Morale: One Gurkha, No Passage


March 31, 2011: Britain recently awarded one of its Gurkha soldiers (sergeant Dipprasad Pun) the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross (second only to the Victoria Cross) for killing or chasing away over 30 Taliban who tried to overwhelm his guard post in Helmand province, Afghanistan, last September. The night attack was detected by sergeant Pun, who was alone in the outpost. He grabbed all the weapons (machine-gun, assault rifle, and grenades) he could and went to the roof of his building. During a fifteen minute fight, he killed at least three Taliban, wounded many more, and caused the others to flee. Pun's father and grandfather had also been decorated while serving with Indian Gurkha regiments.

For Gurkhas, this was not an unusual feat. For example, about the same time sergeant Pun was battling the Taliban in Afghanistan, in India, a retired Gurkha soldier (Bishnu Shrestha), singlehandedly killed three bandits, wounded eight and drove off another 30 when the train he was on was attacked by a large gang, who planned to rob several hundred passengers. It all began when some forty bandits, pretending to be passengers, suddenly revealed themselves, and, armed with knives, swords and pistols, stopped the train in the jungle, and proceeded to rob the passengers. When the bandits reached Shrestha, he was ready to give up his valuables, but then the 18 year old girl sitting next to him was grabbed by the robbers, who wanted to rape her. The girl, who knew Shrestha was a retired soldier, appealed to him for help. So he pulled out the large, curved khukuri knife that all Gurkha soldiers (and many Gurkha civilians) carry, and went after the bandits. In the narrow aisle of the train, a trained fighter like Shrestha had the advantage. Although some of the bandits had pistols, they were either fake (a common ploy in India), inoperable, or handled by a man who didn't want to get too close to an angry Gurkha. After about ten minutes of fighting in the train aisles, eleven bandits were dead or wounded, and the rest of them decided to drop their loot (200 cell phones, 40 laptops, lots of jewelry, and nearly $10,000 in cash) and flee. The train resumed its journey promptly, in case the bandits came back, and to get medical aid for the eight bandits who had been cut up by Shrestha (who was also wounded in one hand). Shrestha required two months of medical treatment to recover the full use of his injured hand. Shrestha was hailed as a hero, not just by the Indian public, but also by the regiment he, and his father, had retired from.

This Gurkha gallantry sometimes backfires. A year ago, in Afghanistan, a Gurkha soldier found himself facing court martial for doing what Gurkha's are trained to do (beheading an enemy in combat with his khukuri). The trouble began when the accused Gurkha's unit had been sent in pursuit of a group of Taliban believed to contain a local Taliban leader. When the Gurkhas caught up with the Taliban, a gun battle broke out and several of the enemy were killed. The Gurkhas were ordered to retrieve the bodies of the dead Taliban, to see if one of them was the wanted leader. But the Gurkhas were still under heavy fire, and the Gurkha who reached one body realized he could not drag it away without getting shot. Thinking fast, he cut off the dead Taliban's head and scampered away to safety.

When senior British commanders heard of this, they had the Gurkha arrested (and sent back to Britain for trial), and apologized to the family of the dead Taliban. The head was returned, so that the entire body (as required by Islamic law) could be buried. The British are very sensitive about further angering pro-Taliban Afghans, and go out of their way to collect all body parts of dead Taliban (especially those hit with bombs), so that the body can be buried according to Islamic law. The Taliban use accusations of Western troops disrespecting Islam as a major part of their propaganda efforts. When there are no real cases of such disrespect, which is usually the situation, they make it up. British officials have said nothing about this case since, indicating that they are waiting for the fuss to go away.

As far as beheading goes, the Taliban often do that on living victims, which even horrifies Afghan warriors. But a Gurkha beheading an Afghan warrior is somehow more familiar. That's because Gurkhas have been fighting Afghans for centuries, in the service of Britain or Indian princes. Gurkhas, who tend to be Hindus, featured prominently in an Indian effort to stop Moslem armies from entering India 1,300 years ago, and then pushing the Moslems out of Kandahar (which was then an Indian border town).

Gurkhas are tribal people (of Tibetan and Mongol origin) from the mountains of Nepal, and have interacted, and intermarried, with Indians for thousands of years. Britain fought a war with the Gurkha kingdom two centuries ago, and found them such formidable opponents that they began hiring them as mercenaries, and continue to do so. India has even more Gurkha mercenaries than Britain, and Gurkhas are popular security operatives worldwide. Most Afghans are somewhat amused at the British punishing a Gurkha for simply doing what Gurkhas have been doing to Afghans for a long, long time. But the Gurkhas put their skills to use wherever they are, no matter what they are up against. Extraordinary displays of courage by Gurkhas are not unusual.




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