A week ago, 2/5 GR (FF) – the Second Battalion of the Fifth Gorkha Rifles, Frontier Force – popularly known as the ‘VC paltan’, celebrated its 125th anniversary. The famous battalion is called VC paltan because of the three Victoria Crosses awarded to its personnel by the British during the Second World War in the Burma Campaign. This is an unparalleled feat in the annals of military history as no other battalion in any army has won the nation’s highest gallantry award three times.
With the spine chilling war cry ‘Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali’ (‘Victory to Goddess Mahakali, the Gorkhas are coming’), the Gorkhas, have served first the British Indian Army and then the Indian Army with distinction for almost two centuries. Over 200,000 of them participated in the two World Wars; of these 43,000 sacrificed their lives. Hailing mostly from villages of impoverished hill farmers in the Gorkha district of Nepal, the Gorkhas belong to four main ethnic groups: the Gurungs and Magars from central Nepal and the Rais and Limbus from the east.
The British had identified the Gorkhas as a ‘martial race’ for their sterling qualities of toughness and fortitude. The Gorkha soldier is famous the world over for his ferocity and unflinching courage in battle. One author has described the Gorkhas as, “Small of stature, large of heart, accustomed to hardship, good natured with a keen sense of humour, loyal to death, more disciplined than any fighting force in the world, brave and capable, and absolutely without fear.” These hardy troops are undoubtedly tough, bold and durable under withering fire, and they are extremely well disciplined. Close family ties within each battalion ensure that they fight not only for the paltan’s izzat (the honour of the battalion) but also for their own kith and kin.
The Gorkha regiments of the British Indian Army played a key role during both the World Wars. They saw action in Africa, Europe and in Asia and earned battle honours everywhere. Following the partition of India in 1947, under a tripartite agreement between Britain, India and Nepal four Gorkha regiments – 2nd, 6th, 7th and 10th regiments – were transferred to the British Army, eventually becoming the Gorkha Brigade. Of the total of 10 regiments, six (1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th and 9th regiments) joined the Indian Army. 11 GR was raised later. Currently there are 39 battalions serving in 7 Gorkha regiments in the Indian Army. While Gorkhas in the Indian Army hail both from Nepal and India’s hill regions, the Nepalese Gorkhas have helped to build strong bonds of friendship between the two armies.
All the Gorkha regiments have performed creditably in India’s wars since independence. Besides the major wars, the Gorkhas have served in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, at the Siachen Glacier and in the UN peacekeeping missions in Lebanon and Sierra Leone. In October 2011, the 4/9 GR won the gold medal in the annual Cambrian Patrol Competition held in Wales, UK.
The Gorkhas still carry into battle their traditional weapon – an 18-inch long wickedly curved, broad-bladed heavy knife known as the khukri. It is the world’s most renowned fighting knife. “Often the mere sight of an unsheathed khukri is enough to discourage any further action by causing a cold, cramped feeling in the nether regions of the stomach.” Legend has it that once a khukri was drawn in battle, it had to ‘taste blood’. If it did not, its owner had to cut himself before returning it to its sheath.