Returning Gurkha soldiers become misfits in their own land

Once they've seen London, Singapore, or Hong Kong, how can they be happy back down on the farm?

That's the Gurkha dilemma.

Best known as the fierce fighters who were sent on impossible missions by British commanders for almost two centuries, today there is dwindling demand for their services, as the British Army reduces its last Gurkha Brigade from 8,000 to 2,500 soldiers. After years of service in exotic cosmopolitan locales, the tens of thousands of veterans who return often have a tough time adjusting to the dull but stable rhythms of Nepali rural life.

"Before, they were living on the land, but many of them have already sold their farmland in the villages when they join the British Army," says Om Gurung, an anthropologist at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. "Their families live abroad and they see new things, a new world. So they are attracted to an urban life, but they can't afford to live there. Their most productive years ... are spent serving the British. After that, it's all downhill."

In one of the world's poorest nations, where agriculture and tourism are the main source of jobs, many Gurkhas find themselves pining for something more rewarding, intellectually and monetarily. Some worry about their wives and children, who have gotten used to modern amenities and rigorous British-style schools. Others fret about unequal compensation from the British government. The sense of discontent felt by many in the Gurkha heartland, deep in the western mountains, is so strong that they, like other rural Nepalis, are vulnerable to the pull of the Maoist insurgency. Some Maoist units are reported to be forcing returning Gurkha soldiers to train local militants in exchange for a promise not to harass their families.

It wasn't always this way. Back in the early 19th century, when the British empire first started eyeing Nepal as a strategic buffer between China and India (or as a Nepalese prince called it, "a yam between two boulders") British commanders quickly realized their Indian soldiers were no match for the fierce Gurkha regiments. In 1815, after a fortuitous victory against Nepal, the British included a provision for recruiting Gurkhas in their peace treaty. Technically, most of these recruits were not ethnically Gurkha, but they shared their characteristic Mongolian features, and most important for the British, they fought like Gurkhas.

A typical example is Capt. Man Bahadur Gurung, now retired from the British Army. From 1956 to 1960, Captain Gurung, then a sergeant, fought against communist insurgents in the jungle of Malaysia, then called Malaya.

"I was so strong, I used to carry the 28-pound light machine gun, plus two magazines, which each weighed 10 pounds," says Gurung, who is deputy mayor of the tourist town of Pokhara. "Our enemies said that in order to save ammunition, the Gurkha would chop the neck with his kukri [curved sword]. The Argentine soldier was afraid of us, too. They thought that even the prisoners of war we would kill." He smiles. "But that's not true. We must follow the Geneva Convention."

Yet, while Gurung is proud of his service and that of his fellow Gurkha recruits, he says Gurkhas have faced discrimination, both during and after their service in the British Army. "When I became a first lieutenant, I had been part of the British Army for 15 years," recalls Gurung. "But then a second lieutenant, with just one pip on his shoulder, comes from British officer training center, and I have to salute.... This is discrimination."

For its part, the British government argues that its system of payment and pension is governed by treaties signed decades ago by the British, Indian, and Nepalese governments. Salaries for Gurkhas have been raised in the past year to be on an exact par with British-born soldiers, officials note. The monthly pension of 80 ($114) is still beneath that of a retiring British soldier, but it goes a long way in a country as poor as Nepal.

Yet Gurkhas have one distinct advantage. "A British officer has to serve 22 years to receive a pension, while a Gurkha soldier only has to serve 15 years," says Lt. Col. Adrian Griffith, chief of staff British Gurkha headquarters in Kathmandu.

All that is hard cheese for Om Gurung, a recently discharged rifleman (no relation to Om Gurung, the anthropologist). "The British government taught us to be fighters, we have no knowledge of civilian jobs," says the 13-year veteran, who served in Hong Kong, Singapore, Britain, Germany, and the US. "We are thinking only of going abroad. We can't survive here."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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