The inside story of the brave Gorkhas of the Indian Army
The Gorkhas get their name from the kingdom of Gorkha, a small principality in Central Nepal. It was from here in 1742 that Prithwi Narayan Shah, the king of Gorkha, launched his offensives to capture most of what is now Nepal. A descendant of the Rajputs, who had moved to Nepal during the Mughal invasions, Shah’s ancestors had intermarried with the inhabitants of Nepal. He had completed his conquest of the Valley by 1768 and had shifted his capital from Gorkha to Kathmandu. His successors extended his kingdom to include Garhwal, Kumaon, Sirmoor and the Shimla Hill states. By 1794 the Nepalese Gorkha kingdom extended from Sikkim to the borders of Kashmir.
In the process of their conquests, the Gorkhas came into conflict with the British in 1814, when their forces intruded into British protectorates. A series of Anglo–Nepal wars were fought until peace was established between the Nepalese and the British, with the ratification the treaty of Segauli on March 5, 1816. The battles between the British and the Gorkhas were fought hard, in which the latter displayed unbelievable courage, tenacity, and fighting skill. Their innate ability for combat in the hills, skill in close quarter battle and their chivalry and humane treatment of prisoners of war aroused the admiration of the senior British commanders, who then desired to recruit them into their own army.
Finally, at the final battle at Malaun, Generals David Ochterlony and Kazi Amar Singh Thapa were the opposing commanders. The Nepal army was at a disadvantage. Their indomitable general Bhakti Thapa was dead; Balbahadur Thapa, another powerful general, the hero of many previous battles, had joined Ranjit Singh’s army and had died fighting the Afghans and the British had gathered an army superior in strength and weaponry at Malaun, where the two armies now faced each other. Considering the bravery with which the Gorkhas had fought and their high code of conduct, General Ochterlony thought it would be an unnecessary waste of life of good soldiers of both sides if they continued to fight. Ochterlony sent a message to Amar Singh Thapa for a cessation of hostilities, and assured that if the Treaty of Segauli was acceded to, he and his men would be treated with honour and ensured safety.
Although Amar Singh Thapa had earlier vetoed the Nepal government’s acceptance to sign the treaty; he now realised that further fighting was pointless and accepted the offer. Amar Singh Thapa and his army were allowed to move out of the Malaun fort and allowed to retain their weapons and treated with honour.
The treaty of Segauli was ratified by the Government of Nepal on 5 March, 1815. One of the clauses in it required the Nepal government to permit recruitment of Gorkha soldiers into the army of the East India Company, known at that time as ‘John’ Company. That is the reason why to this day a Gorkha soldier is often referred to as ‘Johnny Gorkha’. Recruitment from the Gorkha prisoners from earlier battles had already started but after signing of the treaty; proper recruitment of the men from the hills of Nepal was now made possible.
The first Gorkha regiments
This is considered as the first major step by which the Gorkhas became part of the British Indian Army. The formation of the 1st and 2nd Nasiri battalions, the Sirmoor and Kumaon Provisional battalions is given as April 24, 1815. ‘Nasiri’ means ‘friendly’ and the nomenclature was chosen because the battalions composed of prisoners of war of the earlier Gorkha wars or those who came over on their own for recruitment. The Malaun Battalion became the 1st Gorkha Regiment, and the Sirmoor battalion was named as the 2nd King Edwards Own Gurkha Rifles. The Kumaon Provisional Battalion became the 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles. The 4th Gurkha (Afghan) is the predecessor of the 4th Prince of Wales Own Gurkha Rifles which were officially raised in 1857. The 5th Gurkha Rifles was raised as the 25th Regiment of Punjab Infantry or the Hazara Goorkha Battalion in May 1858 and the men who enlisted were Kumaonis, Garhwalis and Gorkhas in equal proportion. Light Infantry battalions of north east India also contributed to the raising of new Infantry battalions for the Gorkhas. The Sylhet Light Infantry eventually became the 8th Gurkha Rifles. In the 1880s, the doubling of the Gorkha battalions took place due to their good performance in Afghanistan. In 1886 and 1902, the 42nd and 43rd (Assam) Regiments of Light Infantry became the 6th and 7th Gurkha Regiments, respectively, and the 10th Gurkha Regiment was raised in 1901. The 7th and 10th Gurkha Regiments were raised mostly from the Rais and Limbus of Eastern Nepal, the recruitment for the 9th Gorkha Rifles was from the Brahmans and Chhetris, while the class composition of the other regiments was mainly from the Gurungs and Magars of Western and Central Nepal.
Gurkha or Gorkha
Initially, the word used by the British for these soldiers from Nepal was ‘Goorkhas’. They subsequently changed it to ‘Gurkhas’ but the Indian Army chose to call them ‘Gorkhas’ which is closest to the name of the kingdom from which they derived their fame as great fighters. Gorkha soldiers are also called ‘Lahures’ both in Nepal and in the Gorkha battalions. This is because even before the British started recruiting Gorkhas for their army, Maharaja Ranjit Singh had heard about their great fighting ability and recruited them for his wars in Kashmir. When these soldiers returned home and were asked as to where they were returning from, they named ‘Lahore’ which was the durbar of the ‘Lion of Punjab’ – hence the word ‘Lahure’ i.e. someone who has come from Lahore.
The Gorkhas have distinguished themselves in all the wars that have been fought since independence. In the 1947 Indo-Pak War, a battalion of the 3 GR captured the Pir Kanthi feature without artillery support. The feature was held by approximately a battalion of Pakistanis.
CHAMPS ON THE FIELD TOO
The Cambrian Patrol is a competition that is very tough and exacting and is one of the toughest competitions within the Commonwealth to test the endurance, junior leadership, and professional skill of infantrymen. Teams from all over the Commonwealth compete to win the accolade of being the best among the best. The 9th Gorkha Rifles have done the Indian Army proud by winning the competition twice in recent times.
In another action in 1947, Major Hari Chand of 2/8 Gorkha Rifles. took a small detachment of Gorkhas and moved through knee deep snow in mid-winter behind enemy lines in a commando operation and destroyed Pakistani guns and prevented Leh falling into Pakistani hands. The 4th, 5th, 8th, and 11th Gorkhas were all involved in the fighting and all awarded battle honours for their respective operations. 1/5 Gorkha Rifles (FF) captured Zojila and Kargil and linked up with 2/8 Gorkha Rifles who were holding on to Leh along with two companies of the 4th Gorkhas, while the 4th Gorkha Rifles were also specifically honoured with a battle honour for the defence of Poonch.
The 3/9 GR also did a commendable job in the defence of Poonch, and were awarded with one MVC and five VrCs. The 1/9 GR were involved in the battle for 19 months and fought creditably at Akhnoor, Chhamb, Naushera, and in the linkup operations of Poonch.
The famous khukri attacks
Over a period of time, the fame of the Gorkhas became synonymous with the weapon they used with such dexterity – the khukri. A khukri is a typical curved knife which Gorkhas use as a tool for everyday work at home and in war as a weapon for close combat. The statement that once the khukri is drawn from its scabbard, it must always draw blood is a myth and untrue. However, the manner in which Gorkhas use the khukri in peace or in war is pure magic. In fact, a Gorkha soldier made headlines in the newspapers very recently. Bishnu Bahadur Shreshtha of 7/8 Gorkha Rifles was returning home after an early retirement when he was confronted by a band of robbers on train. The brave soldier drew out his khukri and attacked the miscreants who were looting fellow passengers and also misbehaving with women. Shresta singlehandedly killed three and wounded eight, causing the remainder to flee, while himself sustaining serious knife injuries. He was awarded the Sena Medal and the Jeevan Raksha Medal. When questioned by the media, he said: “All that I did was my duty as taught to me by the Indian Army”.
The last khukri attack in military history was launched by the 4th Battalion the 5th Gorkha Rifles (FF) in 1971 at Atgram in Bangladesh. The battalion had marched beyond the range of its supporting guns and had been tasked to capture an enemy objective without artillery fire. Devoid of any type of support, the Commanding Officer decided that the only option was to launch a silent attack at night with khukri and grenade. The orders from the Commanding Officer were clear and explicit. “Get on top of the enemy bunker, throw grenades through the loopholes and go in and finish the job with your khukris”. This was just the order the Gorkhas were waiting for! The attack was launched in silence but when the enemy got wise to the assault, the Gorkhas went in with their war cry of “Ayo Gorkhali!” (The Gorkhas have come!) This blood curdling war cry, which is used by all Gorkha battalions, was accompanied by their khukris flashing in the moonlight as enemy heads literally rolled. Naik Dilbahadur Chhetri notched up the highest tally and was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra. Thereafter, in every battle fought at Ghazipur and Sylhet, the Pakistani soldiers were most reluctant to face the Gorkhas in close combat.
Gallantry awards galore
Although the Victoria Cross was instituted in 1856, the Indian Army was made eligible for this prestigious award only in 1911. Soon after, during World War I, Kulbir Thapa and Karnabahadur Rana of 2/3 Gorkha Rifles were awarded the Victoria Cross. Rifleman Kulbir Thapa is the first Gorkha to be given this award. In World War II, Gorkhas won 10 out of the 26 Victoria Cross awarded to personnel of the Indian Army. Of these, three were awarded to Gorkhas of 2/5 Gorkha Rifles (FF) during the Burma campaign, two of which were won on the same day.
Closer home, the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest award for gallantry in war, was awarded to three officers of Gorkha regiments. The first to be awarded was Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria of 3/1 Gorkha Rifles, (the Malaun Regiment) in 1961 for an action in clearing a roadblock in Katanga in the Congo. The enemy held the roadblock with two armoured cars and 90 men. Undeterred by the superior enemy strength and fire power, the Gorkhas with Salaria in the lead, attacked the roadblock with khukris, bayonets, grenades and rocket launchers. Captain Salaria and his men killed 40 of the enemy and knocked out both the armoured cars. The roadblock was destroyed and the imminent threat to the UN Headquarters was removed. Unfortunately, Captain Salaria was mortally wounded and succumbed to his injuries. For extraordinary leadership and devotion to duty, he was awarded India’s highest award for courage in battle, the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously.
The second Gorkha recipient of the Param Vir Chakra was Major Dhan Singh Thapa during the Sino- Indian war of 1962. Tasked with defending the Indian border in Ladakh, Major Dhan Singh Thapa built defences at Sirijap in the vicinity of the Pangong Lake. The Chinese, who have easy access to the Ladakh plateau, soon surrounded Major Thapa’s post with a force many times his strength and attacked it with artillery fire, flame throwers, MMGs, mortars and rocket launchers. Major Dhan Singh Thapa held on, beating back wave after wave of Chinese attackers till there were none left of his small force except he himself and two others. A small patrol which was sent by the battalion headquarters to establish contact after all communication was destroyed, reported that the post was totally destroyed and that there were no survivors. Major Thapa was awarded the Param Vir Chakra posthumously. However, Major Thapa and the two remaining survivors had been taken prisoners and had no way of communicating that he was alive. Six months later he was released from Chinese custody. Having been pronounced dead and various rituals for the dead carried out according to Nepalese and Indian custom by his family, Major Thapa had to remarry his wife as he had literally returned from the dead.
The third Param Vir Chakra was won by Lieutenant Manoj Kumar Pandey of 1/11 Gorkha Rifles during the Kargil operations in 1999. On June 11, his platoon was tasked to capture Jubar Top, a feature of critical importance. Clearing it at night was important because otherwise the company would be caught exposed in daylight on a feature that offered no cover. Leading his platoon from the front, through a hail of bullets and although wounded in the shoulder and leg, Major Pandey continued to press on with the attack and closed in with the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. He killed two of the enemy and moved on to the final bunker killing its occupants with a grenade. Critically wounded and bleeding, the Manoj kept urging his men who cleared the remaining bunkers. His final words were “Na chhornu (Don’t spare them)”. For his sustained display of most conspicuous bravery and junior leadership of the highest order in the face of the enemy, Manoj Kumar Pandey was awarded the PVC posthumously.
In the 1965 Indo-Pak War, the 5th, 8th and 11th Gorkha regiments were all involved and each of them distinguished themselves, especially the 3/11 Gorkhas which was part of a force that captured Haji Pir.
All seven Gorkha regiments were awarded battle honours for the 1971 war. The most outstanding operations were probably those of the 4/5 Gorkhas which carried out India’s first heliborne operation in the battle of Sylhet in East Pakistan; the 1/3 Gorkhas who carried out the first amphibious assault since World War II and the 5/3 Gorkhas who seized the Hathimatha massif on the western bank of the Shingo river in Kashmir.
On being given the task to capture Sylhet, the Commanding Officer of 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (FF), Lieutenant Colonel Arun Harolikar, told his Brigade Commander that “his battalion would land in the guts of the enemy and rip them apart with their khukris”. The battalion did just that. But the BBC helped. On December 9, BBC reported on radio that a “brigade of Gorkhas” had been landed at Sylhet, a genuine mistake which the Gorkhas capitalised on. They reorganised their defences and pretended to be a brigade. The promised link-up within 48 hours however did not take place. The battalion was without food or water for 10 days, yet it increased its patrolling and ambushes to project a force larger than it was. When ammunition ran short, the men sharpened their khukris, prepared to give the enemy a taste of the Gorkha martial art. On December 16, Pakistanis offered to surrender. It was at this stage that both sides were in for a surprise. The Gorkhas learnt that they had been fighting against two brigades and the Sylhet Garrison, a force more than 10 times its size! Three brigadiers, 107 officers, 219 JCOs, 6,190 other ranks and 39 non-combatants surrendered to the Gorkhas. The Pakistanis on the other hand were astonished to learn that the strength of the Gorkhas was just 452! The battalion, however, suffered heavy casualties. It had started the war with 18 officers and ended with just 7; 4 officers were killed and 7 severely wounded. A very high price for a battalion to pay for a 13-day war.
Meanwhile, on the Western front, 5/3 Gorkha Rifles captured the Hathimatha feature in the middle of winter in subzero degree conditions. The feature is 14,000 feet high. The Gorkhas, who are adept in mountain warfare, approached the feature from the rear and climbed up its cliff-like approaches and massive rock face considered unscalable by the Pakistanis. The Gorkhas lost 14 men and earned two Vir Chakras, one of them posthumously. With the fall of Hathimatha, 5/3 Gorkhas had captured the highest number of posts in the sector.
Again, on the Western front, 1/5 Gorkha Rifles (FF) captured the Sejhra Bulge by attacking from an unexpected approach. The surprise was so complete that the Pakistani commanding officer left his trousers behind, as was reported by the TIME magazine. A huge haul of weapons, including mortars, machineguns, rifles, grenades and anti-tank guns and two three ton vehicle loads of ammunition were captured. The battalion received a silver cup in recognition for being the unit which produced the best results in 11 Corps during the 1971 war.
In July 1987, during the operations in Sri Lanka, 4/5 Gorkhas once again measured up to the difficult conditions under which the Indian Army had to serve. The political aim was confused and the soldiers had to bear the brunt of this uncertainty. The Gorkhas had been told not to fire on civilians, and taking advantage of the Indian Army’s ethical conduct, the Tamil Tigers placed women and children as human shields in their operations. The battalion was in the thick of the fighting and lost 21 lives while 70 were wounded. Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Inderjit Singh Bawa and his second-in-command Major NJD Singh were both killed while conducting an operation to link up with a Sikh Light Infantry battalion that had been cut off. Although the rescue operation was successful, the Commanding Officer was hit in the chest but continued reporting to his brigade commander till he collapsed due to loss of blood. He was awarded with the Maha Vir Chakra. In addition to the three Param Vir Chakras, personnel from Gorkha regiments have won five Ashoka Chakras, India’s highest award for courage in operations other than war.
Loyal to the core
The Gorkha soldier values good leadership and will undergo any tribulation and sacrifice if he is led well. He is loyal to the core and good leadership pinnacled by personal example results in extraordinary performance – particularly in battle. This in fact applies to all Indian troops i.e. the limit of a soldier is the limit of his officer.
As an outcome of India’s participation in World War I, the British initiated the policy of ‘Indianisation’ of the Army with regiments getting Indian officers. Entry into Gorkha regiments was, however, zealously preserved for British officers. The situation changed dramatically after World War II when the British government realised it could no longer afford the luxury of a large standing army and therefore could not hang on to its Gorkha regiments. A Tripartite Agreement was signed by Nepal, India and Britain in Kathmandu on November 9, 1947 to decide on which way the Gorkhas would go. It was agreed that of the 10 existing regiments, six would come to India, and four would go to Britain, but the choice was left to the regiments as to which army they would like to join. Pakistan also made a bid for the Gorkhas but this was turned down.
A referendum was ordered and each regiment was asked to state whether the regiment wished to go to the Indian or the British Army. The British officers felt confident that no regiment would opt for the Indian Army. They were horrified to learn that the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th, and 9th had all opted for India. Not only that, many of the Gorkha soldiers of the regiments that opted for Britain stated that their preference was for India. As a result, additional battalions had to be raised to accommodate these nonoptees. India also had to re-raise the 11th Gorkha Rifles to accommodate the Rais and Limbus who did not opt for Britain
After the transfer had taken place, it was learnt that the Gorkhas had been warned by their British officers, amongst other things, that if they opted for India, the names of their regiments would be changed and their numbers would be reduced. What ultimately happened was just the opposite. The number of Gurkha battalions in the British Army has dwindled from eight to just two! The 2nd, 6th, 7th, and 10th Gurkha regiments no longer exist! There is now only one infantry regiment – the Royal Gurkha Rifles- consisting of only two battalions, one of which is stationed in Brunei.
Today, the Indian Army has seven Gorkha regiments – the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th, 9th, and 11th. Each regiment has five to six battalions, taking the total number to 39. There is also a Gorkha regiment of artillery and a mechanised battalion. In addition, the Assam Rifle Battalions have a large percentage of Gorkhas and there are three Rashtriya Rifle battalions consisting essentially of Gorkha soldiers. This puts the number of Gorkha soldiers serving in the Indian Army at more than 50,000 strong. There are many officers of Gorkha origin in the Indian Army. Approximately 30 Gorkha gentlemen cadets graduate as officers from the Military Academies every year.
The Indian Army has had many competent and illustrious officers from Gorkha regiments. The most illustrious among them are Field Marshal SFHJ Manekshaw who masterminded the victory of the 1971 war and General S.K. Sinha who was superceded to the post of Army Chief for political reasons, but rose to higher levels and was subsequently appointed Governor of the states of Assam and J&K and ambassador to Nepal. Gorkha regiments have thrown up three Chiefs – Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, General GG Bewoor, and General Dalbir Singh, the present Army Chief. There are many others illustrious officers and soldiers from Gorkha regiments – just too many to mention.
It would be appropriate to end the article with what Field Marshal Slim had to say about the Gorkha soldier: “The Almighty created in the Gorkha an ideal infantryman – a rifleman who is brave, tough, patient, adaptable, skilled in field – craft, intensely proud of his medical record and unswerving loyalty. Add to that his honesty in word and deed, his parade perfection and his unquenchable cheerfulness, then service with the Gorkhas is for any soldier an immense satisfaction”.
Major General (Retd.) Ian Cardozo, AVSM, SM, was commissioned into the 5th Gorkha Rifles (FF) in June 1958. He has taken part in the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971. As a young Major he was severely injured in battle after being dropped behind enemy lines in the Indian Army’s first heliborne operation. In the fighting that followed, he was grievously wounded due to a mine-blast as a result of which his left leg had to be amputated. Undaunted by his handicap, Maj Gen Cardazo subsequently commanded a battalion, brigade and division in operational areas, thus setting a precedent for other war-disabled officers and resulting in a change of policy at Army Headquarters with regard to the future of war disabled officers. He was the first cadet to be awarded both the gold and silver medals at the National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla, the first to be awarded the Sena Medal for gallantry on a patrol on the Sino- Indian border in 1960, and the first disabled officer to be approved for command of an infantry battalion. He was Colonel of the Regiment of 5 GR (FF). His book, ‘Param Vir: Our Heroes in Battle’, and the ‘Sinking of INS Khukri’ have received both critical and popular acclaim. He has served as Chairman of the Rehabilitation Council of India.