May 3, 2001


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Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Gurkhas vs British paymasters

The legendary khukhri-wielding Gurkhas of Nepal are engaged in combat of a different kind: a war of wits with their British paymasters.

Established in 1991 as a trade union, the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organisation launched its shrillest attack yet on the UK during its second international congress recently in Kathmandu, alleging serious racial discrimination and violation of human rights.

Employing professional lawyers, historians, human rights activists, intellectuals, politicians and victims of injustice and exploitation of the British Gurkhas, the GAESO made out a convincing case of stepmotherly treatment by the British Army.

Parliamentarian and journalist Kuldip Nayar and this writer were the two Indian participants in the conference.

The two-day meeting seemed so implausible. Her majesty's loyal Gurkhas, who helped craft the British empire from the Honduras to Hong Kong and their wards, who are still in the service of the Crown in Brunei and UK, were battling for their rights tooth and nail without any audible response from either the British embassy in Kathmandu or Whitehall, London.

The entire issue of Gurkhas has become emotive and confusing. Gurkhas from Nepal had joined the Sikh armies of Maharaja Ranjit Singh much before they were recruited by the British in 1815 as part of the British Indian Army.

At the time of Partition in 1947, British Gurkhas were divided between Britain and India, who along with Nepal, entered into a tripartite agreement regulating the recruitment and pay of these Gurkhas.

While the UK and India reached a bilateral arrangement stipulating that British Gurkhas' pay "would approximate that laid down in the Indian pay code", Nepal inserted in the tripartite treaty, the clause that "the Gurkhas would be treated on the same footing as the other units in the parent army so that the stigma of mercenary troops may, for all time, be wiped out."

It is difficult to deny that Gurkhas, despite their sterling soldierly virtues, are by definition at least, the world's leading mercenary soldiers. The discrimination against British Gurkhas stems not only from the linkage to the Indian pay code but also from their unequal treatment vis-a0vis British soldiers of the same Army.

For 180 years no one detected the lacunae or if they did, were too decent to point them out. In the presence of hundreds of delegates, the GAESO presented the inventory of anomalies, perceived deprivation and discrimination. The one-sided case seemed all the more convincing in the light of the 16,000 Gurkhas who had sacrificed their lives for the British crown.

Topping the discrimination list are many war veterans and widows of soldiers who died in active service without being compensated in any way. The British government recently announced that it would pay pounds 10,000 for British soldiers who were Japanese prisoners of war during World War II but Gurkhas are excluded.

Similarly, Gurkhas recruited during and demobilized after wars have been poorly compensated. For example, in 1969, 10,000 Gurkhas were made redundant under a retrenchment scheme. While their British counterparts were handsomely compensated, Gurkhas were paid a princely 150 pounds and sent home. Such an exercise was repeated on a smaller scale twice again.

In 1986, 111 Gurkhas soldiers on training in Hawaii were disciplined, ostensibly for mutinous behaviour and dismissed en masse. Some of them paraded at the Kathmandu conference, gave out their side of the story. They said they were sent home without compensation and the right to appeal. From their testimonials it was clear the soldiers were unsure of facts leading to their dismissal. But tears were shed in any case. The GAESO has to ensure that it gets its facts right.

The GAESO has kept up the pressure on the British government. Its main grouse is over unequal treatment, despite the stipulation in the tripartite agreement that Gurkhas had to be treated on the same footing as the parent army. Yet they have been discriminated in the matter of pay and pension, promotion, service facilities, privileges and post retirement benefits.

Only three Gurkhas have made it to lieutenant colonel rank and only one commanded a Gurkha battalion. The discrimination against Gurkhas was highlighted when Sgt Baliram Rai and his British officer were killed during mine-clearing operations in Kosovo. The initial compensation awarded to Rai was nearly five times less than that given to the British officer. But thanks to the uproar in the British media, the disparity was corrected.

The discrimination gap is closing slowly but surely. The serving Gurkhas, at their present strength of 2,500, are being brought on par with the British soldier by hiking various allowances without disturbing the parity with the Indian pay code. The British Army is facing severe shortages in recruitment and has been forced to enroll additional Gurkhas to make up the shortfall in British Infantry regiments.

A separate company of Gurkhas has been attached to several British units. The pay and allowances given to Gurkha soldiers are still the best they get anywhere. The GAESO has to take care it does not undermine the prospects and reputation of Gurkhas in service and those in the very long pipeline of recruitment.

With precisely the intention of not hotting up the war and keeping their struggle as a legal and peaceful movement, the GAESO has placed before the British government, four demands: Pension for Gurkhas made redundant; parity of pension with British soldiers of the same rank and length of service; education for Gurkha children; and right to a work permit in the UK after retirement.

The British have pegged the pension differential to the lower costs of living in Nepal. Now, a Gurkha soldier has married (he has a wife in Nepal?) an English girl and has moved court in the UK for equal pension. This will become a test case.

The British are being cagey about their plans about meeting Gurkha demands. Privately their officers are saying that the GAESOs are 'budmash', extorting money from pensioners and are a front for the Left wing Communist Party of Nepal. They also say the question of parity of pension does not arise due to the difference in terms of engagement and duration of service. The British soldier has a colour service of 22 years compared to the Gurkha, enlisted for 15 years.

The British public holds the Gurkhas in high esteem and with huge affection. It is impossible that the British government or the GAESO will want to do anything that will dent this public image. The battle is as much over dignity as it is to do with money.

Gurkhas have been the cash-strapped Himalayan kingdom's most secure earners of foreign exchange. In their heyday, Gurkhas used to send up to 40 million dollars a year home. On the eve of the Kathmandu conference, the British government announced a 10.9 per cent increase in pensions which was seen by the some of the participants as a minor victory.

While the Nepalese government is reluctant to push the Brits on Gurkha disparity, it is keen to have the problem resolved amicably before it becomes a political football and is used by both the Left and Right wing parties in Nepal to kick the government.

Some government leaders, in their talks with the British, have been speaking about equitable and unequal treatment. This is not what the Gurkhas say they are demanding. The GAESO's war of words is gathering confidence and finality. Its publicity wing has produced a documentary film called Gurkha Blues, showing their wartime heroics and their abysmal post-retirement plight.

The Kathmandu Declaration seeking redressal of Gurkha grievances ended with the formation of an international committee of eminent persons to guide the GAESO on winning the war without exhausting itself.

The GAESO requires further counseling. It must open an informal line with the British Army and the government because the cost of this war against the establishment is going to be very high and the struggle, long drawn. Neither is it in the long term interest of the GAESO.

Yet, on April 12 this year, using carrot and stick, their core group took its case before the UN Commission for Human Rights at Geneva. The plight of the Gurkhas was projected with substance and sobriety. The main issues related to the legality and validity of the 1947 tripartite agreement and discrimination between soldiers of the same army.

The options the GAESO outlined at Geneva to advance its case range from filing lawsuits in the UK against discrimination to placing complaints with the ILO and UNESCO, to moving the European Court of Human Rights to seeking dialogue with their paymaster.

Gurkhas, famous for their war cry, 'aayo Gurkhali', are now mixing discretion with valour.

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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