Two books provide insights into Gorkha martial traditions, but is it time for a new narrative
BETTER TO DIE THAN LIVE A COWARD: MY LIFE WITH THE GURKHAS
Author: Kailash Limbu
Publisher: Hachette India
Price: Rs 499
THE KHUKRI BRAVES
THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE GORKHAS
Author: Jyoti Thapa Mani
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Price: Rs 2,795
The legend of the Gorkha warrior was born 200 years ago when the forces of the East India Company collided with the Nepal army. The Gorkhas won many battles but lost the war, and had to cede large territory, which includes present day Uttarakhand and large parts of Himachal Pradesh.
|The two books GURKHA and THE KHUKRI BRAVES|
The East India Company found them of great utility. And, unlike the upper caste Hindus who formed the backbone of its army till then, the Gorkhas didn't get bogged down by religious and caste-based taboos, and had no bonds of kinship with people from the plains. They were ready to fight anywhere - and anybody.
The East India Company knew they could be a counterpoise to the mutinous Bengal Native Infantry Sepoys. And this is exactly how it played out in 1857 when Gorkha troops helped the East India Company put down the Sepoy Mutiny. The Sepoys, who made the East India Company's conquests in India and beyond possible, were dumped unceremoniously, and all the communities that supported the Company were designated martial races, with the pride of place reserved for the Gorkhas.
After the mutiny, the British assiduously cultivated the Gorkhas, using them against their enemies inside as well as outside India. In the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, one set of troops that fired on unarmed protesters were Gorkhas. The British kept them segregated from other Indian troops. That's why till Independence, the officer cadre of all Gorkha battalions was exclusively British.
To this day, the legend of the Gorkha solider continues to grow. Two books in quick succession extol the martial traditions and military conquests of the Gorkhas. Jyoti Thapa Mani's Khukri Braves is some sort of a Gorkha omnibus, and is truly spectacular in its sweep, covering the Anglo-Nepal war up to present times. Jyoti, a friend and a fellow highlander, is well versed in the martial history and customs of the Gorkhas, and her research is impeccable.
The Gorkha kingdom at its peak stretched from the Teesta in the east to the Sutlej in the west. Some historians believe that the Gorkha kings had even bigger ambitions - they wanted to extend their rule into Kashmir and beyond. But at Kangra, they ran into the tough-as-nails forces of Ranjit Singh. That is where their expansion ended. Later, when war with the East India Company looked imminent, the Gorkha Darbar even proposed a grand Hindu alliance with the Maratha and Sikh kingdoms, but it failed to excite the others.
War between the Gorkha kingdom and the East India Company was inescapable: all the trade routes to Tibet fell in hostile Gorkha territory. Though the immediate provocation for the war was some border skirmishes in which Gorkha forces had seized some villages that belonged to the East India Company, there was a sustained campaign to suggest that Gorkha rule was oppressive, and the assault was to liberate local people from Gorkha tyranny. According to several accounts, there was a chowki at Rishikesh, where Gorkha soldiers used to sell slaves - Garhwali men, women and children who could not afford to pay their taxes because of a famine.
Jyoti calls these reports exaggerated. She could well be right: after all, the East India Company was the master of mind games and was not averse to mixing fiction with truth to serve its ends. The fact of the matter is that there is still in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the areas vacated by Nepal, a large Gorkha population - people who decided to stay on. Had the locals been hostile, it's difficult to imagine how so many of them could have stayed back. But it is also true that to this day people in Kumaon use the expression Gorkhali Raj to describe anarchy, be it untended fields, dirty homes or bugs in the mattress.
Kailash Limbu's Gurkha, in contrast, is a straightforward account of a British Gorkha solider in Afghanistan, interspersed with tales from Gorkha history and vignettes of life in a distant hill village in Nepal. (The British call them Gurkha, though Gorkha is more correct, as the community draws its name from Guru Gorakhnath.) Though dreary at times, the book gives a good idea of the camaraderie between Gorkha troops on the battlefield.
Limbu is a sensitive writer and captures the nuances of hill life accurately. He tells uniquely hill stories like his grandmother who used to get drunk every evening and then feed the local brew to her grandchildren as well, or the fascination of hill folks with weapons, even if it's a slingshot, and hunting.
There are several books on the Gorkha military history, yet there is not even one account by a Gorkha soldier. Much of the history has been written by the officers of these regiments - it therefore comes heavily laden with their perspective. Limbu's book is the first time a Gorkha soldier has written about his life. In that sense, it deserves shelf space with Sita Ram Pandey's From Sepoy to Subedar, which detailed life in Bengal native Infantry from 1814 to 1857 and was a must-read for all British army officers in colonial times - except that it happens to be far less interesting. (Some commentators feel Pandey gave his imagination a free run while writing his book.)
Most books, including Jyoti and Limbu's books, deal with the martial qualities of the Gorkhas. That obliterates all other Gorkhas from popular conscience: agriculturists, professionals, businessmen. These people resent that bravery has become the calling card of the entire community. In their view, Field Marshall Manekshaw did a great disservice to the Gorkhas when he said: "If a man is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gorkha" - it robbed the community of all other attributes apart from bravery. A new narrative may one day emerge - hopefully.