|FACE OF TRADITION: A freshly painted Gurkha portrait on the window of a British Gurkha training centre in Dharan. The Maoist called the employment of Nepalis in foreign armed forces "shameful". |
The Maoist sweep has been not altogether unwelcome here in eastern Nepal, but veterans of the British and Indian armies are worried that the new Maoist government may terminate Gurkha recruitment.
'Shameful activities like the employment of Nepalis in foreign armed services like the British Gurkhas need to be stopped. All Nepalis should take up respectful and useful jobs inside the country itself. Necessary steps will be taken to create the proper environment,' says the Maoist election manifesto which has a Prachanda-for-president photo on the back cover.
The Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organisation has taken strong issue with this. "If the Maoists stop recruitment, it would be a great loss for the country," says Gajendra Isbo of GAESO. "The Gurkhas do not earn peanuts. The money they send back keeps our economy going."
Remittances have increased in the past few years as the British government raised the salary and pensions of Gurkhas after protests by ex-servicemen. Ex-Gurkhas now also have the option of settling permanently in Britian (see 'Ae Gorkhaliharu', #391).
Much of Dharan's economy survives on remittances that soldiers serving abroad send home. Ex-servicemen form a vital part of the city's society and have strong political clout. After the manifesto came out, influential ex-Gurkhas made a lot of noise, putting pressure on the Maoist-affiliated Limbuwan National Liberation Front, many of whose own members are ex-servicemen.
The agenda is not new. The UML has also been against Gurkha recruitment, but that never stopped Dharan from being a UML stronghold.
The British started recruiting Nepalis into their army in 1815, and Gurkha soldiers fought for them in various insurrections in British India and during both world wars. After India's independence in 1947, under a Tripartite Agreement between India, Nepal and the British government, Nepalis were formally integrated into both the British and the Indian armies.
This almost 200-year history of Nepalis fighting for foreign countries has become a tradition as well as an institution. For many of the so-called 'martial races,' like Rai, Limbu, Gurung and Magar, it is a matter of pride and prestige to become a 'lahure'.
Every year thousands of young men aged between 17 and 21 try out for the Gurkhas. Only 294 are chosen, out of which 230 join the British Army and 64 for the Singapore Police. The Indian Army also recruits heavily from Nepal and currently has approximately 100,000 Nepalis in 44 battalions.
"Right now it is impossible to stop recruitment," says Ram Narayan Kandanga, an ex-British Gurkha who is researching a doctorate in British-Nepali relations. "It would not solve anything, in fact it would only complicate matters."
The Maoists probably realise this, and say they will not implement the provision in the manifesto. "On behalf of my party, I have made clear that there will not be an immediate closure of recruitment," says Akkal Bahadur Manangbo of the Limbuwan Front and Maoist PR candidate.
Manangbo himself was a British Gurkha and says it is indeed "shameful" that Nepalis serve in foreign armies and that it needs to be stopped. But not immediately. "We want to scrap the unfair tripartite treaty. After that, if the youth still want to go into foreign armies we will let them. But as our economy becomes stronger, we will not need this kind of slavery," he told Nepali Times.
Many here will be relieved that the Maoists do not intend to enforce their agenda. "Many Gurkhas voted for them," says Parbat Rai, instructor at a local training institute for British Gurkhas. "But if they stop recruitment, we will kick them out in the next parliamentary elections."
It doesn't look like the Gurkhas will give up without a fight. Says aspiring British Gurkha, Salil Thakuri: "Just let them try."