A 99-year-old WW2 veteran couldn't hide his emotions when recalling his war memory. Photo: Tim I Gurung

It’s unfortunate for me to say: We Nepali tend to put personal interest above anything else.

“Me” always trumps “We” while national interest bottoms the list in term of our priority. Whether we are just too naïve, shortsighted or ignorant, it’s hard to say. But if history has anything to tell, we might be aptly called a selfish bunch, and we haven’t done anything that suggests otherwise.

Understandably, many factors – political, social, religious and racial – might have contributed to this, but as far as the Gurkhas are concerned, Nepal has always remained indifferent, dormant and unsympathetic, and failed them on many occasions.

The feudal caste system of Hinduism, where your caste determines your profession, was the first reason the Gurkhas had to go abroad for a better life. Before the Gurkhas found soldiering, they were restricted only to farming, and soldiering gave them a new life. The Gurkhas not only found an alternative experience for their tribes but also excelled in it.

The British were the first to recognize that talent during the Anglo-Gorkha war of 1814-16, and took full advantage of that extraordinariness over the next two centuries. The Gurkhas were also the main reason why the British held a friendly relationship with Nepal throughout those years.

Dispensable army

Both British and the Nepali leaders found the Gurkhas handy from the very beginning and continuously used them for their benefits. The British needed a cheap and dispensable army to look after their colonial interests in Asia, and Nepal had them in abundance. Nepali leaders had weak knees for the British; they liked to be called a friend of the British and loved those awards of honorary generals. Since it didn’t cost a penny to them, the British showered Nepali leaders with a bucketful of them.

As the recruitment of Gurkhas wasn’t officially sanctioned initially, they had to be smuggled in and out through the border, and Nepal severely punished those who were captured. Whether it was to buy arms, get the necessary support and concessions from the British, get legitimacy and prolongs their rule in Nepal, or whatever, the Gurkhas were  systematically used by the Nepali rulers to fulfill their goals.

Nepali rulers from Jang Bahadur, Ranodip Singh to Bir Shumsher used the Gurkhas to their best interest. But it was Chandra Shumsher who sent 200,000 Gurkhas to the mouth of death in WW1, and many didn’t return home. Similarly, Juddha Shumsher forced a quarter million Gurkhas to fight alongside the British in WW2, and many were killed. Since the Gurkhas didn’t come from the same tribes as the Nepali ruling elites, they had no sympathy for the Gurkhas’ miseries.

When those tired, broken and crippled Gurkhas returned home at the end of  WW1 and WW2, nobody was there for them, and they were left alone to lick their wounds.

Neither the British nor the Nepali government cared for them. The wars had ended, they didn’t need the Gurkhas anymore, and they were sent packing empty-handed.

Since there was no pre-agreement signed between the two governments, no terms and conditions on the employment of the Gurkhas in the British army were ever discussed. Thanks to the shortsightedness and carelessness of the Nepali rulers, the British had a monopoly on how the Gurkhas were paid. As a result, the Gurkhas who fought for the British were sent home with only travel expenses so they wouldn’t drop dead on the way home.

The Tripartite Agreement

In post-India Independence era, an agreement known as “The Tripartite Agreement” was signed between Britain, India and Nepal to protect the rights and welfare of the Gurkhas who served in the British army. When the same agreement was used to exploit Gurkhas for the next half century, the Nepali rulers didn’t say a word.

When the fighting with the Communists in Malaysia and the Indonesian in Borneo came to an end, more than 6,000 Gurkhas were sent home without proper compensation in 1968/69. About 7,000 Gurkhas had a similar fate before Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997. Unsurprisingly, the Nepali government remained silent on both occasions.

A new and refreshing wind of conscience and awareness blew over the beautiful lands of Nepal at the turn of the 21st century. The Gurkhas Justice Campaign, initiated by the Gurkhas themselves, launched and the Gurkhas finally learned to fight for their rights. However, instead of supporting the Gurkhas, the Nepali leaders did nothing. They worried more about the donation they annually received from the British than the plight of the Gurkhas.

The fundamental reason for government to exist is to protect its citizens, but the Nepali rulers seemed to have forsaken that logic and did not care for the Gurkhas.

They only saw the money the Gurkhas brought into Nepal while flagrantly refusing to appreciate the sweat, blood and hardship they endured to make that money. They were not only indifferent, uncaring and unhelpful but also envious of the Gurkhas as domination through racial segregation also plays a huge role in the country.

Not being able to understand, appreciate and honor the Gurkhas’ value is one of the biggest mistakes of our country. The country almost never tried to understand the Gurkhas. If we had known them well, we would have gained a lot as a nation. The country and its rulers have failed the Gurkhas.

Equal benefits

Thankfully, the situation has changed for the better, at least for British Gurkhas. Unlike their grandfathers and uncles, they get the same pay, pensions and other allowances as their British counterparts nowadays and qualify for the British residency after four years of continuous service in the British Army. Despite the mistreatment of the Nepali rulers, some well-deserved good fortune is falling on some Gurkhas.

Sadly, Nepali leaders have not learned from this sorry episode. Millions of Nepali youths are working legally and illegally abroad these days. Stories of their ongoing struggle, exploitation and inhumane treatment are printed in various papers almost in a daily basis, and many have lost their lives. And yet, the country’s leaders do almost nothing to stop the misery.

The advancement of a nation where its youth has no respect, value or  support, is not guaranteed. It is about time we start learning from the past.

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