By Sudhir K Arora
Our story starts with King Prithvi Narayan Shah (ruled 1743-75) who unified Nepal and initiated aggressive expansion – into Kumaon, Garhwal, Himachal in the west, Sikkim in the east and Tarai areas of Awadh in the south.This brought the Nepalese into confrontation with the British then ruling large parts of India, leading to the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16. We will touch only upon events close to Dehradun and Uttarakhand as they are key to the origins of the Indian Army’s Gorkha Regiments.
The Battle of Khalanga: The British offensive commenced with Major General Rollo Gillespie entering Nepalese-held Doon valley on 22 October, 1814. The Gorkha forces led by Balbhadra (also Bal Bahadur) Thapa withdrew into the small fort of Khalanga (near Nalapani) and held out against repeated assaults. Gillespie himself was killed in one such attempt. The fort finally fell after intense bombardment (guns were dragged in through the Mohand Pass) and water supply cut off. Balbhadra and 90 survivors escaped to Jaithak, to join General Amar Singh Thapa (who had taken the forts of Nalagarh, Ramgarh and Malaun in present Himachal).Though the British demolished Khalanga Fort, they erected a monument near the site of the battle. This is on Sahastradhara Road, and consists of two obelisks, one commemorating Gillespie and the dead of his force, the other recalling the gallantry of Balbhadra and his men. It is unique in the annals of military history – erected by the victor, also honouring the vanquished.
Amar Singh finally bottled up at Malaun capitulated in May 1815 after holding out for months. He was given safe passage back to Nepal. It was at this juncture (1815), even before the war was over, that the first three battalions of Gurkhas were raised by the British from the survivors of Amar Singh Thapa’s forces (Gorkhas, Garhwalis and Kumaonis), being very impressed with their fighting prowess. These were the initial Gorkha battalions – the 1st (‘Nasiri’ meaning ‘Friendly’, later the Malaun] at Subathu, the 2nd (Sirmoor) at Nahan, soon shifting to Dehradun and the 3rd (Kumaon) at Almora. The ‘chief recruiter’ was then Lt Frederick Young, later Commandant of the Sirmoor Battalion (2nd Gorkha Rifles) for 28 years and also the second ‘Superintendent of the Doon’. His name lives on in the form of “Young Road”.
The war ended with the ratification of the Treaty of Sugauli in March 1816, which (among other things) gave the East India Company the right of recruitment of Gorkhas into its army.
The Gorkha regiments had only British officers and were kept separate from Indian Army units. By 1914, these were organised as the Gorkha Brigade of 10 two-battalion regiments (numbered 1st to 10th Gorkha Rifles). Each regiment has its own composition of the various ‘classes’ of Gorkhas: Magars, Gurungs, Limbus, Rais, Sunwars, with the 2nd and the 9th enlisting Thakurs and Chhetris. In the 20th century, a significant proportion of troops started coming from Gorkhas domiciled in India.They fought in both the World Wars with great distinction.
On Indian Independence in 1947, the British wanted Gorkha battalions for garrisoning their remaining Asian possessions. An agreement was drawn up between the Governments of India, Nepal and Britain on 9 November, 1947 (the ‘Tripartite Agreement’), governing continued presence of Gorkhas in the Indian Army. This entailed a ‘referendum’(individual’s choice stated personally in front of a committee comprising the CO who of course was British, an Indian Army and a Nepalese Army representative, usually Lieutenant Colonels) in the each of the eight battalions of four regiments – (2nd, 6th, 7th and 10th) earmarked for service under Britain [to be called HMG (His Majesty’s Government) Gurkhas]. Lt Col (later Maj Gen) AS Pathania describes one such ‘referendum’ interview of which he was a part: “The day of the option came, and the first to come before the committee was the Subedar Major. His Commanding Officer asked him, “Timi HMG Gurkha ma jane manjur cha ya manjur chhaina?” (Would you like to opt for HMG Gurkhas or would you not like to?). “Jane manjur chhaina, Huzur” (I would not like to opt for the HMG Gurkhas, Sir, came the reply). Only three Gurkha Officers (VCOs) and hardly a hundred-odd Gurkha Other Ranks (OR) opted for HMG Gurkhas. The results of the referendums came as a surprise to the British as an overwhelming majority of Gorkhas opted to serve in the Indian Army. Thus, there was a significant number to be absorbed in the Indian Army, and due care had to be taken not to disturb either the seniorities in the existing units or the ‘class’ composition. This led to absorption of entire battalions into other regiments with similar recruitment. The 11th Gorkha Rifles, the only Gorkha regiment raised post-Independence, initially comprised essentially ‘non-optees’. Indian officers were posted to Gorkha units when war broke out in Jammu & Kashmir in 1947 and British officers pulled out.
Gorkha Training Centres (GTCs) were raised in 1952, each serving two regiments, the centre number denoting the composition: eg., 14 GTC serves 1st and 4th Gorkha Rifles. In 1952, it was decided to base all Gorkha Centres at Dehradun, and it became home to 14 GTC (moved back to Subathu, near Shimla, in 1959 after a four-years stay); 39 GTC (up to 1976, then re-locating to Varanasi); 58 GTC (up to 1986, then moved to Shillong). 11th Gorkha Rifles Regimental Centre also shifted from Palampur to Dehradun (Clement Town) in 1953, moving to Ghangora in 1968, then to Darjeeling in 1976, before settling down at Lucknow in 1984.
Their sense of humour yet totally warlike nature has given rise to unique Gorkha-lore. As legendary Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw (called ‘Sam Bahadur’ for his ‘Gorkha’ lineage), is reported to have said: “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or a Gorkha.”
As proud soldiers of the Indian Army, the Gorkhas have cemented their reputation in every conflict to date, winning a total of 46 Theatre and Battle Honours Post-Independence. Many brave Gorkhas have been awarded the nation’s highest gallantry awards – the Param Vir Chakra and Ashok Chakra. Maj Dhan Singh Thapa, PVC, and his men’s ‘last-man-last-round’ stand at Srijap in 1962; Lt Manoj Kumar Pandey, PVC (Posthumous) in Kargil 1999 and a host of others will live forever in the pantheon of Indian military heroes. The Gorkha regiments’ motto “Kafar hunu bhanda marnu ramro” (It is better to die than to live like a coward), sums up their martial philosophy; the battle cry ‘Ayo Gorkhali’ curdling the blood of countless foes.
(The author is a military historian, editor and publisher and has worked with several
regiments in bringing out their histories. The views
expressed are personal).