21-27 November 2014 #733

What was in it for us?

Jhalak Subedi in Kantipur, 15 November

YARD BY YARD: British Gurkha soldiers take over a trench during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in France during World War I.
If World War I hadn’t happened, the world would have been different today. In Russia, Lenin’s October Revolution probably wouldn’t have happened, and the ideology of communism wouldn’t have spread globally. If there hadn’t been a Soviet Union, Mao wouldn’t have been able to complete his revolution. If there was no Mao, there wouldn’t have been a Maoist armed struggle in Nepal. The ideas perhaps would be there, but history would have unfolded differently.

The involvement of Nepali Gurkha soldiers in the British Army linked us to the war. On 24 April 2015, it will be 200 years since the first recruitment of Gurkhas by the British. One hundred years before World War I, Nepali soldiers were already fighting for the British. It is estimated that there were 200,000 Nepali young men in the British Army at that time – about 20 per cent of the hill population of Nepal at the time.  Some 20,000 Nepali soldiers died in that war. Many did not return to Nepal, and statistics show a drastic fall in Nepal’s population between the two wars. Entire villages were without people. Prime Minister Chandra Sumshere also sent 16,000 troops to India to replace the ones who went to the front. He also donated Rs 10 million for the British war effort. The British gave Nepal one rifle for each soldier, the country was therefore awash with guns.

There were some benefits to Nepal. In 1923, in return for the help during the war, Britain signed a peace and friendship treaty, accepting Nepal as a sovereign nation as well as providing Rs 1 million annually which the Ranas and their descendants put into their own pockets.

The war had an impact on Nepali society and economy as well. Families with sons killed in action got some cash. Some 100,000 soldiers came back and brought back Indian currency worth Rs 130 million in salaries – about the same amount as the annual budget at the time. The price of property shot up. They brought back English manners and eating habits. Many Nepalis stayed abroad and never came back extending the Nepali diaspora, those who did returned with new ideas. The soldiers also brought back bad habits like cigarettes, cards and gambling, and alcohol addiction. The shortage of young men encouraged women to marry across caste and ethnic lines.

But in hindsight, it is clear that Nepal never learnt its lesson from World War I. We didn’t have any enemies in that war. There was no reason for us to fight in it. Our national interest lay in preserving our sovereignty, but our rulers took the country to war to protect their own power. They served as middlemen for foreigners. Instead of setting up industries, manufacturing and jobs in our own country, they sent our young men to fight and die for someone else. This tradition continues to this day. The ‘brave Gurkha’ became a slogan for the country. In those days Nepali men died for the British Army, now they toil in the Gulf.

In 1911, before the start of the war, King George V came to Nepal, and our rulers arranged an elaborate welcome with a hunting expedition. This is all very similar to the way we are preparing to welcome Narendra Modi. We are still trying to appease foreign powers, there hasn’t been much of a change in our mentality.

Jhalak Subedi is the author of Belayati Samrajyaka Nepali Mohara. 

Read also:

100 years of platitudes, Sunir Pandey

The Gurkhas: An interactive timeline, Ayesha Shakya

More warlike, Deppak Aryal