The kukri strapped to Mekhman Tamang's hip belt is more than an ordinary family heirloom. When his father bequeathed the traditional knife to him 10 years ago, Tamang, a third-generation Gurkha soldier, also inherited the stout-hearted reputation tethered to thousands of Nepalese men who fought for foreign countries before him. Recruited by the British army in 1999, the 30-year-old soldier has braved hails of Taliban bullets during two recent stints in Afghanistan. But he is uncertain whether he will be able to pass down his kukri or the Gurkha legacy to his son.
For nearly two centuries, hundreds of thousands of Gurkhas have been plucked from the foothills of the Himalayas to serve primarily in the British and Indian armies. They have often been given dangerous frontline duties in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, the Falklands, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. The British army has awarded more than a dozen Victoria Crosses to Nepalese soldiers over the years, but despite the job's prestige at home, Gurkhas have long complained of being treated differently from native soldiers. For decades, Gurkhas have struggled with the British government for parity of pay, pensions, and perks, and more recently, with British immigration officials over their right to settle in the U.K.
But the toughest battle ahead for the Gurkha tradition may lie in Kathmandu. In the augury of events since the Maoists seized power in Nepal last year, marking an end to a decade-long armed struggle, rebel leader turned Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has openly expressed his antipathy for the practice of young Nepalese men serving in foreign armies as mercenaries for hire. Once in office, he announced that he would discontinue Gurkha recruitments, an undignified and degrading legacy in his eyes. (See pictures from Nepal's elections.)
It was an unpopular opinion. The job is a popular and lucrative post in a country where unemployment hovers around 42%, and his announcement spurred vehement street protests late last year from old, new and future Gurkha recruits. Dahal promptly reneged, announcing in a February meeting with a visiting delegation of British parliamentarians that the recruitment of Nepali men into their forces had bolstered ties between the two nations, and that he was not in favor of stopping recruitments. But behind closed doors, Nepalese officials still squirm at the thought of their countrymen being paid for fighting another nation's war. "This is an obnoxious practice," said one official from Nepal's Foreign Ministry, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. "Nepal will find ways provide employment within our country."
In its small office in Kathmandu, the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organization, which has been campaigning for pension parity between retired Gurkha and British soldiers, says it is ready to "declare war" with the government should the Prime Minister change his mind again. About 3,500 Gurkha soldiers are now serving Queen Elizabeth II, but tens of thousands apply to serve each year from Nepal's poverty-stricken Himalayan hills. Candidates, scrambling for a few hundred spots, have been known to try to fake their way; in 2008, nearly 500 false applications were detected, and dozens of candidates required to be between 17 and 21 fibbed about their age.
Their enthusiasm, however misguided, is understandable. Nepal's decade-long insurgency hollowed the country's development, leaving nearly half of its population living below the poverty line and an average Nepali farmer earning roughly $300 a year. By contrast, Gurkha privates in the British army take home $28,000 a year. "Becoming a Gurkha soldier is a burning ambition for every hill boy," said Tamang's father, Saharman Tamang, 50, who served the British army for 12 years. "Those who make it are hailed as the 'lucky ones.' Money is not the only draw. Those recruited are whisked away to be educated, trained, shown the world and provided with a decent life."
The elder Tamang, who worked as a farmer before he became a soldier, doubts Nepal will ever achieve a total ban on Gurkha recruitment. If the recruitment is stopped, Nepal's flailing economy will take a hit; each year, the country receives $1.1 billion in remittances nearly 18% of the national GDP from the Gurkhas and other 2 million Nepalis serving abroad. Even with its new democratically elected government, there is no guarantee how long peace will last in a still fractious Nepalese society. "If Nepal was politically stable and there were enough jobs," says Saharman Tamang, "our young men would not go to the front lines fighting another country's war."