After the triumphs of World War II came the Independence of India, signalling the beginning of the end of the British 'Raj' (empire). To the shock and disappointment of many Gurkhas, the Gurkha Brigade was broken up and divided between the Indian and British Armies. Despite the British initially promising that all Gurkhas would be able to choose whether to stay in India or go with them to Malaya, in fact only soldiers of the 2nd, 6th, 7th and 10th Gurkhas were allowed to participate in the ‘Opt’ as it was called - and many of them decided to stay in India, much to the surprise of their British officers.
The break-up of the Indian Army Gurkha Brigade at the time of Indian Independence marked a new low point in British-Gurkha relations. Many Gurkhas felt betrayed by their officers who, in their turn, felt betrayed by their government and powerless to do anything about it. The bedrock of mutual trust and respect between the Gurkhas and the British was temporarily shaken by suspicion and even hostility as British power in the Indian subcontinent unravelled and the fate of the Gurkha regiments became a political issue.
Proud traditions counted for nothing and in the division of Gurkha units between the newly independent India and Britain, four out of the five oldest regiments went to India (which took six in all) including the famous 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles, and four went with the British (the 2nd, 6th, &th and 10th Gurkha Rifles). British officers were outraged at the off-hand way in which decisions about the future of their cherished regiments were reached – three of the four regiments that went to the British army had battalions already stationed in the Far East rather than in India, which made the selection more a matter of mere practicality than sentiment.
Further troubles came in the shape of the ‘Opt’, as the option to choose whether to stay in India or go with the British was called. Originally, the idea was that every Gurkha would have the right to choose which army he would prefer to serve in (even if his regiment was assigned to the other side), but the new Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, insisted that since there was no change in the situation of the Gurkha units remaining in India - except, of course, that they would be officered by Indians rather than British - the Opt should only apply to the regiments destined for the British army. The British negotiators were in no position to challenge this decision, so the men of the two battalions of the 2nd, 6th, 7th and 10th Gurkhas were the only ones allowed to vote. Most of them, confused by what was going on, followed the lead of their Subedar-Major (the most senior ‘native’ officer in the Indian Army - subordinate to even the most junior British officer), who in some cases was tempted to opt for India by the promise of a full officer's commission. British officers, who had confidently expected all Gurkhas to opt for Britain were deeply shocked to be turned down by – in one or two cases – the majority of the men in the regiments that were supposedly 'theirs'.
The anger felt by many British officers at the ‘carefree’ way in which the Gurkha Brigade was split up was well expressed by General Sir Francis Tuker (of the 2nd 'Goorkhas') in his book, 'While Memory Serves':
Thus those who had served Britain longest were discarded and three of the newest regiments put in their places. Among the discarded regiments were the 1st KGO, raised in 1815; the 3rd QAO raised at the same time; the 4th PWO and the 5th Royal with its four VCs in the last war. Only one of those which GHQ selected for the War Office bore a royal title, the 2nd [King Edward VII’s Own].’
General Sir Francis Tuker, of the 2nd 'Goorkhas'
Tuker's sombre prediction that the ‘famous regiments allotted to India will one day have their numbers changed, later be deprived of their titles and will have then lost their identity' has not come true. In fact the Indian army has been very careful to preserve the identity of these regiments, while ironically in the British army Tuker’s own beloved 2nd Gurkha Rifles no longer exists – nor do the 6th, 7th or 10th Gurkha Rifles. After successive reductions in the number of the British Gurkhas, all of the British regiments were merged into the two battalions of the Royal Gurkha Rifles in 1994.
The Tripartite Agreement: the Best of a Bad Deal?
It was at this time that the much-criticised Tripartite Agreement, that tied Gurkhas in both the Indian and British Armies to the same set of terms and conditions of service was signed by Britain, Nepal and India. This agreement continues to affect the pensions and other rights of Gurkhas who retired before 1997, when Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese.
A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.
Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India, 1947