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Colonial dogma

NOV 25 -

The Nepal Army’s web site has a page headed “State of Inclusiveness” which asserts that “in Nepal different castes and ethnic groups have different motivation for their employment”.  The context makes clear that this is a basis for explaining why so few Madeshis either join, or are interested in joining, the NA.  There is a Nepali historical context for believing that certain groups are suited to fighting and others are not but the belief has strong echoes of the influential idea of “martial races” which emerged in late British colonial history, and had a direct impact on Nepal. The background should therefore be of interest.

The main agent for the military conquest of large areas of India by the British East India Company was the Bengal Army of the Company. This was recruited from a very narrow social base; for example, by the early 19th century, three quarters of the Bengal Native Infantry were “high caste” men from Awadh, mainly Brahmans. The Bengal Army formed the bulk of the force which invaded Nepal in 1814, and destroyed the Sikh state in the wars of 1845 and 1849.

The revolt against British rule in 1857 was led by the Bengal Army but it is worth noting that even after this great trauma, which resulted in the abolition of the East India Company, the British decided that, although the reorganised Indian Army [as it was now called] would have a wider social base, it would still have to be based mainly on Bengali recruits.

It was not until the 1870s that this policy started to be turned on its head when the formidably powerful and persuasive Lord (as he later became) Roberts first started to enunciate his martial race theory.  By the mid 1890s, to quote one authority (Onassi:  The Sepoy and the Raj), this theory had become not just a colonial policy but a colonial obsession. Roberts was fanatic in his belief that the Russians were bound to attack India and that a European Army could never be defeated by soldiers reared in the plains: only “highlanders” would have the necessary genes and breeding (through blood and climatic environment) to do so. Bengalis were to be discarded as fast as possible and more men of “the right stamp” recruited to replace them.

Sikhs were declared as honorary highlanders. Of course, part of the theory heavily stressed that these “highlanders” would have to be led by British officers if they were to do the job expected of them. This all played into the parallel theory which gathered increasing momentum among the British governing classes in India during the late 19th century that Bengalis and others “high caste” Hindus were effeminate: that they lacked the necessary masculine character and qualities to fight.

After their success in the Afghanistan campaign of 1878-80, Gurkhas moved to the top of Robert’s shopping list of men who had the right qualities to fight the Russians. In 1885, as Commander in Chief, he approved the doubling of Gurkha strength by recruiting five more Gurkha battalions.  Bir Shumsher had just emerged at this time as the Maharajah after the assassination of Ranaudip Singh. He craved recognition by the British who had control over Jung Bahadur’s surviving sons and relatives. He gained the legitimacy he sought after agreeing not just to co-operate with the clandestine system of regimental recruitment which has been in place up to that stage but actively to procure for the British the new recruits needed.

A measure of coercion and bribery had to be resorted to as the new demands exceeded the number of men willing to serve, particularly as the requirement stipulated that 75 percent of the recruits must be Gurungs or Magars, along with an admonition against sending recruits of “objectionable castes”. This new emphasis narrowed considerably the base from which Gurkhas had previously been recruited. For example, in 1830 the records for two battalions show that nine percent were Brahmans and up to seven percent men from “low caste”.

By the late 1890s, this new martial races theory was codified in a series of Recruiting Handbooks which stressed and highlighted ethnic differences. This was a huge ethnographic undertaking; for example, the handbook on Gurkhas issued in 1897 listed over 370 clans and sub-clans of Magars and about 190 of Gurungs. The handbook described these groups as “the beau ideal” of what a Gurkha should be. Men from Doti had previously been recruited in some numbers but were gradually re-categorised as non-martial. Chhetris continued to be recruited but when the first batch of recruits supplied by the Durbar, consisting mostly of this caste, reached the depot, the recruiting officer wrote a letter of complaint to the British Residency ending with: “in fact the fewer Chhetris the better”. This was because, in the spirit of the times, they were seen as being “more liable to Brahmanical prejudices”.  

Recruiting policy for Gurkhas has changed substantially over the years to widen the recruiting base considerably; and during the two World Wars instructions in the handbooks were widely discarded. The continuing outstanding record of Gurkha battalions needs no elaboration here but, as a general theory, the concept of martial races as laid down by Roberts and many of his followers is now widely discredited. Endless conflicts throughout history, and particularly insurgencies over the last 60 years, have shown that if you give someone a cause, the right motivation, the right training and, above all, the right leadership, they can fight.

Recent Nepali history underscores that. Arguably, the Maoists helped destroy two great myths that held the Nepali state together in its old form during their 10-year war. One was that as long as the king and the army stood together, nothing could defeat their hold on ultimate power in Nepal. The other was that people like Madeshis, Dalits and Tharus could not fight. The statistics from the cantonments show that there was no shortage of such groups in the PLA ranks, and that, in terms of ethnic and caste composition, the organisation was one of the most inclusive entities ever to exist in Nepal. This was one of its greatest strengths and a major contributor to its success when it operated as a guerrilla army despite being so poorly armed.

The NA has made clear its commitment to making itself more representative of Nepali society as a whole but holding strong to the belief, in a fast changing world, that in Nepal different castes and ethnic groups have different motivation for their employment is going to make it a hard objective to achieve. An inspection at Tribhuvan International Airport of the thousand-plus youths who leave for the Gulf every day would make that very clear.

The author is a retired British general

Posted on: 2012-11-26 09:33


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