Thursday, September 18, 2008



Recently a woman named Rachel Ellison was awarded an Order of the Member of the British Empire (MBE). She had set up a radio show called Afghan Woman's Hour in Afghanistan under the aegis of British Broadcasting Corporation. She was given the honour for promoting human rights and female empowerment in the country.

This piece of news reminded me of a WWII veteran Gurkha, Major Kunjalal Moktan who too had been awarded with an order of MBE. The MBE was given to him in recognition of his efforts at helping the Britishers reconstitute the partition torn Brigade of Gurkhas at Malaya (Malaysia).

Albeit, ‘the order has attracted some criticism for its connection with the idea of the British Empire. Many famous personalities including Benjamin Zephaniah have rejected the MBE saying it reminded of "thousands of years of brutality—it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalized”. Nevertheless, a Gurkha to have received an MBE for a reason other than bravery in the face of enemy is a welcome delight. Major Kunjalal was born on 22/02/1922 at Singel Tea Estate to Harkabir Tamang. After completing his matriculate from St. Alphonsus School in the year 1940, he joined the 1/10 Gurkha Rifles as Rifleman Clerk.

There is an interesting anecdote behind his recruitment. After having been selected as Rifleman Clerk at Ghoom Recruiting Depot, Major Kunjalal returned home to break the news to his father. His elder brother, Babulal Moktan, already being in the army (1/3 G.R.) his father did not take the news well and forbade any further discussion on it. It was only when Major Marshall, the recruiting officer at Ghoom recruiting depot, traveled all the way down to his house and talked with the old man, then did the old man relent.

After completion of his training at Quetta and thereafter at Rajmankh Frontier Province, Major Kunjalal and his regiment were taken to Madras from where they where shipped to Rangoon (now Yangoon). By the time they reached, Rangoon had been completely destroyed by Japanese bombs. To make matters worse, the Japanese force was just 24 hours away from Rangoon. To avoid unnecessary casualties, began one of the longest retreats in the history of modern warfare. An order was issued; Kunjalal and his regiment were to retreat to Imphal on foot through Irrawaddy (at Irrawaddy his elder brother was taken as Japanese prisoner of war). While retreating through the jungles of Burma, Major Kunjalal was hit by a bomb shrapnel and was immediately shifted to Shwebo, from where he was airlifted to Tinsukhia and then to Shillong Military Hospital. Luck was with him, he was slightly hurt while the person standing next to him was torn into two.

After getting well, he was once again pushed into Burma through Manipur. This time on foot. The advance was not easy. For months they ambushed, fought hand to hand battles against the Japanese and crept forward. Finally at a strategic lake near Matilla, they put camp for about six months. How did they spend their time – fighting and driving away retreating Japanese forces from Arakan and adjoining areas?

The war having been fought and won, Major Kunjalal was at Rangoon when India became independent. Following India’s Independence, vide the Tripartite Agreement of 1947, the Gurkha Rifles was divided between India and England. Two battalions of 2nd, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th were handed over to the Britishers. The men of the respective regiments were given a choice; stay with the Indian army or cross over to the British army.

Initially Major Kunjalal volunteered for the Indian army but the commandant of his regiment corresponded with Delhi Headquarters and had him on liaison on Indian allowances to help raise the newly re-formed battalion at Malaysia (Malaya). After his services at Malaya were no longer required, he could return to the Indian army but Major Kunjalal was to stay at Malaya until his retirement.

Major Kunjalal was then a Havildar. Being an officer, he was sent to the RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) school, Malaysia for M.T.O. & M.T. Sergeants. The RASC was responsible for land, coastal and lake transport; air dispatch; supply of food, water, fuel, and general domestic stores such as clothing, furniture and stationery administration of barracks; the Army Fire Service; and provision of staff clerks to headquarters units.

At the school there were only two Gurkhas among a crowd of white soldiers but Major Kunjalal shined above the rest and stood first. On his success, his superior officer declared that from there on the next MTO would not be a British officer but Captain Kunjalal. Shortly thereafter, a proposition was mooted to form a Gurkha Army Service Corps (GASC) on the lines of RASC, within the Brigade of Gurkhas. Kunjalal was selected as one of the instructors to run the GASC School. There on for six years he was instructor at GASC, Singapore. After that he was sent by the Brigade of Gurkhas for an advanced MTO course at RASC, England. On his arrival at England, he saw that the instructors there were the instructors who had taught him at RASC, Malaysia. The instructors had been so highly impressed by Kunjalal, that whenever an explanation was offered in the class, they would seek the approval of Kunjalal “Isn’t it so Captain Moktan”

After retirement while working at Assansole Collieries as Chief Security Officer, the MBE was offered to him. He was given a choice; he could receive the MBE from the hands of the Queen at London or from the British High Commissioner at Malaysia before his Brigade. He chose the latter for as they say he ‘lived to serve the Unit not to a transient personality or cause.’ His service was to the Gurkha Rifles and not to the British Flag. At present, Major Kunjalal can still be found hale and hearty, on sunny afternoons, deep in conversation with his old time friends at Kurseong Railway Station.

(This article was first published in Explore Sikkim published from Singtam, Sikkim)