June 06, 2020
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The Khukri Chronicles

A Gorkha battalion celebrates 125 years of valour in war

The Khukri Chronicles
Illustration by Sorit
The Khukri Chronicles

Think of Nepal. Mount Everest and the Gorkha soldier come to mind. The motto of Gorkha soldiers is “Kafir hunu banda marnu jati (Better die than be a coward).” The doughty Gorkhas helped build empires at home and abroad, from Belize and Falklands to Brunei and Hong Kong. In World War II alone, 51 Gorkha battalions fought under the Union Jack, winning 10 Victoria Crosses. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the first to tap their legendary fighting skills; they became, at home, Lahure (recruited in Lahore) Gorkhas, and abroad, Johnny Gorkhas.

Think of Abbottabad, where American SEALS took out Osama bin Laden. Abbottabad was also where the 2nd battalion, 5th Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force), was born in 1886. It forayed into the lawless Pashtoon Northwest, fighting the epic action at Damdil in 1937. On November 10, 125 years later, the battalion celebrated its birthday at Almora in a reunion of hundreds of serving and retired Gorkhas who recounted their laurels in the best traditions of soldiering.

Think of valour. You learn that the Sikkim Five won three of the 28 VCs awarded in World War II to the Indian Army, earning the title of ‘VC Paltan’. Two of the three VCs were won in a single action, over 24 hours at Mortar Bluff in 1944, near Imphal, one posthumously by Subedar Netra Bahadur Thapa. The viceroy, Field Marshal Viscount Wavell, came to Nowshera’s Polo Ground, on the edge of the Kabul river, to present Namsari Thapini, Netra Bahadur’s widow, the coveted red-ribboned bronze medal made from Russian guns captured in Sevastopol.

The other recipient of the VC was Naik Agansing Rai (died: 2000), the hero of Mortar Bluff, the strategic picket he won back from the Japanese. The third VC, the first to be won in World War II by the battalion, was by Havaldar Gaje Ghale, and it was presented by the present Queen Elizabeth. Gaje Ghale grew in fame and girth, ending up as broad as he was tall. When he went to Howrah railway station in 1959 to receive President Rajendra Prasad, onlookers were dumbstruck by his size. A young girl gushed, “My God! Little wonder King Tribhuvan awarded him the Nepal Tara and the Nepalese their love! Hamro veer Gaje Ghale!

Both Agan and Gaje were in the battalion in 1962 when it was chosen to be a part of the Indian Brigade in Congo. In Elizabethville, capital of Katanga, they became instant hits with the autograph-hunting Belgian community. The two VCs were last together in the battalion in 1996, this time as budhos (veterans) at Dharamsala, when the BBC captured them live in its serial, ‘Indian Army: 50 Years After the Raj’.

Beyond the VCs are other legends: Subedar Major Giri Prasad Burathoki, who became Nepal’s first defence minister in the 1960s; two decades later, his son, Col Sri Prasad Burathoki, became the tourism minister. At least a dozen others performed important government assignments.

Think of battle honours. The battalion has not rested on its VC laurels. It played a key role in the Hyderabad police action in 1949, led by Gen J.N. Chaudhuri; the 1965 and 1971 wars; and numerous counter-insurgency operations, bagging two Maha Vir Chakras, three Vir Chakras, one Shaurya Chakra and several other decorations.

Doubting the capability of Indians to lead the Gorkhas, the British did not allow them into the regiment till after Partition. Once in, they proved equal if not better than the British. Leading the Gorkha Brigade were Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw; Gen Gopal Bewoor (who took over the army from Sam); Lt Gen Srinivas Sinha, who missed being the army chief but was appointed ambassador to Nepal, and later, governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir. At 86, Lt Gen Zorawar Bakshi, who commanded the battalion in Congo and later won the MVC at Hajipir Pass in 1965, is the most highly decorated soldier of the Indian army. The list goes on.

Now, think of November 10. After 40 years, the battalion is back at the Alexander Lines in Almora. Forty years back, having returned from Congo, it had been met by then army chief Gen J.N. Chaudhury, who, alighting from the helicopter and seeing the throng, remarked, “I never expected such a grand reception.” It was the chopper, not the general, that was mobbed. This week, there was a flurry of helicopters and Innovas carrying guests to the birthday party. The most honoured guests were the Gorkhas, from Mechi to Mahakali and Mustang to Musikot in Nepal, carrying their seilrotis (Nepali bagels, of sorts), tales of battle and faded ribbons, returning home to show off to their grandchildren, the Sikkim Five.

Think of Som Bahadur Gurung. Gaiety, simplicity, bravery and loyalty—these gifts he brings from his home among the hills. Vigour and stoutheartedness, pride befitting royalty. Love of high achievement and strength that love instils.

(The writer is a retired major-general.)

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