“I joined in 1996, my wife only came with me in 2006. It was a hard time.” Gurkhas have served in the British armed forces for almost 200 years, but are the sacrifices these soldiers are making off the battlefield going unnoticed? What drives them to leave their culture, and often their families, behind to fight for a foreign nation?
Gurkhas are renowned as some of the fiercest and bravest fighters in the world – one former Indian Chief of Staff even said that “if a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or a Gurkha”. Hundreds of thousands have fought for Britain, twenty-six earning our highest honour, the Victoria Cross.
Gurkha rights hit the headlines two years ago when Joanna Lumley led a successful campaign to have the right to habitation in Britain extended to those who retired before 1997. A flood of retirees has since left their homes in the foothills of the Himalayas and settled in Britain. Alongside the presence of Nepalese army families this creates a significant welfare issue. A cultural canyon stands between the rural Nepalese life of the Gorkhali region and British army life in York. Integration into their new workplace and community is key to creating an effective military unit, as well as allowing soldiers to have a fulfilling life.
“I Would love for my children to go back to Nepal and live there, but they’ll have a different mentality. It’s going to be a big change”
Suchant is a Gurkha in 246 Signal Squadron who lives with his wife and two children. “We have a much better life here, it’s better for both of us.” Suchant has served in the British army for eleven years and lived in Fulford for nine of them. As we speak his wife and children sit obediently behind him. He says something in Nepali – she disappears and returns with two steaming mugs of tea. This alongside the large formal family portraits, the large green statues and the ornate curtains hint at the country they call home. The tension is broken by Suchant’s explanation as to why he joined the army: “Because of the money! One pound is now over a hundred and twenty rupees, that’s big money!” Nor does he pause to consider where he might like to retire: “Once my children have grown up and been educated, there is no point in me being here. I will go back to Nepal, my pension money will go further there.”
But are Gurkhas selling their cultural heritage in order to live the relative high life that the UK offers? He doesn’t think so. “We join the army because, obviously, we are allowed to live in the UK, but once we’re here we eat Nepalese food, practice Hinduism and teach our children about Nepalese festivals.” Sabin is Suchant’s next-door neighbour and a fellow ‘Sig,’ he has two young girls. “I find that sometimes it’s hard to keep the traditions going. Sometimes she [his eldest daughter] doesn’t want to know, and does whatever the British children are doing. But we have a completely different culture… I’d really like my daughters to understand both cultures, but it’s difficult.”
Both families are fully involved in both the army and the broader Nepalese community. “My eldest son goes to a local football club, and is a yellow belt in Taekwondo,” Suchant announces proudly, “We [246 squadron] play football and basketball inside the barracks.” One would consider language a barrier to engaging in popular culture, little did I expect a detailed description of the latest Johnny English film from Suchant’s younger son.
Tony Gould, a military historian who has written extensively about the Gurkhas has suggested that lower wages (these have now been brought to parity) and the presence of British Majors as commanding officers (COs) serve to create tension inside the barracks. Suchant doesn’t think it’s any different to other squadrons. “There are British guys in our squadron, with them we’re really quite friendly and lots of British soldiers want to be in our squadron for operations… We invited them to our Dashain celebrations, they even wore Nepalese traditional dress.” One would often associate comradeship with the army, but the Gurkhas’ unique situation means that this isn’t inevitable. Although the celebration of their sacred festival may be a small point, it represents the wider success that the Nepalese have enjoyed in joining local communities.
Dashain is the most-anticipated and widely celebrated festival in Nepal. “In Nepal, all the family come home and gather for fifteen days. We kill goats and cows to guard against demons, and our grandfathers bless us with red paint on our forehead… Here? We had a celebration in our gymnasium!” This may have seemed a watered-down affair to newer recruits, but the Dashain celebrations in York promote the same sense of community that you would find in the rural communities of the Nepalese foothills. But now the community being embraced is multi-cultural.
Legislation passed in 2006 gave soldiers’ immediate families the right to habitation for the period of their service. The new law created a fantastic opportunity for families and soldiers, but also a new set of issues relating to integration. Sabin is pleased that his children can benefit from British state education: “[In Nepal] education is not very systematic. Here, they learn English and schooling is better. The only problem is they don’t learn to read or write in their own language.” Nepali is the only language allowed at home. Their children’s assimilation into British, and more broadly Western, culture is a major concern. Suchant feels “they will always think of themselves as Nepalese,” but perhaps it is Sabin who is more realistic: “We have to change with the times; we have to keep our mind open. I would love for my children to go back to Nepal and live there but they will be educated here and so will have a different mentality.” Both men appreciate that their children may wish to stay in the UK after they complete their education – a potential worry for soldiers returning to Nepal. Sabin is assertive as to where he stands: “without a national health service you have to look after them [elderly family members]… but when I am old I have lots of relatives who can look after me!”
Cuts and redundancies in the Ministry of Defense (MOD) have received widespread criticism. However, no one feels effects more acutely than the Gurkhas. Many soldiers are edgy about their job security, and Suchant is no exception: “Last year there were twenty, twenty-one redundancies… Yes I worry, if I am not in continuous service for more than five years I don’t get my pension… I just have to worry for five years!” Sabin is remarkably objective in his opinion of the redundancies. “Sooner or later we have to, because the British government has to save money. We have to understand the economic climate. If they send me home I wouldn’t have any hard feelings – they’re cutting everywhere, not just in the MOD.”
However the Gorkhali choose to portray their situation, the implications of being made redundant are significant. Sabin talks of his family’s tradition of serving in the army, saying that most of his caste would seek either an education or a position in the British, or Indian, armies. Redundancy means returning home, it means finding an alternative income, it means re-locating your family and your children’s education. Without under-playing the stresses placed upon British soldiers forced to return to ‘Civvy Street’, one can begin to see why there is a case to be made against Gurkha job losses.
The soldiers’ polite manner is striking. It is as though these men feel the weight of 200 years of tradition on their shoulders. Suchant stressed the financial benefits of serving in the British army, whereas Sabin claims an entirely different reason for signing up: “With the British, we have really quite a long history… my forefathers, they served in the British or Indian armies. It’s just normal. This caste, they will try and join the British or Indian army before they join the Nepalese army. It’s just the way.” Perhaps it is the respect to be gained from the image of bravery and courage that encourages young recruits. Captain Marsh, the Chief Welfare Officer, play a central role once recruits arrive in the UK. He is clear on why young Nepalese men choose to go through the grueling training required to join Gurkha squadrons: “Back in Nepal they are treated like kings.” This stands in contrast to academic thought. Sociologists, such as Ananda Shrestha, tend to emphasise the affront to national dignity that comes from serving as ‘mercenaries’” – however, the experiences of those at Imphal Barracks appear to show little evidence for this.
Some would say that the employment of Gurkhas is a hangover from a redundant colonial past. However, there are strong arguments as to why these soldiers should be embraced as part of the army and wider British culture. Both the sacrifices they make to serve another nation and the cultural diversity that they bring to any area to which they are posted make the Gurkhas deserving of every parliamentary victory they might get. And anyone who says Gorkhali soldiers are not part of our community hasn’t heard Sabin recount his last visit to the local chippy…