Pum’s Story

Pum was glum. Last fall he gave NPR 80,000 to a recruiter in the hopes of securing one of the coveted slots reserved for young Nepali men in the British Army. Back in Kathmandu he told us over coffee that he was hopeful for next year. Slim, but in good shape, he’s sure he’ll make it next season if he trains harder this year. But after interviewing numerous recruits and observing the selection process for the British Army, we were more skeptical.

Pum’s father had been in the Indian Army and he had grown up hearing stories of Lahures, or Nepalis who had gone abroad to join the British and later, Indian Armies. (The term comes from Lahore, where the Nepalis used to travel to enlist in the British Army. After Indian independence, the British moved their recruitment centers to Dharan and Pokhara in Nepal, but recruits still use the term “to become Lahure.” Internationally, it is more common to hear the term Gurkha while recruits were more likely to refer to those who were successful as Lahures.)

Joining the British Army would provide Pum’s already middle-class family with more status, but the annual recruiting process is challenging. The two rounds of selection test the recruits physically and mentally, and, in recent years only a little more than 200 have been accepted. Still, the promise of a British soldier’s salary, and and the prospect of a British citizenship after four years, were too alluring for Pum to pass up.

Like many of the recruits we interviewed, Pum contrasted with the common image of the Nepali recruit who had come down from a mountain village to make his fortune abroad. Many of the recruits come from poor families, but in a globalized market where labor increasingly flows across borders, we found that the stories Nepalis and internationals told about British Army recruitment in Nepal needed updating. In fact, an overwhelming number of the recruits we came across in 2015 were from urban areas, fairly well-educated compared to other Nepalis, and from well-to-do families. This shift demonstrates both the dire economic conditions for the middle class in Nepal, as well as the opportunity that Nepalis assume comes with joining the British Army, which includes a path towards British citizenship. At the same time, joining the recruitment process also has certain risks, which are often not discussed among recruits and their families.

Pum, for example, before entering the recruitment process had completed his plus two (high school level education), and was beginning his studies for a bachelors of science and information technology, one of the most challenging, and promising, university level tracks in Nepal. Last year, he completed his first semester successfully. With his background in science, he thought, the British Army would be even more likely to take him and make him an engineer. His family supported his decision.

He discussed the selection process with several friends and they decided the best way to get in was to join one of the private training centers that train young Nepalis in the months leading up to the first round of the selection process, the Regional Selection. So Pum joined a training center, paying NPR 75,000 for the training sessions in Kathmandu, plus additional costs for board and lodging in Pokhara where the selection process would take place in November.

According to Pum, it was tough trying to study and train at the same time. Also, he realized too late that the British required that he go to Pokhara the same time that his second semester exams were taking place. He had already paid the training center and he could only hope that he would pass into the British Army and it wouldn’t matter that he missed the exams.

Instead, Pum, like 90% of the recruits in 2015, failed to make it through the first regional round. Sitting in Pokhara, he debated with other recruits who had failed to make it to the next round what had gone wrong. Most tended to blame what they assumed was a corrupt selection process, where, it was alleged, agents could help get you through.

In many ways, Pum was in better shape than some of his friends who took these rumors more seriously. Recruits widely believed that it was possible to influence the selection process, particularly by paying money to Gallawallas, or Nepalis who are retired from the British Army and now helping run the recruiting process. Pum had a friend who had paid NPR 700,000 to a man who claimed to be able to influence the selection, but he had made it no further than Pum had. And the man had now disappeared with the money.

Still, there was a significant cost beyond the training center fees for Pum. He had failed all of his second semester courses and was now required to wait a year before he could take those second semester courses again. So instead of returning to the university, he was spending most of his time back in Kathmandu at the training center, but with the 2016 selection process still 10 months off, none of the boys there were training too hard yet. Mostly, it was a place to go. It didn’t make sense for him to try and get a job in the interim, since he still assumed that he would make it through the process next year. And, he said, wages were so low in Nepal, who would want to look for work in Kathmandu.

I’ll try again this year, he told us, and if I fail, then I’ll take my studies seriously.

Contradicting tales

Pum’s story is far different from many of the common stories about British recruitment. In fact, we found two key repeated narratives while conducting over a hundred and twenty interviews over nine months in 2015 and 2016, researching the migration of Nepalis to work in conflict zones, and among these were many who joined (or tried to join) the British Army, Indian Army and Singapore Police.

One of these stories is the one that the British Army likes to tell: it is about a Nepali youth from the countryside, who has no real opportunities at home, but works hard, makes it through the selection process, joins the British Army and sends money back home to his village. In this description, the strongest, bravest recruits rise to the top.

The second common tale about the recruitment process contradicts the first in almost every way. In these stories, the British selection process is a corrupt process where a recruit can only be successful by having the right connections and paying the right people.

Yet, what was most remarkable was that the actual experience of these recruits never fit either of the narratives and yet, these were the stories that continued to be told about the recruitment process. As we conducted more interviews, we became interested in the ways that these two stories contradicted the reality of the process for the vast majority of recruits.

During our conversations, we found some worthwhile moral and political debates over the continuing practice of Nepalis serving in foreign militaries. The Maoists at one point had eliminating British recruiting as the fourth of their forty point demands. During our study, the process didn’t seem to be a colonial relic as much as a colonial reality, and yet, in Nepal’s increasingly neo-liberal economy, these practices had clearly morphed in many ways.

As social scientists, however, whether the practice should or should not continue was not as interesting to us as what the effects of the current process actually were. We heard stories about successful recruits who went off, joined the British Army or Singapore police and sent money home. But what about those that were not successful? In 2015, almost 6,000 Nepali recruits applied to join the British Army. Thousands of others trained, but dropped out of the process before the selection began. Of these, only 236 were successful. What were the consequences for the more than 97 percent that failed?

The training centers

On a cool morning in October, the stadium in Pokhara was packed. Running around the track in tight groups, doing heaves on bars by the seating area and sprinting across the field on the other side of the track were many of the young Nepalis who had paid training centers to help improve their chances of getting into the British Army. The recruits all wore uniforms with the names of the various training centers in Pokhara on the back of their jerseys. With 21 training centers, Pokhara had more such institutions than any other city in Nepal, but these recruits were later joined by other recruits from centers from Kathmandu, Dharan, Butwal and a few other towns as the testing date grew near.

One of the mornings we visited, we counted over 2,000 recruits working out at the stadium. Others were outside of town, training on a steep hill for what is called the doko race, where recruits had to run up a steep 2.4 km hill, with a 25 kilogram basket strapped to their foreheads. Getting an exact number of the recruits using the training centers in Pokhara was tricky. Some of the centers we visited were concerned about public scrutiny and did not want to give us any information. Most were willing to talk, but also seemed prone to exaggeration, overinflating their enrollment numbers. In those October weeks, however, based on the number of centers and the number of recruits we counted training, it seems unlikely that there were fewer than 4,000 recruits training at centers in Pokhara alone.

Despite the rugged athleticism of the training, the centers are clearly first and foremost businesses. Billboards showing recruits in action line the highway east of town. The centers all lease large houses that serve as hostels, where out of town recruits were crammed into large bunkrooms. Some of the centers printed their own textbooks and all paid local teachers to come and teach daily lessons in English, math and other key subjects.

Talking with several training center directors and employees, it was clear that the centers simultaneously relied on both of the key narratives about the British selection process in order to promote their businesses. At one time, they suggest, the centers provide a place for young men to excel and develop their natural skills, while simultaneously, much of the advertising for the centers includes photos of the directors of the centers standing with British soldiers, subtly suggesting that they have a special connection to the British camp and can help recruits get in. This marketing campaign was clearly paying off and most of the centers we visited were packed.

The training, however, is not cheap. Most training centers charge NPR 25,000 for the basic training package, regardless of whether you start training 10 months before the selection process or just a couple of weeks. There is another NPR 10,000 charge for those who make it through to the Central Selection round. In addition, there are hostel and board charges for those that live outside of Pokhara. Depending on the quality of the room, which is often shared with twenty other recruits, this is typically around 10,000 per month. Add in equipment, text books, travel and other fees, and it is fairly easy for a recruit at a training center to spend NPR 100,000 in the lead up to the British selection process.

By 8 am, the day was beginning to get hot. The recruits had lessons later in the afternoon, followed by another round of physical training, but during most days, they were left to hang out in their hostels, play the guitar and chat. The directors told us that recruits were able to attend classes or work jobs during their free hours, but we didn’t find any who did this. They told us they preferred to rest and get ready for more training in the evening. During these hours of relaxation, the British recruitment process seemed to be everyone’s favorite topic of conversation.

The rumor mill

It was disheartening to hear the recruits describe the selection process, which they had little information about. Despite a large annual information campaign by the British Army, most of the recruits we talked with were not entirely clear how the selection process worked, they did not always understand how one had to pass through the Regional Selection round before making the Central Selection. The training centers gave them practice tests and a sense of what to expect, but most did not have a good sense of when the various parts of testing occurred or which were most important. Most importantly, none of the recruits were aware of just how few were successful each year.

After some questioning, it became a little clearer why such misinformation persisted. Training centers have little reason to provide recruits with much information about the process. They could charge more if people thought they were the only places that had direct knowledge of how the system worked. Perhaps, the military-style training did not encourage recruits to ask questions, just to do what they were told.

So instead of discussing various aspects of the selection process, recruits spent most of their time dreaming about a life in the British army, where everything would be fun, and fortune would forever smile on them. It would be gin-ga-la-la, they said, using the Hindi slang.

Making sense of the opaque system that would bring them this good fortune was not easy. So it was more common for recruits to discuss the various rumors of ways to bribe your way into the British Army. The most common tales were of Nepali Gallawallas who solicited bribes from families and everyone seemed to know someone who knew someone who did this, but it was hard to pin down these rumors.

A more prevalent scam seemed to be agents who claimed to work for Gallawallas, who would take money and promise to get the recruit in. The agent would not actually have any influence, but if the recruit was successful, they would keep the money and claim that they only made it because of their influence. If the recruit failed, they would make a story up about how their contact had left, and, in a surprising number of instances, would actually return the money to the family.

Other stories seemed more far-fetched, such as one we heard about a high ranking Nepali at the camp who was said to have eliminated the hearing part of the process one year when his hearing impaired nephew was trying to get in. It was impossible to try to prove or disprove these stories, but what was clear was the way that they suggested to recruits that they should continue paying training centers to get an extra edge and even consider paying agents who claimed to have connections inside the camp.

Inside the Camp

The loud training center groups running laps at the Pokhara stadium contrasted with the strict, silent, ordered work of the selection process within the British Camp when we visited. Recruits lined up to present their ID cards and other papers. Cell phones were confiscated so that recruits couldn’t get help from brokers once inside, or potentially phone out questions from the tests for recruits in later batches.

Since our study was primarily of perceptions of the recruitment process and we only spent one day in the camp itself, it is impossible to assess British claims about the fairness and transparency of the process in contrast to the recruits’ claims of corruption and manipulation. On the surface, however, the process was rigorous and it was very difficult to imagine how an outside (or even inside) agent could influence it. The scores from the various tests were kept on computers by the recruits serial number, not name, and interviews and other testing always had multiple British and Nepali overseers administering them, so that there were two opinions.

Still for the majority of recruits, who eventually had to walk down the hill from the camp after failing out of the process, the idea that the process was corrupt clearly had a certain appeal. It suggested, for example, that they had not failed due to their own deficiencies, but that it was because they were too honest and had not paid money. In the meantime, however, the perceived arbitrariness of the system also meant that most that failed were likely to plan on returning the next year to try again. Few planned on returning to school or looking for work as long as they were still twenty-one or younger and still eligible.

“Brother, sometimes I want to spit on myself”

Kush is now in a bind. Like Pum, he failed this past year in the early round of the selection process. Unlike Pum, he comes from a much poorer family of farmers. The family mortgaged two cows in order to get a loan of NPR 85,000 to pay for the recruiting center, and 50,000 of that was for accommodation in Pokhara during his training.

Like Pum, he failed in the first round, but he’s now afraid to go home and hasn’t told anyone in his family. While in Pokhara he had met some other young guys who also failed and were now living in Kathmandu. They were letting him stay with them for a while and he was hoping to find work abroad, probably in the Gulf. He figured that once he found another job he would tell his parents about the selection process, but he was too ashamed to tell them without some good news to go along with it.

The problem was that getting a job abroad was not easy and the many brokers in Kathmandu who promised to find him work abroad would charge him tens of thousands of more rupees. Yet he felt like he had few other options. With his qualifications, no job he took in Nepal would pay him enough money to pay off the loan he took out during his training. He didn’t see any options other than going abroad. He said he wanted to go to Dubai, but was willing to take a position in Malaysia as well. He was just waiting, hoping that something would come along.

Kush’s dilemma is not a rare one. Nepal’s current economic struggles mean that there are few opportunities for young people. The problem with the current British recruiting process, however, is that while promising a way out of Nepal, it also encourages thousands of youth every year to make less wise decisions, dropping out of school, paying large sums to private training centers, all while doing very little to improve their skills or their chances of getting a job if they don’t make it into the British Army.

Could the system work differently? Probably. If the British military were to shift their testing standards and do away with some of the more anachronistic practices, like the doko race, and replace them with more vocational skills testing, the young men who fail in the selection process would at least have some useable skills at the end of the process. Similarly, there is much that the Nepali government could do to regulate the training centers and make sure agents are not taking advantage of recruits.

Right now, however, there are too many people benefiting from the current system. Training center owners and brokers are making money off the rumors and lack of clear information around the selection process and the British continue to get the recruits they want every year.

In the meantime, the people losing out during the process are the thousands of youth who participate each year, losing opportunities to continue with school or follow more tenable career paths. Looking at how rumors spread, and how vague information is manipulated by brokers, makes it worth asking: how many of the tens of thousands of Nepalis migrating abroad to work poor paying jobs in terrible conditions make these decisions through the cloudy optimism of stories long told of the successful Lahures who go abroad, returning with their fortunes?

The lucky 200 who make it into the British Army each year might bring status and wealth for their families, but for thousands of others, they perpetuate false promises and dreams that will never be realized.


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Noah Coburn (@NcoburnNoah) is a political anthropologist at Bennington College in Vermont, U.S.A. He spent five years conducting research and writing about the American war in Afghanistan. He is author of several books, most recently, Losing Afghanistan: An Obituary for the Intervention. His writing appears regularly in periodicals in the U.S. and elsewhere. He has a forthcoming book on the experience of Nepali workers in Afghanistan which will be published in 2018 entitled Under Contract: The Invisible Workers of America's Global War. Dawa Sherpa is an Independent Researcher. Previously he worked as a researcher on migration and labor issues at the Social Science Baha in Kathmandu, Nepal. Together, they conducted extensive field research in India and Nepal on recruitment into the British military and private security firms by the U.S.