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A fair go for Gurkhas


Gurkhas in Albert Square, Flickr image by BinaryApeFor decades, Nepalese troops have fought in the British army as specialist soldiers and experts in irregular warfare.

Famed for their courage, as well as their razor sharp 'kukri' blades, Gurkha regiments first gained notoriety in the west after inflicting significant casualties on Britain's East India Company during the 1815 invasion of Nepal. They subsequently fought in the trenches of the First World War, and again against the Japanese in the 1940s. Many of them never returned to their homes in Nepal.

In payment of such a debt, the British government has finally permitted veterans of the Gurkha regiments to settle in the UK.

It may seem odd that so much time has passed for such a decision to be made. In 1997, with the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, Gurkha headquarters was shifted from the island to the British mainland. This was, however, not met with legislation to allow existing soldiers or veterans to live permanently in the UK.

Even Victoria Cross winners such as Lichhiman Guring, 91, and Tul Bahadur Pun, 86 — both of whom were involved in the recent legal battle — fell into this trap, much to the distress of fellow veterans and supporters.

This changed this month when claimants, representing roughly 2000 veterans, brought their case against the UK government in a court of law. All of those involved had been denied the right to settle because they had not developed sufficiently 'strong ties' to Britain. However, this was thrown out by Judge Justice Blake, who summed up his verdict by speaking of the 'moral debt' owed by the British people to the 2000 men.

The decision to allow settlement rights was greeted by a roar of approval from the courtroom. Despite the jubilation, this success still fails to highlight a whole list of other inequalities, some of which veterans have struggled to rectify in recent years.

Historically Gurkhas were allocated a pension six times lower than that of their British counterparts. This was allegedly due to the fact that the cost of living in Nepal was significantly lower than that of the UK.

This was partially mitigated in 2007 when the Ministry of Defence announced that those retiring after 1997 would receive a basic soldier's pension. Unfortunately, this still leaves a large number of veterans wishing to live in Britain out of pocket. This brackets a succession of earlier struggles from active soldiers to obtain pay on the same level as their British colleagues.

In 2007 several former soldiers lost their case against the Ministry of Defence. The four men had attempted to bring a case of racial discrimination against the ministry at an employment tribunal. This was thrown out on the grounds that it was 'too late' to initiate such proceedings. Apparently the case should have been forwarded within six months of the men being discharged from the army.

However, as the British army has been downscaled, so too have the Gurkhas regiments. While they reached peak strength of 112,000 in the Second World War, those now on active service number around the 3000 mark.

This has only increased the prestige granted to those able to pass the gruelling induction training back home in Nepal. Each year, thousands of hopeful young men compete for the scanty 200 places available, hoping in the process for a ticket out of poverty and a life overseas.

This much sought after prize does not always come, however. In fact, despite having recently become a formal republic after the departure of King Gyanendra, Nepal finds itself at a historical crossroads. Poverty in the country still reaches crippling levels, with unemployment thought to encompass fully half of the population.

Historically then, it is no wonder that such conditions have led to many Nepalese seeking employment in India, China, or the British army. But with Nepal continuing to flounder in poverty and with Britain downscaling its military might, the eagerly sought escape to foreign climes may not be an option for today's would-be soldiers.

In that sense, the decision to allow the veterans of yesterday a home in Britain is to be commended. The problems that have caused Nepal's young men to leave their homeland to seek employment elsewhere, however, remain to be solved.

Brigade of Gurkhas

Dan Read is a freelance journalist and editor operating out of the UK. In the past he has specialised in political and trade union issues, and has appeared in such publications as Transitions in the Czech Republic and Z Magazine in the US.

Topic tags: dan read, settlement rights, gurkhas, nepalese war veterans, Lichhiman Guring, Tul Bahadur Pun



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Existing comments

Well, God be thanked! My old dad used to say (when he was alive, of course) that the Gurkhas were the finest soldiers on earth and any British soldier was proud to serve with them. As an old British soldier, he's been turning in his grave since 1997 - now he can lie quietly again!

Joan Seymour | 24 October 2008  

The battle to survive and survive the battle remains everybody's concern. One always seek to survive because of love for life, not death. So everybody is right with each of their point of view. It is their birthright.

Dhiraj | 25 October 2008  

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