WORLD

Gurkhas: the assault from within

PATRICIA TREBLE June 16 2008
WORLD

Gurkhas: the assault from within

PATRICIA TREBLE June 16 2008

Gurkhas: the assault from within

WORLD

PATRICIA TREBLE

After Nepal’s Mao-

ist-dominated constituent assembly was elected in April, one of its first acts was to abolish the monarchy. But the Maoists have another tradition in their crosshairs: Nepal’s Gurkhas serving in the British army and in the service of other governments. As deputy leader Baburam Bhattarai recently said: “The obnoxious practice of citizens joining foreign armies as mercenaries will be stopped.” As

the Maoists have discovered, however, ordinary Nepalese don’t much like the idea.

Gurkhas, members of Nepal’s principal Hindu race, have fought for Britain since 1815. Even today, with British pay for the 3,500 Gurkhas starting at $2,000 a month, a military career is a way for men to support their relatives. So, in a country where the average worker makes around $600 a year, families spend $300 enrolling sons in academies that prepare them to take Britain’s rigorous qualifying tests. The most infamous is a 4-8-km run up a mountain path; applicants have to complete the lung-bursting effort in 48 minutes while carrying a wicker basket laden with 25 kg of rocks on their backs. Last year, 17,349 applied to join Britain’s Gurkha regiments— just 230 made it. (When Prince Harry served in Afghanistan earlier this year, he was stationed with Gurkhas—they laughed when he told them he was a “bullet magnet.”)

While British posts are the most prized, 120,000 Gurkhas are in India’s army, and the Singapore police as well as Brunei’s sultan have their own Gurkhas. They have a legendary reputation for being unyielding, ferocious fighters—their battle cry “Ayo Gurkhali” (“The Gurkhas are coming”) struck fear in enemy soldiers. Opposition to the Maoists’ idea has been just as fierce—enough to force them to soften their stance. Now the issue of foreign military service is up for “discussion.” M