Today the Queen attends a pageant at the Royal Hospital in London to mark 200 years of Gurkha service to the British crown. This is a bitter-sweet commemoration. The recent earthquakes mean that British Gurkhas are back in Nepal; the first Gurkha engineers arrived to help the relief effort on April 30, the same day as a parade in London to rededicate the Gurkha Memorial.
However, the Gurkha bicentenary is different from most such events for another reason. Regimental traditions celebrate the past and so stress continuity, but Gurkha service is about adaptation to change. Britain recruited Gurkhas in 1815 to ensure that they did not fight for Nepal, with which the East India Company was then at war. Their loyalty when the Company’s forces mutinied in 1857 made them central to British rule, and their tactical skills policed India’s northern hills.
They were part of the Indian – not the British – Army, and when India secured its independence in 1947 many expected them to continue to soldier for India. That was logical. Nepal was officially Hindu, and so it made religious sense. Also, by serving in India, Nepalis could easily return home on leave. In the event, six of the 10 Gurkha regiments transferred to the Indian Army.
But this was not the case in reality. Four regiments came to Britain. By serving in all the major theatres of the two world wars, Gurkhas proved their flexibility. Nepal had responded to Britain’s demands for men, 90,000 serving in 1914-18 and 138,000 in 1939-45. Britain still conscripted its army, and so raw numbers mattered less to the case for retaining Gurkhas than their comparative cheapness.
And until this very day, Nepal has openly stated a grudge with UK government. In fact, given the recent earthquake that stroke Nepal the British offered help to the Nepalese but Three RAF Chinook helicopters carrying aid to earthquake victims in Nepal were turned away by the country’s military over its resentment at Britain putting a Nepalese army officer on trial for torture, it has been claimed.In early May, the Nepali authorities denied access to three UK Chinook helicopters meant to assist in aid delivery, even though many affected villages were only accessible by air.
Four people, including three staff from medical charity MSF, died in Nepal on Tuesday when a helicopter crashed that had been delivering aid to an earthquake-devastated region.
And yet, after all those events, through the Gurkha Welfare Trust, and the support it receives from the Department for International Development, Britain contributes not only to the support of Gurkha pensioners, but to the development of their communities and for the longer term. So this is a two-way relationship. The fact that it has reached its 200th birthday is the product more of accident than of design. We could not recreate it if we were ever foolish enough to dismantle it.
So along with Britain and the Queen we all thank and admire the Gurkha for their service and their loyalty.