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“IF A man tells you he has never known fear”, the inimitable Sam Manekshaw once asserted, “he is either a liar – or a Gorkha”. Reason to recall that accolade, and other Gorkha legends, is provided by the 200th anniversary of those stocky hill-folk having been inducted into what is now designated the Indian Army. In physical terms they may not have literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their mates in olive-green: in terms of courage, “heart” and whatever else is required to make good soldiers they remain peerless. Their loyalty renders ridiculous those who have tried differentiating between British Gurkhas and Indian Gorkhas – true to their salt they are lovingly called “Johnnies” in both armies. Their gallantry awards  tally  is  out  of  all  proportions  to  their  limited  numbers, on the football field or boxing ring they have truly excelled.

No Republic Day parade is complete without a marching contingent of the men with slouch-hats tipped at a rakish angle. The hill men originally were adversaries of the colonial army, but such was the valour they displayed that they were “absorbed.”  The Army today boasts of a mix of an estimated 30,000 Nepal-based Gorkhas, many more from families who after their colour service settled down in proximity to regimental and recruiting centres like Dehra Dun, Subathu, Shillong, Darjeeling and Dharamshala.

A special brand of military professionalism runs in their blood: they respond positively to training regimes and are known to carry out their commanders’ instructions to their very last breath. But above all they have created a “romantic” aura for themselves: not for nothing did Manekshaw consider being called Sam Bahadur his ultimate tribute. Not so long ago a just-retired Gorkha taking the train home was accosted by robbers. He meekly surrendered his watch, cash etc; but when those goons tried molesting a woman passenger he drew his khukri – the rest is history. John Masters also eulogised them: one of his most re-told WWII stories is of a warship transiting the Suez Canal hearing a shout asking it to identify itself; it switched on its searchlight to reveal a Johnnie with his rifle at the “ready”. Smiles aside, there is relevance to the tale. During the 1971 War a Gorkha was decorated – for having used his LMG (light machine-gun) to down an enemy jet fighter.