Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 August 2019

The Gurkhas of the British Army

A look at the Gurkhas, the men from Nepal who join the British army.
Training tough: young Nepalese men who are preparing to apply for this year's competitive Gurkha selection process do their daily push-ups by Fewa Lake, near Pokhara. Curtesy of Bibek Bhandari
Training tough: young Nepalese men who are preparing to apply for this year's competitive Gurkha selection process do their daily push-ups by Fewa Lake, near Pokhara. Curtesy of Bibek Bhandari

As the monsoon brings a sudden morning downpour, the sound of the men’s marching synchronises with the falling water that their feet splash in the street. They are drenched; their soaked T-shirts are pressed against the strong physiques that these young men have rigorously built. By 6am, despite the shower, this group of 60 Nepalese have already run five kilometres and had a push-up session on the bank of Fewa Lake, nestled in between the hills near Pokhara, Nepal. This is, however, just a beginning of a demanding routine that they follow six days a week, all for the hope and chance of following in the great Nepalese tradition of becoming a Gurkha with the British army.

Every year, thousands of young hopefuls apply to try their luck and go through a painstaking “free, fair and transparent” selection process, based on physical and educational tests. In 2012, 6,134 men applied for 126 positions.

Deepak Gurung was one of those men whose opportunity of becoming the next Gurkha crashed last year. The 20-year-old was also among the 6,581 in 2011 and 9,714 potential recruits in 2010.

This year he is trying for the last time – his age won’t allow him to apply next year. The eligibility criterion is 17-and-a-half to 21 years old.

“Apart from following the family tradition – my grandfather and uncle were Gurkhas – I want to see the world,” says Gurung.

To fulfil his goal of becoming a Gurkha, Gurung has enrolled at Salute Gorkha, one of the many training academies that have sprouted up in Pokhara in the last few years. Rahul Pandey runs the academy and is also a member of the Nepal Physical Association, which oversees regulations and monitors training. According to him, there are about 50 officially registered academies in Nepal, some 20 in Pokhara alone.

The enrolment process has been the subject of a documentary released this year. Who Will Be a Gurkha explores the physical and emotional side of this tough competition, which director Kesang Tseten calls “a spectacle of the human story involved in the recruitment process”.

The documentary, he says, initially started as a portrayal of the masculinity aspect of becoming a soldier. But when he spent weeks inside the recruitment camp, the story automatically unfolded into something more personal, where the characters opened up as to why they wanted to leave their homes to join a foreign army – prestige, fame and money top the list.

“Even if I die in the war, at least the money my parents will receive will help them pay their loans,” says one soldier in the documentary.

Sidelining the criticisms that these schools often make their profits on the hopes and dreams of young people, Pandey says, for him, the academy is more than just a business. In his academy, Pandey charges Rs25,000 (Dh1,540) for six months of training, which covers accommodation and food.

“There’s this certain craze about being a Gurkha,” says 27-year-old Pandey, who competed to join the British army when he was 18 years old. “For me, it was the name, prestige and the global recognition that really fuelled my interest in joining the British Gurkha. Also, I would be the first in my family.”

But Pandey’s mission didn’t materialise, and he says he was rejected in the final interview. Now, he wants young hopefuls to have a place where they can prepare themselves for the actual camp.

“This is like a school, a mock-up of the recruitment camp,” Pandey says.

His academy is a hostel-like facility: rooms with bunk beds, dining space, a canteen and classrooms for the potential recruits. It is here that about 150 men gather every day at 5am for all-day training. They run and train under supervision of ex-army personnel and also go through intensive coaching classes, designed to sharpen their knowledge of English, science and maths, on which they are tested during the actual recruitment.

For almost 200 years, young Nepalese men have joined the British army’s famous fighting unit. The history of the Gurkhas can be traced back to the Anglo-Nepalese war in 1814, following a peace treaty known as the Treaty of Sugauli in 1815 (ratified in 1816), which allowed Nepalese men to voluntarily serve in the British armed forces. It was the Gurkha soldiers’ courage and bravery that wooed the British. And the things that woo young Nepalese men to the role today have also held the same attraction throughout the unit’s history.

Parsu Ram Rai, from the eastern hills of Dhankuta, enlisted in the British army as a 17-year-old in 1942.

Sitting among fellow veterans in a Gurkha Welfare Society residential home in Pokhara, he takes utmost pride recollecting his and fellow Nepalese’s bravery during the Second World War.

“The bullets came from everywhere,” says Rai, swiftly moving his hands and legs, enacting a scene of the war that the British and Nepalese troops fought with the Germans in Italy. “The Germans were targeting my chest, but I think it is God who directed the bullets to my ankle. I came back alive.”

At 88, Rai still seems fit for his age. However, his hearing has been subdued, eyesight blurred and wrinkles have carved his face. Age has also taken a toll on his memory and he says he has disjointed memories of the military days.

“I joined the army because everyone was joining then – I would hear my neighbours and friends going and so I thought why should I be left behind?” he says.

For many Nepalese men, becoming a Gurkha symbolises success and adds to their social status in their communities. Himal Shrees Magar, who is 18, draws similar parallels to Rai’s story.

Magar, who is currently taking an undergraduate course in hotel management, says he was “impressed and influenced” by one his close friends who was recruited to the British army.

“I see that his life is very convenient,” he says of the pay and benefits in the British army, compared with that of the Indian and Nepalese armies, which many of the soldiers keep as options.

With limited opportunities in the country and in search of a better lifestyle, a majority of Nepalese youth seek to migrate to foreign lands. Many of them see the British army as a “well-paid profession with lifelong benefits” and believe that the tradition should continue.

Recently, there have been calls from members of the Nepalese government to disband the Gurkhas, citing that the country’s young men should not be leaving to fight for another army. But Ganesh Man Gurung, a sociologist who has carried out extensive research on migration as well as the Gurkhas, points out the lack of employment and the wage disparity between Nepal and other countries as push factors for young Nepalese to leave. People will always opt for countries and professions that pay higher, he says.

Speaking at an event in Kathmandu amid veterans and critics of the Gurkha recruitment process, Gurung says that the Gurkhas have fought hard to gain global recognition, which should be respected.

“Rather than discussing that if the recruitment should be closed or not, one young person should have a choice to opt for their career,” he says.

Young Nepalese such as Deepak Gurung and Magar are trading their youth for a career that can secure their and their family’s future. But at this point, the entire future of the Gurkhas is in question.

As the British army is currently being downsized from 97,000 personnel to 82,000, there will also be a decline in the number of Gurkhas, says Colonel Andrew Mills, the British defence attaché to Nepal, who served with the Gurkhas for a considerable time during his 32-year service, including in Afghanistan.

Referring to a recent report on the Brigade of Gurkhas, he says the present 3,398 Gurkha force will be scaled down to 2,478 by 2015. He points out that overmanning of troops due to improved conditions of service and an increased number of soldiers bolstering other battalions fighting in Afghanistan – which are soon to be cut – as the reasons behind the downsizing.

“We’ll be fine until the early 2020s,” says Mills, who is also the commander of British Gurkha Nepal and oversees the recruitment process. “Thereafter, the then-government and Ministry of Defence will decide if further cuts are needed. But the government decided not to cut us in the latest round of cuts because of the brigade’s strong reputation and its affinity with the British public.”

Meanwhile, as the decisions are being put to paper, young Nepalese who see themselves as potential Gurkhas are training hard, hoping to realise what they have worked relentlessly towards.

Kiran Gurung and Amrit Thapa, both 19, are taking a chance for the second time this year – they both say they are attracted by the future prospects and the opportunities joining the Gurkhas would bring.

Though the gates open at 8am, they have been waiting outside the British recruitment camp from 6am to submit their applications.

At the gate, they are at the front, ahead of about 50 men, who will be competing with each other in the coming months. It’s the series of tests inside this camp that will decide who will be a Gurkha.

“I think I will make it this time,” Kiran says. “I will become a Gurkha.”

To see the potential Gurkhas in training, visit www.thenational.ae/multimedia

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Updated: June 26, 2013 04:00 AM