At the time of writing this piece on the role of the Gorkhas in tomorrow’s India, it is important to state that the idea of who constitutes a “Gorkha” has itself come under the question. This is more pronounced in places like the Darjeeling hills, where every community that once constituted the larger Gorkha identity is demanding for a separate development council and claiming their origins, culture and language as being distinct from others and in Sikkim where the term “Gorkha” is no longer preferred, fearing a linkage with the Gorkhaland agitation taking place in Darjeeling right on its border. Thus when the two areas where the largest concentration of Gorkhas are present, are struggling with the idea of the Gorkha, one question the very survival of the Gorkha identity through the next century. Yet it would be presumptuous to suggest that the people in Darjeeling and Sikkim can alone decide the future of the Indian Gorkhas, when large majority of the community lives elsewhere in India’s Northeast states, Dehradun and in other regions of India. The various political development in south Asia will have an impact on the Gorkha identity and surely every India Gorkha will have a say on whether the identity will continue or will fragment into smaller communities.
The Gorkha identity is almost synonymous with the colonial idea of the marital race. The idea of the martial race was first adopted in the 19th century with the belief that while in Europe every able bodied man was able to bear arms, in the east only a few select communities had the physical prowess and temperament to be soldiers. This idea was accepted as the official recruiting policy and was the basis of colonial military reorganization after the 1857 uprising. Every community who did not participate in this uprising but rather helped in its suppression were designated as the “Martial races”. Thus the communities such as the Sikhs, Pathan, Gorkhas, Muslim Punjabis, and Rajputs were considered to constitute the military labour market from where the British would now restrict their recruitment to.
It should be remembered that the idea of the Gorkhas was beyond just that of a brave race, they were also belied to be inherently loyal, cheerful and semi civilized with the knowledge of commercial agriculture. It was these attributes that British believed the Gorkha possessed that caused the former to use the latter to settle the North east frontiers. This colonial construction of the Gorkha identity was one that was readily accepted by the Gorkhas themselves, causing several generations to view the military as their primary occupation, failing which they entered into other forms of labour; agricultural, industrial or in tea gardens.
The fact that the colonial glorification of the Gorkhas as a brave martial race came with several other conditions was one that was never explored by most people. The Gorkhas made great soldiers but never good leaders, was one. Physically they were of the greatest quality but were intellectually limited was another. They were cheerful and loyal but were immature like a school boy, always needing a non Gorkha to guide them. As a result, despite the fact that the Gorkhas have been serving the British army for over 200 years, they are still not promoted past the usual rank of Captain and the very rare Major. Though the condition in the Indian army is much better and one comes across several Gorkha Brigadiers, Colonels and occasional Lieutenant Generals, we still haven’t come close to any Gorkha becoming the Chief of Army Staff. The number of Gorkhas joining the Indian Military Academy or the National Defence Academy is still low compared to other groups. The situation seems even more appalling when you consider that this is a sector where the Gorkhas are supposed to excel in.
The number of Gorkha entrepreneurs is dismally low, those in the IT sector lower still. The number of Gorkhas pursuing higher education like Phd degrees and further research has increased in the last few decades but is still abysmally low when you compare them to other groups, especially in the pure science departments. Though the traditional cultures of the Gorkhas is rooted in music and both traditional and modern forms of music are popular among the youth of our community one still doesn’t find many Gorkhas who have been successful in the mainstream music industry. Though many Gorkha youths are interested in creative arts yet there are rarely any who follow this as a career. The number of Gorkhas clearing the UPSC exams is ridiculously low, those clearing state service have been higher but when compared to the other communities, the numbers are still disappointing.
The “India of tomorrow” that the honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to build, where digitalization, entrepreneurship, start-ups companies, industrialization, IT hubs etc. will be areas of prime focus and a part of the vocabulary of tomorrow, how would a community that is rooted in the colonial idea of martial race contribute and what will be our role?
The Indian army along with other military establishments of the world has been moving towards a new generation of warfare where advancement of technologies in terms of both weapons and the level of development of Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (C4I) will determine the outcome of wars rather than the physical prowess of the Infantry soldier. Thus even our modest aspirations to provide military labour to the army will be under threat. Further a society that sees government jobs, no matter how petty, as the only viable career is not a long term asset for the nation.
The only way the Gorkhas can become a part of the India of tomorrow and contribute to it in a significant way, is if we have a paradigm shift in our understanding of careers and our notion of development. It will be nothing short of an epistemological break in our mentality. We must discard the old and adopt the new. Education will have to be the prime focus, where education must be provided to every Gorkha youth and attempts should be made to make sure that all the Gorkha youths complete college and the drop-out rates both at school and at the college level be brought down to zero. Further education will not just imply a college degree with the intention to secure a modest government job, but rather will entail an overall development of the individual. Further innovation and entrepreneurial spirit must be encouraged and the whole notion that business acumen is something that is inherent in certain societies and is not present in ours must be completely eradicated. Hobbies and interests must be encouraged, be they sports, music or creative arts and the youth must be encouraged to take up these hobbies and interests as a career. The value of higher education and research must be appreciated and encouraged. The Gorkha society must contribute to making the nation into a superpower through innovations, starting companies, creating new ideas and by generating human resources in the form of engineers, doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, scholars, academicians, sportspersons, musicians, artists, army officers, IAS etc. The main people, on whom all of this will depend on, will be the parents. They must be the ones to instil the seed of ambition and strength to achieve it, in their children. Asking for alms from the Government in the form of this council or that board is not the answer.
A lot can be learnt from the Japanese of the post-second world war period. They channelled their military set up and mentality that had evolved ever since the Tokogawa Shogunate and continued through the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century, into developing Japan into an economic superpower. Thus Gorkhas must also similarly channelize the martial spirit into economically developing themselves and in the process the nation. “Bravery” must no longer be seen in becoming cannon fodder in battlefields but rather in taking risks in starting companies and industries. The “never retreating or surrendering spirit” of the Gorkha must be adopted in pursuance of education, in becoming administrators, researchers, teachers, scholars, doctors, engineers, artists, sportspersons and army officers. The often spoken about Gorkha’s ability to “adapt and innovate” in the battlefield must be used to innovate and invent new ideas and machines.
Thus Gorkhas in tomorrow’s India must break with its colonial past and forge a new future and in the process must no longer beg for its place in the nation but rather claim it.
Binayak Sundas is a Phd Research Scholar, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi”.