Nepal’s fierce Gurkha soldiers find themselves under siege

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.

Among the dignitaries he observed, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was particularly impressive, he said. “She was as tough as a Gurkha.”

Hype aside, Gurkha fighting prowess is exceptional, said Rick Bevin, who headed Gurkha recruitment in Nepal until recently. “When I was in Brunei, they ran rings around our special forces,” he said.

Traditionally, Gurkha recruits came from rural areas and were illiterate. Nowadays, they’re more urban and better educated, with high school credentials that include English proficiency and math skills.

Many attend cram schools, some of which over-train candidates, extract bribes and coach everyone to mouth the same answers.

“They’ll all come in saying ‘I want to be a Gurkha because I want to die for Britain,’ ” Bevin said. “It’s so boring you want to pull your hair out.”

Others will say they want to join as part of a family tradition, even though no relative was ever a Gurkha.

Although the pull is still strong, some military analysts and planners are questioning the Gurkhas’ future. Britain will take just 126 this year and has seen 400 Gurkhas lose their jobs, reducing to 3,200 the number in active service, a tiny fraction of the 200,000 during World War II.

“If you took them down much further, you’d risk ruining the mix,” said Chris Bellamy, a military historian and author of “The Gurkhas: Special Force.”

Recently, British officers and Gurkha veterans groups have emphasized the extent to which Britain and India contribute to Nepal’s economy — up to 25%, by some accounts — through pensions and funding for Gurkha hospitals, schools in Gurkha communities and other welfare programs. (India employs more Gurkhas than Britain, although they’re not as well paid.)

“The government would have to think pretty long about turning that down,” Mills said.

Such arguments, and the fact that 3 million other Nepalis work overseas because of the weak economy at home, appear to have silenced for now any move to block overseas Gurkha postings. But veterans groups have little trust in the communists and fear the idea could resurface.

Some say the real reason the communists have floated the idea of a ban is because the rebel fighters turned rulers are jealous of Gurkha training, pay and professionalism.

Chandra Prakash Gajurel, a politburo member with the Unified Communist Party of Nepal, says working for foreigners in effect makes Gurkhas mercenaries.

“Yes, Nepal has unemployment, but joining someone else’s army isn’t a good solution,” he said. “And, no, the Communist Party does not envy Gurkhas.”

As Limbu wrapped up a story about fighters squabbling over canned rations in the Falklands, he reflected on returning home after so many years abroad.

“The problem with people like myself, we spend much of our life outside Nepal and when we return we don’t have the respect for things we once had,” he said. “If our government created jobs at home, we could talk about banning recruits from going overseas. But without making these preparations, they should stop talking about this idea.”

He then bade farewell with an exaggerated salute.