Gurkhas to Go

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A curious spectacle is taking place near the rapids of the Kaligandaki River in the western foothills of the Himalayas. Roughly 150 men between the ages of 17 and 22 have stripped to their underpants and are lining up for a physical fitness test. It's the first round of a grueling elimination that will end three months later when 230 of the thousands of aspirants are chosen for the world's most successful and perhaps most feared mercenary force--the Gurkhas. Across the mountains of eastern and western Nepal, the annual recruiting season for Britain's 3,700-man Brigade of Gurkhas is in full swing.

On the Indian side of the Himalayas, at a military training depot close to Simla, another spectacle is taking place in the thin autumn sunshine: a passing-out parade. After nine months of training, 120 young Nepalese have shed their status as boys and graduated as jawans, full-fledged soldiers of India's 40,000-man Gurkha force. The Indians recruit year-round, taking 2,000 Gurkhas annually--nearly 10 times more than the British. For both armies, the ritual is the same. Each soldier swears allegiance to a foreign flag and a foreign government, promising to obey his foreign officers and fight their enemies. But there is one exception--a Gurkha soldier cannot take up arms if the enemy is Hindu, a caveat Nepal's government imposed in 1947 when Britain and a newly independent India carved up the imperial Indian army's 10 Gurkha regiments. The terms of the settlement, known as the Tripartite Agreement, have recently become a focus of dissension and bitterness among some British Gurkha veterans, who demand equal treatment with British soldiers. The agreement ties their pensions and salaries to Indian levels.

Alongside the Kaligandaki River, in the village of Beni, any notion of discrimination seems far removed from the minds of the boys wanting to join the British army. Durga Bahadur Pun, 19, has walked two days from his mountain village to the test site. It is his third try. We all want to join the British army because we will earn a lot of money and go to other parts of the world, he says. We have no work here.

This is one of 500 selections taking place this season in Nepal. The date and location is advertised by gallahwallahs, or recruiting agents, each of whom covers five or six mountain villages. The British army has 67 gallahwallahs, all retired soldiers, whose job is to search the countryside for likely troops. They don't go to the plains or the towns because men in such areas generally aren't considered tough enough. Each gallahwallah is allocated a fixed number to recruit, usually no more than 80. These go on to the next stage, known as the hill selection, in which the tests--physical and mental--are more thorough and the elimination more ruthless. Of some 6,000 boys who attend the hill selection, only 789 make it to the final week-long examination at the British Gurkha recruiting center in Pokhara in west Nepal. Of that number, 230 will join the army while 100 others will be chosen for a select unit in the Singapore police. Elsewhere in Asia, one of Britain's two battalions of Gurkhas is stationed permanently in Brunei at the request of the Sultan. The unit rotates with the one in Britain every three years.

Most of Beni has come out to watch the gallah selection. The women giggle when the boys fail; they look on in awe when others pass. The easy part is when aspirants puff their chests out a few centimeters. Half are knocked out at the next test--25 sit-ups in one minute lying head down on a 35 degree sloping board. This is followed by 12 pull-ups on a bar with the support stand kicked away. When entrants pass this stage, the cattle market begins. The gallahwallah inspects the men like prize animals: their mouths are opened, their breathing checked, their teeth examined, their chests tapped, their muscles poked. Are they flat-footed, can they stand straight, can they use both eyes? Are they coordinated, can they read, are they deaf, do they have any diseases, are they calm?

As a precaution, the gallahwallah and his helpers pack up their equipment in case they need to make a quick getaway: candidates who fail have been known to throw stones. Pun misses out again. He suspects it may be because of his slight squint. He is on the verge of tears; others are angry. Those who passed are beaming, only dimly aware of the greater hurdles ahead--more grueling than for other recruits to the British army. The tests include a 1.6-km run in less than 9 minutes; a 4-km mountain race carrying 35 kg of stones in a doko, or rattan backpack, up 400-m slopes within 35 minutes; intelligence tests, mathematics quizzes, essay-writing exercises, X-rays and still more physical exams.

After years of fighting at the margins of empire, the Gurkhas have become a central part of the 113,500-member British army. They help fill gaps caused by a shortfall of domestic soldiers that currently totals 6,000 a year. Recruiting is now open to citizens from Commonwealth countries, leaving the British army with the curious prospect that it could look more imperial in the 21st century than it did in the 20th. Gurkha units are also an integral part of India's 1-million-strong army and are stationed along all of its borders.

A certain aura surrounds the Gurkhas, owing to their reputation for bravery and to the kukri--a small machete they carry that can slice off a human head in one blow. Their motto--It is better to die than to live a coward--also helps. Says India's vice-chief of army staff, Lieut. General Chandrashekar, an honorary colonel of the 4th Gurkha regiment: They are excellent soldiers, physically fit, fearless, relaxed, hard working and with a natural aptitude for field craft.

Gurkhas have fought in almost every conflict involving Britain or India over the past 150 years: Afghanistan, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Tibet, China, Egypt, North Africa, Malaya, Burma, Borneo, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Falkland Islands, Iraq. Their peacekeeping role within and outside the United Nations has taken them to Vietnam, Congo, Rwanda and Lebanon. This year they have served in Kosovo, Kargil and East Timor. An Indian Gurkha battalion is also on standby to join the new U.N. force in Sierra Leone.

Lately, though, some Gurkhas have been asking whether their service is adequately appreciated. The death in June of Sergeant Balaram Rai of the British Gurkha Engineers while clearing unexploded bombs in Kosovo focused attention on a disparity in pay and pensions between British soldiers and their Gurkha counterparts. Rai's widow received a lump sum of $31,000 and a pension of $1,500 a year, falling to $1,300 after five years--her husband's remaining period of service. The widow of a British soldier of the same rank would have received a lump sum of $90,000, a further $16,000 six months later and an annual pension of $25,000 until she died.

A British media campaign, backed by actress Joanna Lumley, whose father was a Gurkha officer, has forced the government to review compensation. When British Gurkhas quit Hong Kong and relocated to Britain in 1997, they were given allowances to bring their take-home pay on a level with British soldiers of similar rank. This was the first tangible recognition of equality. But pension levels remained fixed. We give them a very shabby deal in retirement, Lumley told the British press. It's all very well saying, 'Oh, you can live very cheaply in Nepal.' But we all know what that means--they walk for seven days to get to a hospital.

Last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that payments to the widows and families of Gurkha soldiers killed in action would match those of their British counterparts and be backdated to May to cover Balaram Rai. The pension issue, however, remains unresolved.

At Subathu depot, a Gurkha headquarters and site of the passing-out parade, the officers' mess is filled with trophies. The skin of a tiger shot by King George V on his 1911 visit to India and another bagged in 1938 by John Masters, a Gurkha officer, hang on the wall. These days Gurkha officers are more likely to spend off-duty hours playing hunt the yeti on their laptops. Not worthy of their reputation? Try telling that to a Gurkha.

With reporting by Dhruba Adhikary/Katmandu and Michael Brunton/London