An apolitical fighting force, or mercenaries?

The Guardian today states that Gurkha soldiers are known as “an apolitical fighting force”. Confusing, as this is what is normally regarded as the definition of mercenaries: those who fight for money rather than for state sovereignty.

Would the Guardian be calling those Niger combatants in Libya, an apolitical fighting force? Would it say the same for the recently-released Simon Mann,  the ex-British soldier and leader of the attempted Wonga Coup in Equitorial Guinea?

Arguably, do the Geneva Conventions even apply to Gurkha soldiers in the British army? (They don’t if you are a mercenary.)

Make your own mind up:

Gurkhas: the beginning of the end?

Gurkha redundancies and falling recruitment numbers threaten Nepalese warrior tribes’ 200-year tradition

As scores of British Gurkha soldiers are made redundant by the British army and recruitment numbers fall, there is deep concern among Nepal’s mountain tribes that their proud 200-year tradition could be under threat.

It is recruitment season in the Himalayan foothills, a time when recruiters for the British army, locally known as “Galla walla”, themselves former Gurkha soldiers, go from village to village looking for raw talent.

But this year there is a chill in the air. More than 140 Gurkha soldiers were told of their compulsory redundancy by the British army this year. In Nepal, where army pay makes a huge difference to poor communities, this is a blow.

“We hear more soldiers will lose their jobs. Recruitment is also down. I don’t know if the British government wants to do away with the Gurkha regiments,” said Mahesh Ale Magar, who, in August, sent his son Dip to try for this year’s regional selection at the British army camp in Pokhara, central Nepal.

It is a measure of the prestige attached to service with the Gurkhas that, despite being one of the toughest courses in the world, the selection process is keenly contested. Dip Magar was among more than 12,000 young hopefuls who applied this year for 176 posts in the British army; there were an additional 80 trying for the Gurkha Contingent Singapore police force.

To be considered Gurkha material candidates have to pass a series of demanding physical and mental tests. These include the infamous dokorace, in which potential recruits have to complete an uphill run of more than three miles carrying 35kg (77lb) of sand in a basket strapped to their backs.

Dip did not qualify. “My friends who qualified in regionals will take the next stage soon,” said the 18-year-old. “I will try again next year. It’s my dream to be a Gurkha.”

His earnest young face became anguished as he added: “I don’t know if I will get another chance. Some say that from next year, there will be norecruitment for the British army, only Singapore police.”

Rumours that the British Gurkha recruitment centres face the axe as part of Ministry of Defence spending cuts have been consistently denied by the army. Rebecca Clark, a spokesperson for the army’s 4th Division, which controls British Gurkhas Nepal, said: “Although there is a small reduction in the numbers that are being recruited, in proportion to the reduction in size of the future army the operation of the recruitment centres remains the same.”

But the so-called martial tribes, such as the Rai, Limbu, Gurung and Magar, from which the bulk of the Gurkha force is drawn, have seen British Gurkha numbers drop from a second world war peak of 112,000 men to the present-day level of 3,600.

The Gurkhas continue to put their lives on the line for the British military. Only last month a 21-year-old, Rifleman Vijay Rai of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, was killed in Afghanistan, dying from gun wounds after a checkpoint he was guarding was attacked. He had followed his father and brother into military service.

The tribes fear the Gurkha warriors will bear the brunt of military cuts. Under the strategic defence and security review, announced in October 2010, the MoD is to slash 7,000 jobs in the army, and it is expected that a third of the reduction will be achieved through a decrease in recruitment. The yearly Gurkha intake is now 176, down from 230 a few years ago. More redundancies seem almost certain.

Gurkha support groups, such as the Gurkha Justice Campaign, championed by the actor Joanna Lumley, have, in recent years, won high-profile victories in the campaign for better rights. In 2008 Gurkhas’ terms of service were improved, giving them terms similar to those of the rest of the army. Ironically, though, this has made the Gurkha units more vulnerable to cuts.

“Earlier, Gurkha units were cheaper to run than other British units,” said Raj Limbu, who served with the 7th Gurkha Rifles. “But now they’re equally costly.”

It is easy to see why young men like Dip are desperate to enlist in the Gurkhas. There are few jobs in the mountain villages of Nepal and the only alternative there is likely to be subsistence farming on the terraced slopes. A Nepalese farmer earns roughly £200 a year. A Gurkha soldier takes home almost 90 times as much.

But Gurkha veterans argue that the lure of the Gurkha life is about more than money. “It is a life-changing experience,” said Damarbahadur Gurung, a retired captain, who served for 22 years with the 2nd Gurkha Rifles, also known as the Sirmoor Rifles. “You’re educated and you see the world. That is why it is very important for the ethnic groups who have been traditionally known as martial tribes.”

In Nepal the families who serve in the British army are known as Lahures, after the city of Lahore in present-day Pakistan where the first Gurkha regiment was raised in the 19th century. Small in stature, but famed for their hand-to-hand combat skills with the kukri – a long, curved Himalayan knife – Gurkhas fought almost everywhere the British army went in the 20th century, garnering 13 Victoria Cross awards along the way. Their battle cry has remained “Ayo Gurkhali!” – the Gurkhas are upon you!

The Gurkha reputation for fearlessness has carried over into recent conflicts where they have been praised as a disciplined, determined and apolitical fighting force.

Dipprasad Pun, a corporal, was recently awarded the ConspicuousGallantry Cross by the Queen after he single-handedly thwarted a Taliban attack on his checkpoint in Afghanistan.

After he ran out of ammunition, Pun used the tripod of his machine gun to beat back the attackers.

Damarbahadur Gurung said: “I am proud to have served as a Gurkha in the British army. I hope I’m not among the last of a dying breed.”

Despite the uncertainty in London, up in the hills of Nepal becoming a Gurkha is still the dream of many a boy.

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