The British preferred to recruit soldiers from Nepal’s mountain ethnicities rather than from the high castes
Still from Kesang Tseten’s 2012 documentary Who Will Be A Gurkha that looks at the recruitment process of Nepali boys into the British Army.
The only newspaper in Kathmandu in the early 20th century, Gorkhapatra, referred to the First World War as the ‘European War’ and carried regular reports from the front in which tens of thousands of Nepali soldiers were fighting. The news was about how many were killed in which battle on which front, but did not talk specifically about Gurkha regiments in the British Army that were in the trenches of Flanders Field or at Gallipoli in Turkey.
When the war started, 26,000 Gurkha soldiers were already serving in the British Indian Army and by the end of the conflict, this number had doubled. However, in the five years of fighting, another 200,000 young Nepalis had been recruited for the British Army and 20,000 were killed in action. At that time, the total population of Nepal was estimated at 5.6 million, which means entire villages must have been emptied of young men. And if one takes into account that most of the soldiers came from certain ethnicities, their home villages must have been emptier.
The recruitment of Nepalis into the British military started 100 years previously during the Anglo-Nepal War and initially was made up of deserters, mercenaries, and irregulars from Kumaon and Garhwal. After Nepal’s military expansion ended in 1816, there were about 30,000 battle-hardened ex-soldiers who joined the British Army.
British Resident Brian Houghton Hodgson said recruitment would soothe diplomatic relations with the Nepal Darbar and allow Britain to induct Nepal’s warlike tribes into its ranks to defend its possessions in the subcontinent. At first, Nepal’s rulers appear to have been reluctant to allow their men to join a foreign army, but by the time of Bir Shamsher in 1885, they saw financial and diplomatic benefits and allowed Nepalis to officially join the British Indian Army.
6th Gurkha Rifles at Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915.
The first Englishman to describe Nepali hill dwellers as ‘martial tribes’ was Francis Buchanan-Hamilton in 1819 after seeing the fearless soldiers in action during the conflict with the East India Company. The first Gurkha units of the Nasiri and Sirmoor Battalions had Brahmins, Chhetris, Thakuris, and Dalits. But it was evident that British officers preferred men from Tibeto-Burman ethnicities like Gurung, Magar, Rai, and Limbu.
The British asked for and got permission in 1886 to carry out its own selection of recruits in the mountains of Nepal. So when World War I came around, most of the regular soldiers were from the Tibeto-Burman communities. However, there were still between 5-10 per cent Brahmins and Chhetris in the British Indian Army’s regular force that saw action in the 1914-18 war in Europe.
After the war ended in 1918, the proportion of higher castes went up in the Nepal’s royal army while the numbers of Janajati soldiers increased in the British Army. This trend continued till the time World War II broke out and Gurkhas were once more fighting in distant lands for the British Empire. Most of the names of Nepalis killed in action in the battles of Monte Cassino in Italy, in Imphal and Burma, or Malaya had Gurung, Magar, Rai, and Limbu names.
||Deepak Aryal is a reasearcher at Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya in Patan.
Double centennial, EDITORIAL
The Pashmina War, KUNDA DIXIT
100 years of platitudes, SUNIR PANDEY
The Gurkhas: An Interactive Timeline, AYESHA SHAKYA
50 years after the raid into Tibet, SAM COWAN
The flags of their fathers
Becoming their fathers