The kukri, so the legend goes, cannot be sheathed unless it has drawn blood. These curved knives have been in use for hundreds of years, and have been put to use as either fearsome close combat weapons or humble cooking tools. The warriors who wield them, the Nepalese Gurkhas, may now be sheathing their blades for good, bloody or otherwise. After nearly 200 years service in the British army, the Gurkha regiments may soon be disbanded.
Suggestions to dispense with the 3,640-strong units follow extensive budget cuts as the Tory/Liberal Coalition government attempts to balance the books. This has provoked a scramble by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to save cash as it attempts to replace Trident, Britain’s home grown nuclear weapon system.
The Nepalese soldiers are now deemed too expensive to maintain precisely due to a long fought campaign to grant them decent wages, as well as UK settlement rights. Patrick Mercer, Tory Member of Parliament and former army officer, told the Independent newspaper that: “the great benefit that the Gurkhas had in the past was two fold – the first is that they were cheap, much cheaper than the British equivalent, and secondly they were plentiful.”
The practice of deploying foreign troops is a throwback to Britain’s days of overt colonialism. Following a bloody invasion of Nepal in 1814, in which the British failed to completely subdue the country, army officers were impressed by the fighting skill of the natives. Dubbing them a “martial race” a tradition of raising Nepalese Gurkha units for service in the British army ensued.
Such a policy led to Gurkhas fighting in both world wars, as well as appearing in combat zones in the Balkans and the Middle-East. Traditionally they were viewed as shock troops, where their intimidating manner and threatening-looking kukuri blades served as a bleak reminder of the strength of the Empire. This reputation lives on to this day – last summer a Gurkha faced disciplinary action after hacking the head from the body of an Afghan warlord and presenting it to his commander as evidence of the kill.
This might seem like shocking behavior. Major Gordon Corrigan is a military historian and former army officer. He spoke to the Daily Mail last July: “They [the Gurkhas] are not brutal or bloodthirsty. They treat prisoners honorably,” he said,
End of an Empire
With the erosion of direct imperial rule, particularly most recently with the handover of Hong Kong in 1991, the Ghurkha units were relocated to Britain.
Despite this, upon retirement they were never permitted to permanently reside in the UK until the culmination of a protest campaign in 2008/9. Under the agreement, all Ghurkhas who had retired before 1997 and served at least four years were granted permission to settle.
It was not until this year however that the soldiers were also granted equal pay, although an attempt to raise their pensions to the same level as native British soldiers failed. Through a legal loophole those who had retired after 1997 were granted full pensions, with the majority of the pre-1997 pensioners only receiving a third of the average allotted to British soldiers. These, however, are the lucky ones; out of a total of 36,000 retirees, 7,000 receive nothing at all, with 5,000 having to rely on charity.
Tikendra Dal Dewan is chairman of the British Ghurka Welfare Society (BGWS). He believes that the pension issue is linked to the divergence of living costs in the UK and Nepal: “Historically, Gurkha pensions have been based on the concept of what is sufficient to live on in Nepal as most Gurkhas would prefer to live in Nepal given the option,” he said.
According to documents from the BGWS the MODs idea of what is “sufficient” to live in Nepal are based on dated figures; “At present, a Gurkha pension is worth around £2,150 ($3,404USD) per year,” said Tikendra, but “increased living costs mean that approximately £5,000 ($7,917 USD) per year is required to live comfortably in Nepal. If Gurkhas choose to move to the UK, however they are also eligible for pension credits and benefits.”
But it’s these very benefits that are under attack in post-recession Britain. In June this year, it was announced that the new budget would slash the welfare sector by a staggering eleven billion pounds. Dubbing the new legislation “tough but fair,” Conservative Party Chancellor George Osborn provoked outrage from Trade Unions and NGOs as mechanisms were put in place to hack welfare spending, yet cut corporation taxes.
The urge to claw back investments and make Britain an attractive location for foreign speculation is in turn threatening defense, but only when it comes to the welfare of the troops. When asked to give the Gurkhas something back, the government wrings its hands in saying that a full resettlement policy with pensions and welfare included would cost around £300-400 ($475-$633 USD)per year.
According to the BGWS, this means that: “each Gurkha can end up costing the British government around £20,000 ($31,668 USD) per year, far more than the £5,000 ($7,917 USD) a year it would cost to finance a reasonable standard of living in Nepal.”
Given the ongoing operations in Afghanistan, in which Gurkha units are currently involved, it seems strange that the MOD would want to curtail the number of available troops. Indeed, British fatalities in the war zone now number at around 300 – an excess of the 179 killed in Iraq before the exodus from Basra last year.
But this war is even more unpopular in Britain than in the USA. According to recent polls 64% of Brits think withdrawal from Afghanistan is preferable to continued fighting. And dissent is no longer just confined to the civilian anti-war movement; in July, former Lance Corporal Joe Glenton was released from his nine month confinement in a “correctional facility” for going AWOL and defying orders by addressing an anti-war demonstration.
The disbanding of the Gurkhas is not part of a wider scheme to downscale Britain’s position as an aggressive military power. In the modern high-tech military world of cruise missiles, satellite reconnaissance, and drone aircraft, massed infantry deployment is not always necessary.
The British military is geared towards interventions with its navy and air force in tandem with the notoriously ruthless Special Air Services and Royal Marines. Part of the MODs budget reshuffle is thus due to the perceived need to replace its aging fleet of nuclear-armed subs and secure Britain’s place in world power politics.
Machines, in this instance, take precedence over men. The Gurkhas have the misfortunate to have overstepped the mark by struggling for fairer treatment, not to mention recognition as equals in the eyes of the military establishment.
Three thousand or so soldiers are not seen as being viable when compared to the intimidation factor a hundred nuclear missiles gives, and so, as part of general exercise in the tightening of economic belts, it’s likely the Gurkhas will end their service to the Empire with a whimper. Whether these retiring soldiers are able to find a future in the nation they have spent centuries fighting for remains to be seen.
Dan Read is a freelance writer in Britain.
Photo by Shubha Giri from Flickr