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How Gorkhas became integral to Assam – Part 1

How Gorkhas became integral to Assam – Part 1

1st Gorkha Rifles

In this 3-part series, we look at how Gorkhas came to be an integral part of the North East, particularly Assam, beginning with their recruitment in the Indian Army by the British

By K. K.Muktan

It has been more than 200 years now that the Nepalese or Gorkhas had first come to India as recruits in the Indian Army. While the primary reason for their coming to India may be ascribed to earning their livelihood, it was, rather the motivation of British Government which largely prompted the Gorkhas to cross over into India.

From the discussions which follow in this article it will be clear that the Nepalese were by and large, imported by the British for their own benefit. The Gorkha recruitment in the Indian Army started from 1815, a year before the signing of the ignominious treaty of Segowlee between Nepal Durbar and the East India Company.

When the Anglo-Nepal war was still at its peak and Major Gabriel Martindel was fighting at Nalapani where General Gillespie’s detachment had been vanquished by the Gorkhas, Lieutenant Frederik Young hurriedly raised an irregular Gorkha force of 4500 strong men drawn from the prisoner of war camps in Dehradun, Nahan and Sirmur.

Anglo-Nepal War with The East India Company in 1767
Artistic representation of the Anglo-Nepal War with The East India Company in 1767

Two palpable reasons for this act of headlong Gorkha recruitment by the British have been put forward by the historians: Firstly, the British Generals were highly impressed by the extreme bravery and elan demonstrated by the Nepalese soldiers in the Indo-Nepal war.

While working with the Indian native sepoys in the past, the British discovered the right material that they had been looking for – bravery and total absence of fear for death among the Gorkhas. David Ochterlony, the British General who conducted the Anglo-Nepal war said, “The Indian soldiers of the Company would never be able to hold their own against the Nepalese in their mountain fastness.”

Sir Charles Metcalf, a British Army Commander ruefully remarked, “We have met with an enemy who shows decidedly greater bravery and greater steadiness than our troops possess. Our troops have been beaten by the enemy; Khukrisin hand driven miles like a flock of sheep.”

Gorkhas in British Indian Army
Gorkhas in British Indian Army

Thus, it was Sir David Octerlony himself who mooted the idea of enlisting Gorkhas in the Company’s Army and vigorously pursued the policy of its implementation. Apart from the fighting qualities of the Gorkhas, other political considerations were no less important to motivate the East India Company to recruit Gorkhas in their Indian Army.

The British was quick to recognize the turbulent population of Nepal, well-trained in warfare, itching for war and plunder and restive for territorial expansion like a heap of explosives waiting ignition. This was a danger signal for the British. Even if Nepal herself remained non-aggressive, there were many Indian Rajas who could easily utilize Nepalese military power against the British.

Moreover, Nepal had close relations and cultural affinities with India, besides family ties with many Indian princes through marriages which could lead to political alliance against the British at any time. B.H. Hodgson, the British Resident in Nepal, even strongly suspected Bhimsen Thapa, the Prime Minister of Nepal’s policy of building military strength to use it against the British at an opportune time.

Hodgson was confident that security of British India rested on the weakening of military strength of Nepal and that could be possible only by draining out the young population of Nepal through their recruitment in the Army. The Gorkha soldiers recruited in India, at the same time, Hodgson pleaded, could be held as pledges for Nepal’s good behaviour during any belligerency, if so occurred, with Nepal.

At the initial stage the British recruitment of Gorkhas was not an easy task. The Durbar of Nepal was against the idea of their subjects joining the British Army. Nepal strictly followed a closed-door policy and did not allow any foreigner to enter the country. In spite of this situation the East India Company continued recruitment by clandestinely enticing Gorkha youths from Nepal through the help of secret agents.

The British recruiting agencies adopted all means of foul practices to meet the ever increasing demand for Gorkha recruits. This practice of clandestine recruitment continued till 1884 when an agreement of Mutual Concession was signed under which a limited number of Gorkha recruits were allowed by the Nepali Prime Minister Rannupdip Singh in exchange of British manufactured arms and ammunition.

Chandra Samsher Rana
Chandra Samsher Rana

After this, the restriction on recruitment became gradually liberal and the East India Company boosted Gorkha recruitment by opening new recruiting depots. World War I required enormous recruits for reinforcement of Indian Army for which Chandra Samsher Rana opened up Nepal’s doors for British recruitment of Gorkhas.

The result was astounding; during the period of war 200,000 of Nepal’s best young men were brought into the roll of the Indian Army[i]. It is said that Nepal’s agricultural operations came to grinding halt for a few years due to want of manpower.

During the World War II also, Gorkha recruitment was so colossal that the existing 20 battalions of Gorkha Rifles of World War I were expanded to 45 during the WWII. Due to the coercive policy adopted by the recruiting authorities, a large number of Gorkha young men fled Nepal and entered Assam, Darjeeling and Sikkim in order to avoid compulsory recruitment.

In Assam, Gorkha soldiers were deployed for the first time in 1817 in the wake of the Burmese invasion. The British deputed the Cuttack Legion (later changed the name to Sylhet Light Infantry) which consisted of 1000 Gorkha and Hindustani soldiers to Assam in order to check the Burmese invasion.

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The Gorkhas were, finally instrumental in driving away the Burmese from Assam and rescuing Assamese people from the barbaric aggression of the Burmese. It was a time when the Ahom rule was in a state of doldrums; the royal court had become a hot-bed of conspiracies involving internal squabbles, murder and rivalry among the royal princes.

Taking advantage of political turmoil, the Burmese overran the country unleashing a reign of terror, with barbaric plunder, kidnapping and murder. “30,000 Assamese had been carried off as slaves by the Burmese. Many thousands had lost their lives and large tracts of country been laid desolate by the wars, famines and pestilences”.[ii]

Assam, in the words of Anandaram Dhekial Phukan (1829-1859), “groaned under the oppression and lawless tyranny of the Burmese”, that destroyed more than half of the Assamese population, and those who survived had almost given up cultivation and lived chiefly on jungle roots and plants.[iii]

In 1826 the British troops completely expelled the Burmese from the Brahmaputra Valley and quelled the Moamoriah rebellion. Manipur was restored to Gambhir Singh; The Jaintia Raja, Ram Singh was confirmed in his possessions both in the hills and the plain belts of Surma Valley and, Govind Chandra was reinstated as Raja of Cachar. Historian H.K. Borpujari termed this act of the British East India Company as “divine dispensation.”

To be contd.

[i]. Asad Hussain, British India’s Relations with the Kingdom of Nepal, 1970, p 185.

[ii]Ibid, p 7

[iii]. Appendix J of A.J. M Mills Report on the Province of Assam (1854) Reprinted.1984, p 93

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