Gurkhas: Constructing Ethnic Identity on Foreign Soil

Last week, the Nepalese welcomed the New Year 2075 with captivating crowds in homeland and abroad. Many prayed prayers with spectacular cultural shows wherever they were in the world, and one of such shows was organized by the Gurkhas living in Grays, Essex.

The Gurkhas have held a special place in the heart of British people after they agreed to be recruited into the British force in 1816 when they defeated the British in the Anglo-Nepalese War, and subsequent peace agreements between Nepal and East India Company ceased British pursuits to conquest the Himalayan kingdom. Following the independence of India in 1947, an agreement between Nepal, the UK and India meant four Gurkha regiments from the Indian army were transferred to the British army, which formally became the Brigade of Gurkha in the British army. Since then, the Gurkhas have been serving in the British army all over the world.

During their services, the Gurkhas were exposed to every form of terror in the world and fought gallantly in numerous conflicts, including World War I and II. According to Deutsche Welle, a Germany-based international broadcaster, an estimated 200,000 Gurkhas fought in great wars with their regiments, taking part in battlefields ranging from the trenches of France to Persia in present-day Iran, and at least 20,000 Gurkhas suffered casualties during World War I alone. So far, 13 Victoria Crosses have been awarded to the Gurkhas for their bravery.

However, the Gurkhas began arriving in this country since 2004 only when the Home Office announced a policy allowing the Gurkhas and their families to settle in the UK. According to the Gurkha Welfare Trust, UK, there are currently an estimated 14,000 Gurkhas (heads of family) living in different parts of the UK, of which 12,000 are retired before July 1997, with a majority of them currently on welfare benefits. Additionally, there are approximately 1,600 Gurkha widows whose husbands have died during or after their service. Counting the families, there are about 58,000 people of Gurkha backgrounds in the UK, according to the Trust.

With growing numbers of Gurkhas and their families, the Gurkha community is thriving across the UK. Now many own their own private homes or small businesses, and working age Gurkhas including their wives and adult children are doing extremely well. In 2014, a Kent University reported that the Gurkhas of working age to be the most economically active and self-reliant social groups in the UK, with 95% in employment.

However, not all Gurkhas are living comfortably in the country they have fought for. A certain group of Gurkhas, particularly the elderly, faces a number of challenges including language skills. Local media once reported that these Gurkhas had been forced to live in cramped and ill-maintained rented properties sharing flats with other families, who often find themselves in difficulties to integrate into other local communities. These are the people who are often exposed in the media to bring shame on the entire Gurkha community in the UK.

But some argue that it is British government who should be blamed for the Gurkhas’ current situations. ‘In fact, the Gurkhas were discouraged to speak English during their service in the army. So, they always thought of Nepal for some reasons – that could be for incomes or social classes. If you can’t speak English or read news, you will certainly face challenges to integrate into local society,’ says Peter Beckinsale, a former British soldier who served with the Gurkhas.

Despite these challenges, the Gurkhas have not lost their hope and confidence in a country of opportunities, and it is these qualities that brought them together to share their life experience on this particular occasion.

And, it was late afternoon last Saturday that the Gurkhas and their families gathered together to celebrate the New Year in a local community hall in Grays. For them, it was not just a new year event, but also an opportunity to promote their culture in the wider community through a variety of cultural shows. They engaged in several different kinds of activities, and of particular interest was those of Gurkha children who performed folk dances reminding everyone of their homeland. These children were not only taking part in a cultural shows, but were also assuring that they truly loved their culture.

The new year program started with a welcome speech by Yuba Raj Limbu, President of the Thurrock Nepalese Gurkha Community, whilst General Secretary Kamala Gurung and Vice-President Shanta Rai concluded the event, highlighting the significance of the New Year in diaspora. ‘It is the process of constructing our cultural identity in a foreign land,’ said Man Bahadur Rai, one of the founding members of the Thurrock Nepalese Gurkha Community. ‘We have been organising new year events in view of our ethnic status in this country.’


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