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Despite Nepalese sensitivities over domestic and foreign criticism of allowing foreign armies to recruit "mercenaries" in Nepal, various Gurkha units continued to serve outside Nepal in the early 1990s. The only Nepalese-controlled unit abroad, however, was the Nepalese army battalion posted to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. Small Nepalese contingents also have served in United Nations peacekeeping forces in Korea and the Congo (now Zaire). Unlike neighboring states, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, Nepal did not contribute military personnel to the international coalition that defeated Iraqi forces and liberated Kuwait in the 1991 Operation Desert Storm campaign.
From Kathmandu's perspective, the military and economic advantages accruing from foreign recruitment of Gurkhas far outweighed occasional criticism. Militarily, the presence of over 100,000 trained and disciplined Gurkha veterans was a valuable human resource. Service abroad widened their horizons, and military training and discipline taught them not only how to obey, but also how to give orders. Many Gurkhas gained specialized skills in communications and engineering units, and most have had some training in such practical subjects as sanitation, hygiene, agriculture, and the building trades. The Gurkhas also played an important role in the country's economy. The cash flow derived from annual pensions, remittances to families, or monies taken home in a lump sum by discharged veterans or by service personnel on leave represented a major source of the country's foreign exchange. Remittances and pensions contributed by British Gurkhas were estimated in 1991 to total over US$60 million annually, or over twice the value of Britain's annual foreign aid commitment to Nepal. Pensions from Indian Gurkhas also represented a major revenue source. Gurkhas returning from duty in Hong Kong also were able legally to import a few kilograms of gold bullion duty free.
In some Gurung villages, about half of the families had one or more pensioners. For many families, hope of financial solvency rested on their sons returning home with a substantial sum saved during a three-year enlistment. Such income also directly benefited the economy, as money circulated in the purchase of consumer goods, the payment of debts, the purchase of land, or investment in small commercial ventures.
The British Brigade of Gurkhas was the most famous unit. By 1991 the brigade comprised about 8,000 soldiers--five infantry battalions and supporting units--most of whom were posted to Hong Kong. There was considerable uncertainty over the brigade's future, however. Cutbacks in British military commitments in Europe, coupled with plans to cede control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, left the brigade's future in doubt. Under a proposed scheme, the brigade would be based in Britain and would induct fewer than 150 Nepalese recruits annually. An informal lobby of former Gurkha regimental commanders exerted tremendous political pressure whenever the British Parliament considered changes in Gurkha force structure. Although some Britons considered the existence of foreign-recruited units anachronistic in a modern sophisticated army, much of the British public and defense establishment harbored strong sentimental attachments to the Brigade of Gurkhas.
As of 1991, there were more than 100,000 Gurkhas serving in over forty Indian infantry battalions and elsewhere in the Indian Army. Their pay and pensions, though not as generous as British benefits, also represented a significant contribution to the Nepalese economy. Almost all of the Indian Gurkhas served in ethnically distinct regiments commanded by non-Gurkha officers. In addition, about twenty-five battalions of Assam Rifles, a specialized paramilitary force descended from the old British unit of the same name, were staffed almost exclusively by Gurkha recruits. Gurkhas played no appreciable role in Indian services other than the army and paramilitary forces. As during the British Raj, successive Indian governments called upon Gurkha regiments on numerous occasions to put down domestic disturbances that were beyond the control of local police. Ethnically homogeneous Gurkha units often were considered more reliable than mixed units that might be tempted to side with ethnic kin embroiled in a dispute.
Singapore has maintained a small Gurkha contingent attached to the Singapore Police since the early 1950s. Composed entirely of British Gurkha veterans and commanded by British officers, the contingent performed guard duties and assisted the local police in routine security chores. The sultan of Brunei also maintained a 900-person Gurkha Reserve Unit equipped with light infantry weapons. As with the Singapore unit, the Brunei Gurkhas all were British Army veterans. The unit functioned primarily as a praetorian guard that protected the sultan--reputedly the richest man in the world--against any internal or external threat that might arise.
Data as of September 1991
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