The champion of animal rights, the Minister for Women & Child Development Maneka Gandhi raised two important issues with the Ministry of Defence in a letter this week: the sacrifice of animals by Gorkha regiments and the air-drop of live animals for troops in field areas.

Her letters to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, and his predecessor, Arun Jaitley, of her own government have gone unanswered, according to media reports.

The subject of animal rights certainly requires to be considered, but this must be done in the context of religious, cultural and traditional sensitivities of Gorkha soldiers.

Gorkha traditions

Animals are sacrificed not just by Gorkha battalions but also by a number of other hill troops like Kumaonis and Garhwalis and tribals like Mizos and Nagas, primarily during religious or cultural ceremonies.

The majority of troops in Gorkha regiments hail from Nepal. They follow a traditional custom of sacrifice of animals – mainly male buffaloes (rango) and goats (khasi) during Dussehra. This is Nepal's most sacred festival of Nepal and was incorporated in the list of festivities celebrated by the British Gorkha regiments, most of which opted to stay with India at the time of Partition.

In the 1950s, most of the 30-odd Gorkha battalions (39 today) during Dussehra would sacrifice two rangoes, one during Kalratri and one as Mahabalidan the following day, corresponding to Ashtami and Vijayadashami. The buffaloes were full grown, sometimes taller than the diminutive Gorkha who was required to sever the head with one clean swipe of the special khukuri.

Both the Gorkha soldier chosen for the honour and the weapon had to undergo ritual prayers soliciting goddess Durga's blessings. The goddess forbid, should the khukuri not perform a clean cut, which happens rarely – the hapless soldier's face has to be smeared with the blood of the buffalo so that no evil befalls the battalion. When any misfortune – a mega ambush or an IED incident – occurs, units where a sacrifice has gone awry attribute the tragedy to it.

Changing times

During Mahabalidan, parallel khasi sacrifice ceremonies are held in all the six companies of the battalion where "meat on hoof" is served as prasad. All the weapons of the battalion are blessed by Durga Mata and the religious teacher of the battalion. The two sacrifice ceremonies, once cleanly completed, are followed by endless sessions of naach and equally endless bouts of drinking to remove the palpable tension preceding the rango sacrifices.

One other ritual used to be performed: every subaltern who joined the battalion had to personally decapitate a khasi for his acceptance into the unit.

The acceptance test in vintage times included the knowledge of spoken Nepali and Gorkha customs as well as familiarity with village life. This made treks in Nepal by subalterns mandatory with a visit to Kathmandu to get the big picture.

During Dussehra in Kathmandu's Hanuman Dhoka, thousands of buffaloes are sacrificed.

Changing traditions

Rewind to 1958 at Alipore Lines Calcutta where the VC Battalion (three Victoria Cross winners during World War II) Second Five Gorkha Rifles is celebrating Dussehra. As a young officer, I witnessed the week-long religious ceremonies culminating in Kalratri celebrations. The all-night naach was interrupted briefly at the midnight hour when the first rango was sacrificed and the Commanding Officer rewarded the Gorkha for his feat with a saafa or turban.

Officers dressed in black tie along with the men of the battalion stayed awake all night with a 20-minute interlude to change into regimental blazer and tie, ready for Mahabalidan. When asked how this tradition came about the second in command, Maj Dini Mistry replied: “Partly inherited from the Brits, partly invented by us... after all, that's how traditions are made”.

Today, most likely none of the 39 Gorkha battalions celebrates Dussehra in completely the old style. Some have either done away with buffalo sacrifice or reduced it to either Kalratri or Mahabalidan. A suitable male buffalo is not always available in some parts of the country. Unlike khasi meat, buffalo meat is not publicly eaten by Gorkhas though Gurung soldiers relish it. Dug and buried, decapitated buffaloes are poached by lower-caste Nepalis. The two years 4/5 Gorkha Rifles were located in Dehradun, buffalo sacrifice was done away with as Uttarakhand does not permit sacrifice of animals inside a temple.

The British Gorkhas discontinued the sacrifice of buffaloes in the early 1970s while their Gorkhas were deployed in Hong Kong, Brunei and UK. Today they allow just one animal to be sacrificed as many changes have been introduced but with consent of the Gorkha Major who is the seniormost Gorkha in the unit.

If Menaka Gandhi has said “animal sacrifice is not intrinsic to any culture or practice”, she is not correct as these practices are religious and cultural, traced to Nepal. Still, she has raised pertinent issues for all soldiers, including Gorkhas. Even if she does not relate the present practice to traditional customs followed by Gorkha regiments , Army Headquarters should suggest, through the Gorkha Brigade Association, evolving corrective measures similar to those implemented by the British Gorkhas

As for air-dropping animals which Gandhi describes as "barbaric", in the old days, Caribou aircraft would paradrop goats called "meat on hoof" to certain difficult areas. Gorkhas would wait with their khukuris in the Dropping Zone, ready to perform the necessary drill should an animal break a limb or die. Here too, Gandhi's recommendation should be accepted and only in inaccessible areas should the animal be paradropped – and as humanely as possible.

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta was commissioned in the 5th Gorkha Rifles infantry regiment of the Indian Army in 1957.