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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Extending the Gurkha debate: How empires euphemize and justify brutal wars

The British empire collapsed long back. But its legacies have lingering presence till date. Gurkha recruitment in today's Nepal is one of them. Nine months back, I wrote 'The Gurkha Legacy: Nepal's National Shame' and posted in this blog. A month back, shorter version of Kesang Tseten's 'Who will be a Gurkha' was broadcasted by Al Jazeera as 'Gurkha School' and the video shared in the channel's website. A debate ensued in the site in which I actively participated. That debate aptly represents the arguments of people who abhor the legacy of the past empire on one hand and those who are nostalgic of the bygone days of empire on the other.

The Gurkha Legacy: Nepal's national shame
Here, I have taken a part of that debate word-to-word. This debate has extended to shed light on other historical episodes that led to massive number of deaths like the foundation of the United States, Japanese imperial wars, stints of the Kuomintang and the Communist party in China, reign of Stalin in USSR, the Opium Wars, the Taiping rebellion and so on. For their context, I have added links that relate to the referred events.

Anonymous commenter 1: My father served with the Gurkhas - 1st/2nd, 4th Indian Division, 8th Army. He led them into battle. It meant everything to the meaning of his life. Any soldier, in any army anywhere, would cheer for the way my father spoke with honor and pride about the Gurkha soldiers.

The Al Jazeera site with video and debate. Click here

A British General once said: "If a man says he is not afraid to die, he is either a liar ... or a Gurkha." And if those values have watered down, or become jaundiced with the end of the imperial ideals, the world is a hollower place for its loss.

Jiwan Kshetry (JK): The world is a hollower place now but for the better of everyone. While I have found many people from Britain genuinely praising the Gurkhas, they too choose to forget the historical legacy of Gurkha recruitment. That Britain chose the Himalayan hinterlands to draw the recruits for world wars is understandable. But what is shameful is the fact that Britain to date refuses to account for the loss of lives and limbs of the Gurkhas during the world wars; not even an acknowledgement in proper sense. And few know the stigma that Nepal draws in various parts of the world because the Gurkhas fought the bloody wars for the British. What would the poor Afghans feel when they discover that a servile Gurkha soldier severed head of one alleged terrorist to bring it back to his master as the proof of his job? Thereby lies the crux of the problem for Nepal in the whole affair.

Anonymous commenter 2 (AC2) : Sounds like complete nonsense to me. First of all, over 50 million people lost lives and limbs in the wars, not just the Ghurkas. Secondly, I think that the Brits give Ghurkas citizenship, pensions, etc. They haven't forgotten the Ghurkas at all, in fact, I know that they are held in very high esteem. Even have msueums for them and the like.

And as for any stigma of Nepal, I only hear of such a thing in conjunction with the behavior of Nepalese Maoists, or, in conjunction with the shame of Nepalese who are willing to work as slave laborers in places like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Ghurkas, by contrast, bring the Nepalese a lot of respect.

JK: Apparently, nonsense has multiple meanings. I can understand your position. I don't know if Britain acknowledged/compensated the loss of life/limb of its own citizens after the war. 

What also matters, however, is that there was a difference of motives between the British citizens and the hired soldiers in fighting the wars. Brits fighting the war had a moral imperative to defeat the enemy to avoid a calamitous future and their death in combat could amount to martyrdom for the sake of the country, but the Gurkhas were there to make a mere living, they had no enmity with Hitler and neither was Nepal Britain's colony. Most of them, illiterate and ignorant of the world affairs, were hoodwinked by the brokers of the British empire to join the British army in massive numbers. Thousands of them lost everything in the war and never again remembered by their employers.

As for Britain providing Gurkhas with citizenship and pensions, you have chosen to ignore the discrepancy between the remuneration for British citizens and the Gurkhas all along, nor do you appear to have any knowledge of the draining struggle of the ex-Gurkha soldiers that was able to bring those respites.

River waters had become a “cocktail of blood, flesh, bones and fat” A chilling account of China before the rise of CCP, an excerpt from 'From the ruins of empire'. The Mao-bashers in the west have been able to completely black out this portion of Chinese history while blithely calculating the casualties under Mao.
On stigma, your only source of information seems to be the latest The Guardian report on working conditions of Nepali migrant workers in Qatar. There are many more resources which deal with the stigma that I talk about.

AC2: How are we supposed to take you seriously? You are far more outraged about honorable Ghurkas who gain British citizenship, with all its rights and privileges, than you are about Nepalese menial laborers who have zero prospect of citizenship in the countries that exploit them.

Sounds like you have just an axe to grind.

JK: By all means you are free not to take me seriously. But the common problem on any discourse related to Gurkhas is that the apparently glossy and glorious side of the story as seen from Britain overshadows everything else. Having born and living in Nepal and having read a recent book in Nepali chronicling the life of the Gurkhas in British army, I can see the flip side of the coin far more easily. What I say amounts to heresy to you because the Brits have entirely blacked out the real process of recruitment that worked during the world wars. My grievance to the documentary is also its tunnel vision focused at TODAY'S recruitment, a mere ritual.

I am not at all outraged about any person or a group of persons but I have pointed the responsible institutions, the then British and Nepali governments, behind the fallacious process of hiring/recruitment. (You may google my whole length article titled 'The Gurkha Legacy: Nepal's National Shame' in my blog.)

AC2: Ah, so you do have an axe to grind. Are you even remotely aware of what the Japanese Imperial Army, or the CPC and the KMT armies in China, were doing during WWII?

It's also rather presumptious of you to try to define the legacy of the Gurkhas for them, is it not?

Oh sure, not the axe thing but the awareness about other armies in the past. But how does the evil track record of Japanese Imperial Army or the CPC or the KMT dissuade me from objectively looking at the Gurkha affair?

At this point, you have clearly deviated from the central theme of the debate. Still I shall carry on with the thread you have provided. If the historical anomaly of one geographical area of a time were to neutralize/turn irrelevant the same in the other, why don't we turn blind eye to any atrocity committed today in any part of the world? If you read David Stannard's 'American holocaust: The conquest of the new world', you will find the chilling account of how today's superpower was founded. The deeds of the Japanese, the CPC or the
Chilling account of how America was conquered by the Europeans from 'The American Holocaust' by David Stannard
KMT get simply dwarfed in the face of the continent-wide decimation that made way for the United States.

My point is, a wrong thing in one time and one place never nullifies the same in the other.

In this new light, I think I am free to pursue the Gurkha debate from my viewpoint despite the terrible historical records of the Japanese, the CPC or the KMT.

 AC2: I think that the Ghurkas are in the best position to define their own legacy. I also think that I know how the majority of Nepalese view the legacy of the Ghurkas.

I'm happy to leave it at that.

(On Stannard: you need to note that most scholars reject his numbers. Also, even Stannard admits that most of the deaths he refers to were deaths by communicable diseases.

The bulk of scholarly estimates of those killed at the hands of the government of "today's superpower" (founded 1776) range from 200,000 to 500,000 (remember, this does not include South America). Compare this to the 30,000,000+ killed by the CPC, or to the 20,0000,000+ killed by Stalin. Note also that the latter happened in the 20th Century!)

JK: First of all, the communicable diseases were also used as weapons by the Spanish. Second, most deaths under Mao and Stalin were also the results of famines created by their ill-devised policies rather than those caused by bullet injuries. More importantly, Mao and Stalin did not obliterate an entire civilization by decimating the population to lay foundation of the other one the way it was done in North America.

Now that you have opened the can of worms, how can you disregard the egregiously unjust (two) opium
Prelude to the Opium wars; another except from 'From the Ruins of Empire'
wars that the Britain forced on China while pointing fingers to Mao for killing his people? As expected, analysts and historians in the west deliberately ignore the devastation brought about by those wars. After all, you need not put bullets in people's heads to kill them: you can simply starve them or forcibly drug them. Even the deadly Taiping rebellion that killed at least 20 million people (according to wikipedia article) had its roots in the missionary activity of the Europeans in China. Obviously all these facts are swept under carpet when you point to Mao's CPC as the sole spoiler of China. 

Another way of contextualizing the opium wars: section of my review of a novel

Fortunately, we have other resources here that look these historical things from a perspective different from yours, like the meticulously researched book 'From the ruins of empire' by Pankaj Mishra. To sum up, we have a more holistic way of looking into these things. Not that I approve of the deaths that took place under Mao or Stalin or imply that those deaths were less deplorable than the ones that took place in North America; rather the contrary. But people like you (I mean usual western observers) prefer to choose only what fits in the conventional 'communists-bad, capitalists-good' paradigm. And that is the root of the problem in any of the today's discourse on world history.

Anonymous commenter 3: No point arguing with a Brit, they actually believe the bull's manure that they were fighting WWII to save the world (not themselves). They have doctored history so much that they cannot comprehend a different perspective.

Their opponents are seen and presented as evil genociders, while they present themselves as godlike paternal guardians of law and morality.

JK: That is indeed the whole point of the debate: should we buy the manufactured answer for every historical question presented by the Brits or to delve into alternative narratives that see the things in different and non-Britain centric perspective.

Anonymous commenter 4: For my part the colonialist relations (with the military expeditions and the divide and impera principle and all that) are the inevitable perspective for the Nepalese in previous centuries.  

JK: Certainly. Gurkha recruitment started as the ramification of the expanding British empire and grew to its peak during the world wars. Today's recruitment is a mere ritual with symbolic importance but the roots in colonialism refuse to die out and Gurkha recruitment is bound to be identified with the root in British colonialism as long as it exists.  

Anonymous commenter 5 (Responding to AC1): "...jaundiced with the end of the imperial ideals, the world is a hollower place for its loss...."
and you started so well. There is a term for former British subjects that crave for the return of the empire and it ideals - a slave.

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