AS GORKHA SOLDIERS stood guard away from the spotlight during the summit held in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Lieutenant General Shokin Chauhan’s mind raced back two decades. In October 1999, as commanding officer of the 2/11 Gorkha Rifles of the Indian Army, he had landed with around 500 soldiers in cyclone-ravaged Bhadrak in Odisha with rations for six days. When their food stocks ran out, authorities told the unit to use the supplies being brought in as relief material for the storm-hit locals. “The soldiers came up to me and said they will survive on one meal a day but not deprive the people of food,” recounts Lieutenant General Chauhan. It took a fortnight for the soldiers’ own supplies to reach them.
The Army officer says his heart was filled with a sense of pride when he heard that the Singapore Police’s elite Gorkha soldiers, who are of Nepalese origin, would be deployed during the high-profile meeting between Trump and Kim. “I can’t think of better soldiers being chosen for this job. They are efficient and impartial,” says Lieutenant General Chauhan, a third generation soldier who was commissioned with the 11 Gorkha Rifles in December 1979 and retired in March this year. His father was also from the same regiment, and Chauhan, who in 1958 was born where they were posted, effectively spent his entire life among them.
The famed valour of Gorkha soldiers is best described by Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, one of India’s most decorated military officers, who had said, “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha.” The legendary commander of Indian forces in the early 1970s knew them intimately, having been transferred to the Gorkha Rifles at the end of 1947.
Unlike in India, where the recruitment of Nepalese youth to the Army’s Gorkha regiments is done through an open rally in some part of the country followed by a test, in Singapore they are selected by the British army directly from Nepal. This is done through an online application system, which is now also being followed in India. In Singapore, they have been part of the police force since 1949. The soldiers retire at 45 there and have to return to Nepal along with their families. In India, which has around 39,000 Gorkha soldiers in current service, around 70 per cent retire in their mid-thirties—between the ages of 35 and 37. While it is not mandatory for them to leave India, which has had them as part of its armed forces for over 200 years now, they generally return home since they continue to get their retirement benefits in Nepal.
The British, impressed with their courage, had begun taking them into the British Indian army under the Raj. After India got independence, six regiments remained in the Indian Army and four joined the Gorkha Brigade of the British army. The 11 Gorkha Regiment was introduced to accommodate soldiers who refused to join the British army. Ever since, the dauntless Gorkhas, with their khukris—those inwardly curved traditional Nepalese daggers—tucked in their waist bands, have been an integral part of Indian war campaigns. Having mostly grown up in the tough mountainous terrain of Nepal, they have been deployed in various theatres, from fighting in World War I and II under the British crown to helping contain Ebola in Sierra Leone in 2014.
Their contribution to Independent India’s war efforts are not only well known, it has upheld their reputation as fierce warriors. During Operation Vijay of the Kargil War in 1999, a Gorkha officer was killed a day before the 5/8 Gorkha Rifles and Nagas operating in Tololing Ridge were to capture an important peak. The next day, a Pakistani officer was killed, but this came to light only after the peak was captured, according to sources.
Lieutenant General Chauhan, who went to Odisha a few months after returning from Operation Vijay in Kargil, recalls another story. Back in 1982, a ‘buddy’ of his, a soldier working with him who was dying of cancer, had asked him to give his insurance money to his mother back home in Nepal. To honour the commitment, Chauhan, along with another soldier, took off for his village in Bhojpur, which meant a 11-hour-long walk after getting off the bus. They walked for about 8 km and it was getting dark by the time they reached the Arun river, but the boatman who was to get them across was done for the day. It was a cold December evening, and they started looking for a place to stay. They found a lone one-room house where a young woman lived with her child. She offered them her cowshed to spend the night. In the morning, before they left, the officer asked the young woman if she was not afraid allowing two strangers to stay there. She said her husband was serving in the Gorkha Regiment in Kashmir and an officer of the Indian Army coming to her home was like God visiting her.