Migrant Soldiers on the Move: ‘Martial Races’ and the Transnational Lives of Gurkha families in the Far East (1940s-1960s)

Ms Hema Kiruppalini4

4National University of Singapore, , Singapore

Since the colonial period, Nepalese Gurkhas constituted an integral part of the British Army and came to be categorized as a ‘martial race’ group suitable for soldiering. There is substantial literature in the domain of military and war studies that document their role in the Far East during the 1940s -1960s. While this body of work places emphasis on the identity of the Gurkhas as a ‘fighting class’ with warrior-like attributes, research on the social history of Gurkha families and their transnational mobility within Asia is few and far between. As such, this study places Gurkha families and their life histories at the heart of the story whilst foregrounding the influential role of colonial ideas about the ‘marital races’ in shaping their migration to the Far East. I will consider the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) as a means to map their journey from Nepal across the Bay of Bengal to various camps in the Far East and, in doing so highlight the processes of differential exclusion that undergirded their life as gated community. A micro-historical approach to their social history in the context of the Cold War will elucidate how Gurkha families experienced and were affected by wide-ranging political transformations. I will also reflect on what ‘home’ meant for Gurkha families who experienced repatriation. Based on archival research and oral history interviews with migrant solider families, this multi-sited ethnographic field research in Malaysia, Nepal, and the United Kingdom attempts to piece together fragments of their past.


Hema Kiruppalini is pursuing a PhD in History at the National University of Singapore. Her doctoral dissertation explores the historical development of transnational Gurkha families in Southeast Asia. Prior to this, she worked as a Research Associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) during which time she was involved with the publication of The Encyclopedia of the Sri Lankan Diaspora (2013).


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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