KATHMANDU (Reuters) - For nearly two centuries, Nepal’s valiant Gurkha soldiers have battled their foes with guns and their lethal kukri knives, which tradition demands must draw blood every time it is unsheathed.
But in a narrow lane off Nepal’s parliament complex, they prepare for a battle of a different kind — not with weapons but printing machines and fliers. Their enemy: a life-altering new diktat from Nepal’s rulers-elect, the Maoists.
The Maoists, who won a surprise election this month after a decade of civil war, want to stop a 200-year-old tradition of Gurkhas enrolling in the British and Indian armies, calling the practice humiliating and mercenary.
It is a charge the Gurkhas do not deny, but Nepal’s crushing poverty and unemployment have pushed the valiant warrior tribe into a moral dilemma of choosing between dignity and livelihood.
“Nothing stirs a Gurkha more than his honor dared, but here we are in a fix,” Mahendra Lal Rai, the general secretary of the largest former Gurkha soldiers group, told Reuters.
“We do feel like mercenaries fighting for foreign armies, but who can deny our economic reality, our compulsions? We are caught between pride and practicality.”
The Maoist threat is not yet set in stone. Chances are, if not the Gurkhas, the economic reality of Nepal will deter them.
Here is why: in Nepal’s impoverished Himalayan foothills, Gurkha service is hugely popular. Last year some 17,500 applicants competed for 230 British army jobs. Gurkha privates in the British army begin their service on $28,000 a year, on the same pay scale and with the same pension as any British soldier.
After they retire, the longer-serving will also receive a British old-age pension, payable in Britain, where they may settle, or in Nepal. An average Nepali, by contrast, earns less than $300 a year.
Remittances from Gurkhas and some two million Nepalis working abroad, many as maids in the Middle East and security guards in Iraq, amount to more than $1.1 billion every year.
The allure for an overseas job is staggering in an already impoverished country where a 10-year-old insurgency also robbed it of what little development was possible.
“What is there in Nepal? Even if we get a job, will it pay as much as an overseas one?” said Manender Limboo, a Gurkha youngster who aspires to go abroad, even if as a British soldier.
Another reason for Gurkhas looking for jobs in foreign armies is caste-based discrimination in jobs in Hindu-majority Nepal, including in the army where soldiers from the Gurkha tribe rarely make it to a senior rank.
The Maoists, however, say opportunities will be given at home so that the recruitment centres of the British army in Nepal can be closed down and also hiring by the Indian army can be stopped.
“Such obnoxious practice of your citizens joining foreign armies as mercenaries, this will be stopped,” Baburam Bhattarai, a top Maoist leader seen as Nepal’s prospective prime minister, told Reuters.
“We will provide employment within our country. In no country this will be tolerated. Why in our country?”
A tribe of about 3 million people living mostly in the Himalayan foothills of western and eastern Nepal, the Gurkhas’ fierce combat skills, loyalty and courage made a strong impression on the British army during its unsuccessful invasion of Nepal in early 1800s.
The British actively recruited Gurkhas into their colonial army from 1815 and soon set up Gurkha regiments. About 3,400 Gurkhas serve in the British army today and another 40,000 serve in the Indian army. Gurkhas also serve in an elite security force in Singapore.
Gurkhas say an army job is not an automatic choice of the young generation.
“They want to go to Japan, Korea or America. When they fail they think of an army job,” said Rai, who served in Britain’s 10 Gurkha Rifle in 10 countries from 1979-1993. His father and grandfather also served in the same regiment.
British and Indian authorities are yet to react to the possibility of Gurkhas disappearing from their forces. An Indian army spokesman, however, hinted that Nepal would find it difficult to implement the ban.
“Something like this is unlikely,” Ramesh Kumar Das, spokesman of the Indian army’s Eastern Command said.
In its small office in Kathmandu, Rai’s Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen’s Organisation, which also fights for the cause of former soldiers in Britain, is gearing up for a struggle with the government. Machines print fliers and other publicity material urging the government not to take away the Gurkha livelihoods.
“We want to do something for our country, fight for our country and not other countries,” Rai said.
“But the government should also take care of us first.”
Editing by Simon Denyer and Megan Goldin