- The Washington Times - Friday, October 17, 2003

THOSEY BAZAAR, Nepal — From the hills of rural Nepal, thousands of young men pour into British army recruitment centers in the quest to become a Gurkha and serve under the flag of a foreign queen.

It is a tradition, British officers say, that is under attack from a seemingly endless series of court cases brought by groups contending that they represent former Gurkhas who are demanding additional rights, from better pay to better pensions.

If they win, the British army has said, the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas could be at risk, ending the nearly 200-year link between Nepal’s fighting men and the crown. British lawyers representing the men say it is an empty threat.

In the most recent case, an appeals court in Britain ruled last week that the Ministry of Defense had not discriminated against Gurkhas by paying them a smaller pension than their British counterparts. Even so, lawyers say the litigation is far from over.

In the hills of Nepal’s eastern Gurkha heartland, at Thosey Bazaar, there is little sign of dissent among the young candidates. About 25,000 men are vying for 230 places in the army this autumn, with pay and status seemingly the major attractions.

Many among the 246 hopefuls gathered to be put through their paces at Thosey Bazaar, a hamlet near the town of Ramechhap southeast of the capital, Katmandu, said they were unaware of the British court cases.

Cpl. Jagat Bahadur Ale and other senior soldiers organizing the selection said they had not even heard of the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen’s Organization (GAESO), which has brought some of the actions.

Papers seen by the Daily Telegraph last year linked GAESO to parties on Nepal’s far left, some of which hope to end recruitment to the British forces.

The selection center is set in rugged country several hours’ walk from the nearest road close to the bottom of a steep, verdant valley amid towering hills.

Life is tough here. The people eke out a living farming millet, corn and rice. A life of digging and bearing loads over the steep trails by means of a strap across the forehead makes the people tough and resilient.

This is why, according to Col. Adrian Griffith, the chief of staff at the Gurkha camp in Katmandu, they are tougher than most other British troops.

The rituals of Gurkha selection have changed little over the years. The criteria are stringent, and Cpl. Ale, who is responsible for the tests, is rigorous.

As recruiting officer, or Galla Wallah, at Thosey Bazaar, Cpl. Ale says he wants to give the new generation the opportunities he had and is determined to maintain the brigade’s high standards.

“Our grandfathers did well, we did well, and now I want future Gurkhas to do well so that our name is always on top,” he said.

Recruitment offers the opportunity to travel far beyond Nepal’s impoverished hills and to earn a salary that is huge compared with what is available elsewhere.

“I’m most nervous,” said Santosh Jarga Magar, 19, who walked for a day from his village to the selection center. This is his first attempt, and he has been training for a year.

“Even if we earn a degree we don’t get a nice job, but in the army if we work hard we can earn a name and support ourselves,” he said. “If I join, it will be better for my future.”

Gurkhas’ history with the British military establishment dates to the 19th century. During the 1814-1816 war in Nepal, which they lost, the British were impressed by the tenacity of the Gurkha soldiers and encouraged them to volunteer for the British armed forces. Gurkhas first served as mercenaries in the British East India Company.

Since then, Gurkhas have served in the British military in several battles on the Indian subcontinent during British rule. In the 20th century, they served in various parts of the world as British soldiers in the two world wars.

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