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Nepal's fierce Gurkha soldiers find themselves under siege

Some in Nepal's communist-led government object to the fighters' connection to the British military and want to cut ties. The relationship dates to 1815.

May 07, 2012|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Nepalese Gurkhas stand guard outside St. George's Chapel in Windsor, England. Some in Nepal object to the troops' two-century-old ties to Britain.
Nepalese Gurkhas stand guard outside St. George's Chapel in Windsor,… (Leon Neal, Pool Photo )

Reporting from Katmandu, Nepal — Deo Man Limbu sat in a veterans hall lined with pictures of old soldiers and reflected on his years of service, his battles and his dreams. The retired major with Britain's legendary Gurkhas faced the Argentines in the 1982 Falklands War, when being a member of one of the world's most feared fighting forces had its advantages.

Well before hostilities started, British military planners had encouraged photographs of Gurkhas sharpening their fearsome curved knives — no one seemed to ask why you'd bring a knife to a gunfight — and media stories about their fighting prowess.

The day before the final battle, loudspeakers warned the Argentines that the Gurkhas were coming. "We fired one or two shots and they all flew away," said Limbu, whose enduring memory of the Falklands Wars is of lots of sheep. "It was very effective."

Other conflicts were not as easily won. Limbu tells of Gurkhas who were decorated in World War I and II, saw action in Borneo and died in Afghanistan in the 1980s as well as in the last decade.

"We fought many enemies," said Limbu, 60, who has the air of a dapper gentleman in a blue blazer, checked dress shirt and well-pressed brown pants. "But our politicians in Nepal are the worst."

Today, the Gurkhas' proud two-century tradition with the British army is under siege. Some in the communist-led Nepalese government object to the Gurkhas being hired guns for a former colonial power and are proposing to ban the practice, just as the British government makes deep cuts in its defense spending.

Britain's connection with the Gurkhas dates to 1815 when, having barely defeated them in battle, the British decided that if you can't beat them, have them join you. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Gurkhas have served under the Union Jack in peacetime and in war.

For much of that history, Gurkhas with their jungle-warfare skills did much heavy lifting but earned less than British soldiers. After a headline-grabbing campaign in 2009 led by actress Joanna Lumley, new rules gave Gurkhas serving after 1997 the same benefits, pay and pension as their British counterparts and the right to live in Britain. But those who served previously continue to receive a fraction of that, creating a two-tier system that's led to squabbling among Gurkhas.

Of course, even the lower pay is good by Nepalese standards: Last year, more than 6,000 applicants, drawn by the opportunity to earn British wages and live abroad, competed for 176 positions.

Hopefuls ages 17 to 21 must do 70 sit-ups in two minutes and run uphill for 40 minutes carrying 70 pounds of rocks to qualify. If they're too old, some forge documents and dye their hair to mask their age, a little subterfuge that occasionally comes off in the rain. Others have been caught using steroids for endurance.

Gurkhas derive their name from the Nepali hill town of Gorkha. They're blessed, according to legend, by the 8th century Hindu warrior-saint Guru Gorakhnath, who gave them their famous curved knife, the kukri.

Gurkha loyalty, fighting skills and determination in the face of near-impossible odds are legendary. Former Indian Army Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw once famously said: "If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha."

But some Gurkhas say these glowing compliments mask a relationship based on condescension.

"The British like Gurkhas very much, until the Gurkhas cross the line and try to compete as equals," said Deepak Bahadur Gurung, a pre-1997 soldier. "As long as you're under them and you're very loyal, they like you."

British officers counter that pre-1997 Gurkhas knew the terms and pay when they signed up. "Given the understanding at the time, they're looked after well," said Col. Andrew Mills, defense attache at the British Embassy in Katmandu, Nepal's capital.

The Gurkhas have their share of myths, especially involving the evil-looking kukri. One holds that the 18-inch tapered blade can serve as a boomerang. According to another, it must taste blood once unsheathed, even if a Gurkha has to cut himself.

These stories sow fear, aiding in psychological warfare that worked against the Germans and Japanese during World War II and helped turn the tide in the Falklands, military experts say.

"Of course they can resheath the kukri. They use it to prepare food," said Gerald Davies, curator of England's Gurkha Museum. "If you're not well trained, the idea of knives at night without a noise is terribly unnerving. It's fear of the unknown."

In the fading light on his Katmandu balcony, Gurung dismissed the hype. "They make Gurkhas out to be superhuman beings," he said. "We're simply people. We have fears like you do."

Gurkhas are frequently called on to guard VIPs, given their reputation for loyalty after siding with Britain during the 1857 Indian Mutiny. During a year spent in Buckingham Palace protecting Queen Elizabeth II, Gurung attended 150 cocktail parties without enjoying a sip of alcohol.

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