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The Queen's Unpaid Army

After some 200 years on the frontline, Gurkhas in the British Army demand just wages for blood

The Queen's Unpaid Army
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‘The Almighty created in the Gurkha an ideal infantryman—brave, tough, patient, adaptable, skilled in fieldcraft’.
—Field-Marshal Viscount Slim 

ASK any British general, and he will delightfully narrate why Gurkhas make excellent soldiers. In these rugged mountain people, the commanders found almost every trait they could possibly desire in a soldier. Limitless courage, cool-headed discretion, indefatigability. But it was their unflinching sense of loyalty that endeared Gurkhas to their superiors most.

Some of those white sahibs could now be turning in their graves. After nearly 200 years of blind devotion and disciplined reticence, the warriors are now breaking their silence. To tell the world how badly they were treated by their British commanders. They have even threatened to drag Her Majesty’s Government to court if their long-harboured grudge against a discriminatory pay package is not addressed.

"The oppressive Panchayat regime would not tolerate dissent of any kind in the past," says Padam Bahadur Gurung, chairman of the Ex-Gurkha Association, which represents thousands of disgruntled soldiers. "But we can speak freely now. The discrimination has to be stopped immediately. We want to put the record straight." Part of the urgency comes from the fact that Hong Kong, among the last Gurkha stations, reverts to Chinese rule next year, and with peace reigning, Britain could disband Gurkha battalions altogether.

Gurkhas claim Britain has treated them as mercenaries, violating the 1947 tripartite treaty signed by the British, Indian and Nepal governments that guarantees the Nepali recruits the same status as their British colleagues. They are indignant over the British Army policy that follows the Indian Army pay code while paying the Nepalis. Thus, a serving Gurkha gets paid the same as a Gurkha in the Indian or Nepalese army just as they retire on the same pension—which British officers concede is "a pittance by our standards".

Nepalis were first enlisted in the British Army 182 years ago. But the recruitment peaked during World War II, when every fighting soldier was worth his weight in gold. Gurkhas now come from all parts of the Himalayan kingdom, but mostly belong to five ethnic hill classes: Gurungs, Limbus, Magars, Rais and Tamangs, all of Mongol origin. Historians say the mass-scale recruitment of young Nepalis fulfilled a desperate requirement of Imperial Britain. It needed all the manpower to colo-nialise and consolidate territories thousands of miles away from the British Isles.

In early 19th century, the tiny kingdom of Nepal held sway over its neighbours, thanks to its legendary fighters. It was in 1814 that Britain first got the taste of their military might. In a series of clashes, heavily outnumbered Nepali soldiers showed the East India Company Army the ruthlessness and bravery they were capable of.

In the end, of course, the supremacy of the more sophisticated, and larger, British army prevailed. A ceasefire and the Sugauli Treaty (March 1816) later, Nepal was forced to accept the presence of the British Resident in Kathmandu, the first foreign mission in the country.

It was at this time that the wily British commander, Gen. David Och-terlony, set his sights on Gurkhas as possible recruits. "This was to prove a major strategic success for Britain," says Padam Gurung. "It helped Britain further its imperial ambitions." The hill people were rugged, doughty and, above all, they came cheap. A retired Gurkha corporal, after 20 years of service, now receives a mere £30 in monthly pension while his British counterpart is paid £475. Thousands of others with less than 10 years of service have never received any pension, while their British counterparts have been covered through alternative employment on dismissal. 

"We have been treated pretty shabbily," says Maj. I.K. Tamang, who retired in 1987 after 31 years of service. With his monthly pension of £48, he is struggling to support his 25-year-old daughter, currently training to be a fashion designer in a London institute whose charges are £8,000 a year. "I have somehow managed to foot the first year’s bill. I wonder how I’m going to manage next year."

 His repeated pleas to the British Government that his daughter be given the ‘home student’ status—where she would need to pay only £2,500—were ignored. Indeed, there is a provision for financing the studies of children of serv- ing soldiers, but Gurkhas hardly ever benefit.

 Most Gurkhas retire at . "That’s when their children are in dire need for funds to pursue higher education," says Tamang. "I have told British officials there are tens of areas Gurkhas have been discriminated against." His complaint is hardly typical. Currently, there are only about 130 of what are called Queen’s Gurkha Officers, equivalent to Junior Commissioned Officers in the Indian Army. Tamang, in fact, belongs to the elite Gurkha corps: very few Nepalis climb to the rank of Major in the British Army. He now lives in Kathmandu, adopted home to over an estimated 2,000 Gurkha families, who are comparatively well off.

Most others live in their native villages, making occasional forays to alien cities. "You should remember that they spent their youth fighting in a foreign land for a foreign country," says Padam. "They are now back in their villages. It’s all like a dream to them. An ugly dream." Padam survived the long and bitter Communist insurrection in the malaria-infested jungles of East Asia. Not everyone was so fortunate.

In World War II, a quarter of a million Gurkhas were sent to fight the Germans and the Japanese. Even by the British count, nearly 9,000 never returned home. Thousands others were injured, some maimed for . life. Historians put the Gurkha toll for the two World Wars at 45,000. 

Britain continued to hold Gurkha battalions even after the War—when their strength was about 15,000—mainly because of the Communist insurrection in Indo-China. Soldiers were sent into jungles both to learn and fight, observes Brig. E.D. Smith in his book, Britain’s Brigade of Gurkhas. "As our American friends put it, they were training for real." 

The Gurkha strength dwindled slowly, but almost halved over the last few years when the British cut the strength of their army with the end of the Cold War. There were 7,500 Gurkhas in the British Army before the post-Cold War redundancy schemes went into place. Now only about 4,100 Gurkhas are left in the British Army—about a sixth of its total infantry strength. But even recent years have seen them in action—in the Falklands, the Gulf and even Bosnia, as soldiers or as part of the signals, transport and engineering units.

 "The sufferings of the Gurkhas is among the most heart-rending tragedies of modern times," says Hiranya Lal Shrestha, opposition MP in Nepal. The worst victims were those with less than 10 years of service. They were sent home with gratuities ranging from £150-250—none of these estimated 10,000 ex-servicemen now receive pensions. Activists say this is human rights abuse of great proportions on the part of Britain, which poses to be the champion of democracy.

A large number of those dismissed without pension never returned home. They were too ashamed to. The fortunate ones were re-employed in remaining units in Brunei and Singapore. Much of the wealth the general people associate with Gurkhas belongs to these sections, says former Captain Himal Rai. "Most British Gurkhas live in villages. They don’t have the kind of money it takes to live in big cities." 

Kesh Bahadur Gurung, father of five children, served the British for 15 years. He is now bruised and broke. The rifleman wasn’t able to secure himself an overseas employment. He had saved Rs 56,000 when he returned to Nepal in 1984 from Hong Kong. "I set up a small shop," he recounts. "It was never going to be easy after 15 years out there in the army. But we aren’t very pushy by nature and I had to close shop."

 A grim battle for survival followed. Kesh Bahadur got into illegal logging. He went bust when the police caught him red-handed and imposed a heavy fine. His life is now confined to the one-room apartment he shares with his wife and two children, among them a 17-year-old daughter, on the outskirts of Kathmandu. They haven’t paid the Rs 450 rent for the last four months. "We spend whatever we have on food," says wife Chandra Maya.

Kesh is too broke to even travel 400 km southeast to Duhabi to collect his £20 monthly pension. "My only hope now is to get a new driving licence." But, at 46, he is somewhat diffident about relearning the art of driving. His only other hope: an early revision of the pension scale. 

The soldiers are gearing up for a legal battle now. But, first they plan to give diplomacy a chance. They submitted a memo to Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba this June, appealing to him to initiate a dialogue with Britain on their four-point charter: pensionless Gurkhas dismissed under the redundancy programmes, with less than 10 years of service, be covered with pensions; the Gurkha pay package be same as that of their British counterparts; the soldiers be granted British work permits; and that a welfare fund be set up to assist Gurkha children in their careers.

Ex-servicemen say though the Nepalis serving in the Indian Army get promotions on merit, they are seldom promoted beyond the ranks of Major in the British Army. early revision of the pension scale. Some eight lakh Nepalis have served in the British and the Indian armies to date.

In the light of the Gurkha call to arms, Britain has announced a review of the pension rate. "The inflation in Nepal has been much steeper than we believed it might have been," concedes a Defence Ministry official in London. But the British military attache in Kathmandu stressed the new rate would still approximate to the Indian rate more closely than those for British servicemen. "There are sound reasons for this," says Colonel Christopher Lavender. "The primary reason is to ensure Gurkha recruitment in the Indian Army is not adversely affected by over-generous conditions in the British army and vice versa." Gurkhas claim such pronouncements only make their case stronger. "How can you even claim to be non-discriminatory when you admit you are employing a two-tier paycode?" asks Yubaraj Sangroula, the Gurkha lawyer.

In Britain, the image of Gurkhas is preserved in ceremonial functions. They seem royally favoured, and not just in names like the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers, the Queen’s Own Gurkha Transport Regiment and the Royal Gurkha Rifles. They can be seen often at the crowd-pulling changing of guards at Buckingham Palace. A unit even did guard duty at the Palace in early September. "They have a very strong place in the affections of the British people," says the Defence Ministry official. Only, after a two-century-history of service, the soldiers who came in from the cold—or the heat—might not settle for that.

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