in Nepali and I start the discussion with an reappraisal of a related documentary and a talk program that help us gauge the arguments on two sides of the debate.

Gurkhas advancing with tanks to clear the Japanese from Imphal-Kohima road [N.E. India] (captured between 8 March - 3 July 1944; source: Wikimedia Commons)
During this year's Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival (KIMFF), 'Who will be a Gurkha', a documentary dealing with the recruitment of Nepali youth in British army and directed by Keshang Tseten won two awards: both from the jury as well as the audience. I was naturally disappointed; leaving scores of other films that had meticulously documented the triumphs and tragedies in people's lives even risking their own lives, this not-so-brilliant documentary had won the accolades. Flawlessly artistic and sophisticated film-making of Tseten apart, this documentary had the major flaw of veering dangerously close to playing an apologist role to the so called 'Gurkha Bharti' or the tradition in which the British army continues to recruit a limited number of Nepali youth to date. While capturing the psychology of thousands of Nepali youths who aspire to join the 'Gurkhas' in British army relatively well, this work naturally avoided the contentious historical issues related to the tradition (having got the permission/blessing to shoot inside the British army's recruitment center in Pokhara, it was impossible to be judgmental). Any artwork like this obviously risks helping people to miss the bush by pointing to the trees.

The book on Gurkha recruitment by Jhalak Subedi
The other day, the organizers of KIMFF had organized a talk program featuring Jhalak Subedi who has recently published a book in Nepali that nearly translates in English as 'British Empire's legacy in Nepal: Nitty-gritty of Gurkha recruitment'. While I missed most of the program, I could catch up a lengthy diatribe against those who want to end the trend of so called 'Gurkha recruitment' by a man from the audience who introduced himself as Nobel Kishor Rai (hope I spell it correctly). His grievance was that despite the fact that wealth worth billions of rupees has been brought to Nepal by those serving in the foreign armies (mainly British and Indian) and people's access to as basic amenities as drinking water has been ensured precisely because of that wealth in many regions of Nepal, the smearing of the recruitment tradition has not ended. He was aghast at the attempt of some of the communist parties in Nepal to abolish the tradition itself at a moment when millions of Nepali workers have to roam the deserts of Gulf, just to make a living.

In fact, today's Nepal has so many issues to ponder on that little matters to most of the people whether this particular legacy of imperial Britain remains or is abolished; even though it is an altogether different matter for teenagers who aspire to have a 'glorious' life after joining the British army, and their families. Some questions related to the collective fate of Nepalis as a society, its historical background and the larger implications of such a process to our collective identity, however, are worthy of serious contemplation.

To start with, a debate as to whether so called Gurkhas fighting for foreign army were/are mercenaries is largely redundant: one recent incident in which one extra-servile Gurkha soldier beheaded an Afghan after shooting him to bring his head to his British lord as a proof of his execution speaks more than a thousand words. As Subedi puts it meticulously in his book, the early wave of recruitment of Nepali youth in British army was result of the Britain's need to recruit large number of young men in times of wars, particularly over the first half of the last century. Today's recruitment (a mere ritual compared to massive recruitment before and during world wars) is as much the result of push factors in Nepal created by chronically stunted economy as the Brit's wish to somehow continue the tradition. This, however, does not change the fundamental nature of the relationship between the recruiters and the recruitees: through a process that combines harassment, humiliation, pestering and torment, a human being is converted into an army soldier. While this process is arguably universal among professional armies in the world, the British seem to have gained extra mastery in the realm of manufacturing brutal mercenaries from trivial young men as shown by the appalling behavior of the aforementioned Gurkha soldier in combat in Afghanistan. (It is noteworthy that even during the decade long brutal armed conflict in Nepal, such nauseating brutality was not reported from either side).

The argument that recruitment of Nepali youths should not be stopped as long as Nepal has to export labor to places with often dismal working conditions and a relatively slim remuneration is just ludicrous. The fact that the share of remittance from the youth employed in foreign armies is shrinking fast in Today's Nepal notwithstanding, selling labor can never be equated with swearing to kill and get killed for someone else's interest. Moreover, a recapitulation of a historical phenomenon cannot be done by sole focus on realities of one day. In retrospect, Subedi's book paints a very grim and often abominable picture of hundreds of thousands of poor Nepalis first lured/forced to join the British army in the eve of war and then sent home literally empty-handed. Glorification of such a recruitment process is possible only so long as the devastation brought about by the death, injury and disappearance of hundreds of thousands of Nepalis in world wars and then the subsequent castigation of large size of Nepali workforce which had wasted its most productive years in the service of British Queen, is forgotten.

Behind the facade of 'gloriously brave' Gurkhas, there was the natural process of systematic humiliation of individual soldiers by British bosses (and of course their sycophant Nepalis with a higher rank) as 'hungry misers from barren Nepali hills'; a new thing I discovered in the book through the account of individual soldiers. I was flabbergasted to discover in the book that the opulence brought in cities like Dharan and Pokhara (ordinarily thought to be result of settlement by 'Lahure's from British army) is rather a result of generosity of Sultan of Brunei. Subedi's observation that the Brits were in fact selling Nepali youths for much higher price in Brunei after purchasing them at lower price was no less shocking than the GAESO president Padam Bahadur Gurung's bitter experience in which the British had actually attempted, rather unsuccessfully thanks to shrewd Gurung, to curtail the facilities of private guards in Brunei so as to make them at par with Gurkha personnel in British army.

GAESO president Padam Bahadur Gurung: legendary fighter against the historic injustice done to Gurkha recruits by the British. Subedi's book largely builds around the life of this man who saw the ugly facets of Gurkha recruitment first hand, including the post war purges called 'redundancies' and the British treachery at Brunei where they tried the dirty trick of depriving private Nepali guards from fair remuneration fearing the disparity with regular Gurkha soldiers in British army would create discontent.  (Photo courtesy: GAESO, used under fair use policy)
In its essence the recruitment tradition was the result of geopolitical realities of past one and a half centuries: in Nepal's case, unlike the outright colonization as done elsewhere in South Asia, best way for the British to benefit from the impoverished land would be to collude with the autocratic rulers in a win-win arrangement whereby young men would be employed (rather forcibly in many instances) for a pittance while a more generous payment would be given to the rulers, sort of ugly barter between the two sides neither  of which had a genuine concern for livelihood of the poor. The utter irrelevance of continuing the tradition today  becomes clear the moment we put it in the historical context but the arguments in contrary also appear reasonable when only one among many facets of the tradition is observed (akin to declaring an elephant 'like a stick' by blindly holding the tail!).

Now coming to the 'shame' part of the whole affair I will try to avoid circumlocutions. Before dealing with the crux of the matter, however, some clarifications: first, while I am no moral authority to pass a verdict in such a serious issue I will try to apply ordinary moral standards to judge what is shameful and what is not; while it is not shameful to be poor, it is so to indulge in theft as a way out of poverty. Second, while feeling ashamed is generally bad, it is far better than lack of conscience that often accompanies shamelessness; shame merely indicates that the person/institution is capable of resisting the tendency to arrogantly or hypocritically claim that he/she/it is incapable of making mistakes. Shameless people, communities and nations are among the most dangerous in the world.

While I intend to label the tradition of facilitating or coaxing one's own people to join foreign armies on part of the Nepali rulers (while gaining wealth in the process) as the eternal shame (that they never expressed for being a shameless lot in the first place), Britain's act of employing Nepali youth in its army by remunerating them reasonably was/is rather utilitarian and not shameful. What is shameful in part of the Brits is the fact that they literally drew poor young men from Nepali hills to send them to the furnace called world wars and when the wars were over, never bothered to account for the devastation they had wrought in the lives of those men and their families.

As a modern nation state, Nepal (however fragile its economy, however myopic its leaders and stagnant the politics and however insignificant its presence in the world stage, I believe we have absolutely no reason to be ashamed on these three accounts) needs to see beyond its borders to assess how we as a people are perceived today. This is exactly where I propose to keep the often glorified legacy of 'Gurkha bravery' on the category of 'National Shame'. The logic is again that accepting wrongdoing and being ashamed for that only shows that we are dignified people who admit the mistakes. The most concrete reason for a need to do so is that among a handful of things that the world knows Nepal for are the Gurkha recruitees in British army and their reputation. In an attempt to make an optimum use of those soldiers, the British have created such an image of the Gurkhas (and by implication, Nepalis) that people in many parts of the world can be forgiven for perceiving us as the bloodthirsty monsters. Take, for instance, this shit of propaganda that the British had spread before the infamous 1982 war of Malvinas/Falklands: 'Gurkhas are the sword-wielding monsters who cut off their enemies' heads and then hold the several heads by the hair and cut off the ears'.

While I personally feel like apologizing to people in lands ranging from Argentina to Malaysia and Afghanistan to Iraq for the indulgence of my fellow brethren in a war of occupying force that Britain always is, that definitely falls short of settling the scores in historical terms. As a modern nation state which aims to have a dignified position in the world stage, Nepal needs to do a serious assessment of the historical fallacy in which the rulers in two nations, under certain geopolitical compulsions, had agreed to barter the young men for some amount of wealth and legitimacy to the regimes in Nepal. Immediately scrapping the tradition will surely clear the way for doing more in the direction by ending an era of suffocating silence.

If not anything else, I want to see a day when our identity as the people of bloodthirsty mercenaries and sword-wielding monsters is consciously rejected as a slander instigated and propagated by an empire which had the best interests in projecting us so and not a result of our choice, our culture or our national destiny. While a whole book documenting the process of recruitment was required to break my silence on the issue, I hope less will be required for other informed citizens of this country.

Read the shorter Nepali version of the article here: गोर्खा भर्तीः नेपालको राष्ट्रिय कलंक

Read the vigorous debate on the same issue that ensued in Al Jazeera page here: Extending the Gurkha debate: How empires euphemize and justify brutal wars

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