By Mingma Lhamu Pakhrin
Gorkhas¹ are considered a valuable asset of the Armed Forces by the Indian Government. It has remained so since the establishment of Gorkha regiments by the British Government in the early 19th century. Today, Gorkhas are well known for their bravery and courage, both nationally and globally. Men from Nepali communities across India have formed a significant part of the Gorkha regiments since their formations. Many of them came and continue to come from the present-day districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong and Sikkim. They have served and died in the two World Wars and the wars fought before and after them, including the peacekeeping operations. But are they represented in the imagination of Gorkhas? How often are they perceived and interpreted as synonymous with Nepal? The tendency to forget, downplay or ignore the idea that Gorkhas are drawn from Nepali communities across India looms large both in academic and non-academic circles.
The Gorkha Recruiting Depot in Ghoom, Darjeeling, reveals the profound connection of the people from North Bengal and Sikkim with the Indian military system. Set up in the late 19th century, Ghoom Recruiting Depot emerged as one of the most important Gorkha recruiting centres of British India during WW1 and WW2. Darjeeling popularly recognised as a health resort or hill station also came to be widely identified by the recruiting depot. Groups of young boys from Ilam, Dhankuta and Bhojpur in Eastern Nepal, Darjeeling (present-day Districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong) and Sikkim arrived here with their recruiters or galla walas in large numbers. These boys were mostly Rais and Limbus who were soon joined by Lamas (Tamangs) and Sunwars as the demand for recruits peaked (See reference in endnotes).
The galla walas played a key role in the recruitment not only in the Gorkha regiments but also in the Assam Rifles, Burma Military Police and Burma Frontier Force of the British Indian Armed Forces. Often, ex-military servicemen, galla walas worked within the tribal villages of their belonging as they scouted for physically fit recruits in return for a small reward that varied from a maximum of 5 to 10 rupees. For example, a Rai galla wala travelled across villages dominated by Rais on a quest to find suitable Rai recruits. Similarly, a Limbu galla wala for new Limbu recruits and a Sunwar galla wala for new Sunwar recruits. These galla walas along with their young prospective Gorkhas then travelled to Ghoom recruiting Depot on foot. On reporting to the Recruiting Officer at Ghoom the first thing in the morning, the prospective recruits underwent a series of inspections for their final selection. Not all made the final cut. While some were rejected on medical grounds like tuberculosis, malaria, venereal disease and valvular diseases of the heart, others were rejected on physical grounds such as knocked knees and bow legs, defective vision, and poor physique (underweight) and other deformities.
Many among those successfully recruited Gorkhas were locals from Darjeeling and its surroundings. They actively served in military operations carried out before and after India’s independence, a practice that continues to date. In fact, the region of north Bengal and Sikkim act as a significant resource pool for drawing Gorkha recruits into the Indian Army. However, their roles, contributions and incredible stories of sacrifice and bravery have escaped representations in writings, military literature in particular, and understandings. Often, they are overshadowed by the stories of Gurkhas from Nepal who dominated the pre-1947 Gurkha regiments and continues to contribute largely in strength. Their immediate association with the country of Nepal is dominant and repetitive in what Lionel Caplan (1995) refers to as a formulaic manner (in the case of Gurkha’s representation in the western imagination). Officers of Gurkha Regiments turned military historians often write and reminisce (in broken Nepali) about mule rides to remote villages in Nepal across the Indian border to visit and see where their “boys” came from. These writings became the point of reference for the reading and imagining of Gorkhas. Moreover, recently published books on the history of Gurkhas fail to include Gorkhas from India (Pakhrin, 2020). The lack of their documentation and their representation in media has further added to the ordeal. All these have caused the common peoples’ understanding of Gurkhas from Nepal and Gorkhas from Darjeeling to remain confusing and misleading. Most importantly, they have normalised the idea that Gorkhas are synonymous with Nepal or in relation to Nepal on one hand and invisibilised the Gorkhas from Darjeeling (inclusive of present-day districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong) on the other hand.
Thus, it does not come as a surprise when many stories lay perished under those of Gurkhas from Nepal. On allowing a generous period of groundwork in the districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong and Sikkim, I encountered numerous stories of Gorkhas. However, for this short paper, I am relaying the stories of three Gorkhas from Kalimpong from two different generations. They took part in two of the historic battles fought in 1939-45 and 1971. Why am I telling their stories or what is the significance of these stories? I believe it is through these stories we re-configure the understanding of Gorkhas both militarily and socially enabling us in our efforts to re-tell and re-read the history of Gorkhas of Darjeeling first and the region second.
The protagonists of the three stories are Rifleman Kharga Bahadur Limbu, Sergeant Havildar Pemba Lepcha and Subedar Santabir Rai. Rifleman Limbu fought in the Italian Campaign as part of British India’s 2nd Gurkha Rifles during WW2. He was only 19 at the time and newly recruited from his village (present-day Lower Dungra Busty in Kalimpong) by a galla walla named Kumbuk Limbu. Kumbuk Limbu who hailed from the same village as Rifleman Limbu had served in WW1 prior to working as a galla walla. He gathered young boys including Rifleman Limbu and took them to the Ghoom Recruiting Depot in Darjeeling. Following his successful selection, Rifleman Limbu was taken to Jalapahar, a military station in Darjeeling. Within less than a year in the army, he was selected as one of the men to go to the war in the west.
I was told, that when the news came that about 200 men from his regiment were to go to the war in Italy, Rifleman Limbu and his friends were thrilled. They bid farewell singing “बाचे भने फेरिभेटौला” (if we survive the war, we shall meet again) as they twirled their handkerchiefs over their heads. After days of moving through West Asia and North Africa, Rifleman Limbu’s party finally reached Italy. He pointed out that it was here that the war was going on. As they made their way into the battlefield, the order came through- no one shall step back, they must only move forward. Rifleman Limbu clearly remembered moving along while rounds of bullets were fired and bombs dropped at close range. It was an event that quickly followed in Padua, a city in Italy that drew my attention the most during our conversation. Here, Rifleman Limbu’s party was spotted by two German soldiers who began to fire. Soon, Rifleman Limbu found his officer Hunter Saheb and his dear friend Rahar Singh Tamang shot dead. As he crawled forward leaving their bodies behind, he mentioned how his mind was occupied with nothing but the question, “When will I get shot?”
Rifleman Limbu still considers himself as one of the lucky ones who made it back home alive after the war ended. He added, that when the war was over, he returned home with ₹ 500 and a seven to eight metre long white fabric. He soon got married and moved on with his civil life. Telling and re-telling of stories of how he and his regiment fought the Germans in Italy during WW2 became part of that life. Interestingly, his experiences of loss and fear continued to remain an equally important part of it.
Sergeant Havildar Pemba Lepcha and Subedar Santabir Rai were comrade-in-arms in Kargil during the Indo-Pak War of 1971as part of 2/11 Gorkha Rifles. Both of them joined the army voluntarily by signing themselves up for Kalimpong Soldiers’ Board. They were not recruited by a galla wala. From Kalimpong, they were taken to the Ghoom Recruiting Depot for conducting their examination and selection following which they were sent to the Dehradun Training Centre. Sergeant Havildar Lepcha also made a fairly successful boxing career during his 24 years of service in the army. He proudly reminisces his encounter with boxing legends such as Kaur Singh from Punjab and Mani Kumar Rai from Kalimpong. Both Singh and Rai were well-known boxers as well as army personnel. Despite being unable to make it to the national team due to his short height, he is said to have been considered a good boxer by his peers and others in and out of the military community. Subedar Santabir Rai was the second-generation military personnel in his family. His father, late Naik Atal Rai served in Burma during WW2 as part of the labour corps. When asked, Subedar Rai provided an interesting opinion about what bravery meant to him. He said the bravery of a person or group is tested when they are in close encounters with enemy troops at the time of war. One is thus compelled to manoeuvre hand-to-hand action. Gorkhas are good at such close encounters. It is, therefore, that Gorkhas are recognised as brave within and outside of the military confines.
In the military context, Gorkhas have largely been treated as one singular entity. The idea that they constitute Gorkhas coming from the districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong besides Nepal appears silent. There is no doubt this leads to scant representation and misleading imagining of Gorkhas. Interestingly, its reverberations can be identified beyond the military in the social and political experiences of the region. The districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong have been struggling with a century-old demand for a separate homeland for Gorkhas. Hence, the popular imagination of the region as a contested or militarised geographical space is not uncanny. It is not surprising that many Indians living outside the districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong fondly associate the region with tea first and the Gorkhaland Movement second (the latter taking precedence during events of active agitation like that in 2017). Perhaps the imagining of the region (in demand for a separate state) overwhelms the imagining of its people (in military service to the state). Therefore it is “inconvenient” and “out of order” to re-imagine that the Gorkhas belong to the districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. This is a significant aspect that demands investigation for understanding how Nepali communities in Darjeeling and its surrounding areas are imagined.
Nevertheless, the above mentioned stories provide a pertinent point of intervention and re-examination to shift the focus to the representation of Darjeeling’s military contribution. In addition, they provide a nuanced understanding of the region and its people and how they have been weaved into the larger writing and reading of its history. And to that endeavour sources play a big role. Information on official documents is in existence yet sparse. Therefore alternative sources such as “community archives” can provide a huge relief for filling up the existing lacuna. Oral (interviews, folk songs and poems) and visual sources (photographs, medals, letters) which can be found in possession of members of the community may comprise the community archive. Heritage, culture, experience, memory and trauma also form an intrinsic part of that archive. This can pave the way for the re-examination and re-telling of the rich history of Darjeeling and its people and the significant part they have played in the Indian military system before and after 1947.
Mingma Lhamu Pakhrin
Mingma Lhamu Pakhrin completed her PhD from the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. In September 2021, she was awarded her Doctorate Degree in Modern History. Her thesis was titled 'The Making of Colonial Darjeeling, 1830-1930'. She is keen to study the movement of people and information, emergence of the local political groups and their allegiance and the roles played by "agents" or "in-betweeners" in the extension of imperial project both within the eastern Himalayan frontiers of British India and beyond. She is also the recipient of the Inlaks Research Studentship at the King's India Institute in King's College London for 2018. Currently, she is a Teaching Fellow at the Department of History in Ashoka University, Sonipat.
Notes and References
¹ As often as it can be confused with or used synonymously with “Gurkha” a term used to refer to people from Nepal recruited to serve the British Gurkha Regiments, “Gorkha” broadly represents the community of Nepalis resident in India on one hand and the military personnel serving the Gorkha Regiments in the Indian Army on the other.
Recruiting Reports and Figures for Eastern Recruiting Ghoom, Years: 1925/26, 1934/35, 1939/45 and 1948, RCTG/102, Library, the Gurkha Museum, Winchester, United Kingdom.
Caplan, Lionel. 2003. Warrior Gentlemen : “Gurkhas” in the Western Imagination. Lalitpur, Nepal: Himal Books.
Pakhrin, Mingma L. 1AD. Review of Ayo Gorkhali: A History of the Gorkhas, by Tim I Gurung. The Book Review. https://www.thebookreviewindia.org/the-unexplored-dukha/.
This blog story is an outcome of the India Foundation for the Arts' Art Research Grant funded project titled Stories from Within (2021).