A military-migrant economy


Families enable ex-Gurkhas to continue global private security work

A security worker from Pokhara before boarding his flight to Afghanistan. He is back on duty after a month of holidays and spending time with his loved ones. He will not see them for a year. all Photos: Robic Upadhyay

The martial history and reputation of Gurkhas is well known in Britain and Nepal. The public is aware of their unacknowledged contributions to local communities in Nepal, the broader political views of Gurkhas, and inter-generational dynamics that motivate young men to become Gurkhas.

It is these very aspects of Gurkhas that make them so desirable for the global private security industry. Recently, with the British Gurkhas’ right to remain in the UK, Nepalis retired from the Indian Army have been moving from the military to private security contractors in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Read also: Rebirth, Upasana Khadka

Yet, it is more than just the martial reputations that enables such a migration desirable and possible. To understand this type of migration, we need to also take into account the Gurkha household. Military scholars focusing on the US, Canadian and UK militaries have shown how families are called upon to support and sustain broader military objectives.

Gurkha families also take on the same necessary household work that enable broader global security deployments to take place. These include the necessary life sustaining work of cooking, cleaning and caring for both children and elderly parents and grandparents, but also the emotional and intellectual labour that reproduces security work as desirable, if not necessary.

Gurkha households have for well over 200 years provided the necessary, yet largely unacknowledged, work of caring for the family and offering an emotional lifeline to Gurkhas when they are working abroad.

Taking care of the family back home is a fundamental part of what allows the security industry to function and sustain recruitment, even if the industry does not recognise this. The household enables security work to be desirable in the first place. Just as young boys are raised to believe that being a Gurkha is honourable and important, especially if you do not excel at formal education, young girls are raised to believe that being a wife of a Gurkha is a good life — and a good decision to make.

Young boys turn into young men who, with the encouragement of their families, invest emotionally, financially and physically into the dream of becoming a Gurkha. Young girls turn into young women who make career choices based on the ability to have flexible employment that might take them to the UK or enable them to be ‘good wives’ in Nepal. The social fabric of these communities is centred around foreign security work. The household is the physical space where youth who desire to be Gurkhas materialise.

The household is also where the life sustaining labour that keeps families alive exists, providing recruits with important emotional wellbeing. This labour is largely performed by the wives, mothers and daughters in the Gurkha family. This involves ensuring basic needs are met but also that children learn to know and to love their absent Gurkha fathers.  They learn that the work their father does, despite him not being physically present, is for their future. They ensure that the Gurkha father is included in the everyday of family life through social media, and encourage the children to maintain relations. Without this household labour, Gurkhas could not be away on foreign security employment for 12-24 months at a time and still maintain vital family obligations back home.

The Gurkha family household is part of a well-established community and all participants appear to know and value each other’s roles. This is no surprise since these families have been set up for foreign military work for over two centuries. Consequently, the private security industry does not need to ‘sell’ security work to these communities the way it might do to other communities across Asia.  These men and their families are already intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically set up for foreign security work.

In interviews with Gurkhas and their families, there is a strong intellectual and emotional reinforcement for the military as honourable and necessary work, but still one of sacrifice. They repeatedly say that it is "for a better future."

To be sure, this future does mean a continuation of Gurkha military service for the next generation. However, many families also look to a future where their children may not have to go into military service, where they might get a good education and start a business and live close to their families.

Looking at the Gurkhas and their family members not just as revered soldiers and martial communities, but as migrant families, enables us to locate how the broader infrastructure of these households makes exporting Gurkhas for security services possible globally.

It also shows us the profound ways in which family is shaping, but also shaped by broader foreign security migration patterns. To understand why Gurkhas continue to be an ‘easy sell’ and desirable in global security we need to look beyond the martial myth of these men. We need to also zoom in on the Gurkha household back in Nepal that enables this pattern of security migration.

Read also:

The Gurkhas: An interactive timeline, Ayesha Shakya

Looking back to the future, Editorial

The sharp edge of history, Kunda Dixit

We are family

Basanta and I sit with Sonika and her husband Bhim in their living area above the kitchen of their home outside Itahari. It is a quiet two street community, mostly made up of Gurkha families.

Children are playing outside. One of the neighbours, a wife of an Indian Gorkha soldier, comes to visit. Bhim shows family photos and his Indian military medals, while Sonika is attentive and ensures visitors are well fed and looked after.

Bhim has been working in private security in Afghanistan for just over two years, and he is home on leave. Sonika takes care of their two children and Bhim’s deceased brother’s 2 children while he is away. It is a big responsibility ensuring they go to school and do well. Bhim is there to assist in any major decisions. Bhim keeps his Facebook messenger always on in case Sonika needs to message him with something urgent.

Asked why he decided to take up a job as a private security, Bhim answers: “The pay is very good, and I have to send my children to boarding school.”

Excerpt from Amanda Chisholm’s fieldnotes.

Amanda Chisholm, PhD, is Lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University. Her research is sponsored by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council.