Gopal Siwakoti 'Chintan'
To many outsiders in the globe, the Gurkhas are better known after Mt. Everest than this tiny country, Nepal. The reason we all know Gurkhas fought for the biggest colonial power in the human history -- the Great Britain (may come down to a smaller Britain if the Scottish votes for independence this week!). They are also known for their involvement in all the big wars that Britain and the allied powers won -- although wars are bad but victories are good! So the Gurkhas are the glory of not the lost the wars but military victories.
I never knew where the Gurkha bravery comes from. When I see them around as my neighbours, brothers, uncles and friends -- they are simply the simpler people of the ethnic-indigenous communities of Nepal. Most of them, as a result of State exclusions of socio-cultural discriminations and the practice of untouchability over the few centuries, had been denied of the same opportunity the Hindu religion and caste-based upper high class and those of landlordism or political favouritism practiced for their both class as well as personal vested interests (there are many parents of today's ethnic-indigenous writers and leaders who took part in the these socio-cultural 'crimes' against their own class or community -- an issue to forgive if not to hold accountable equally as to the upper class).
But how come these fellow brothers as soon as they are recruited as the Gurkhas transform to superstar of the super wars! To me the logic is simple -- they are honest, poor, uneducated but strong as the mountain men-- the reason the upper class Brahmins and Chhetris had been unofficially barred in recruitment. This physical strength and bravery comes from their hard living conditions with high ups and downs with huge sacks or dhakar of goods so as grazing and hunting in adverse weathers. So no doubt they or any of us could be the best naturally trained fighter in any physical wars, e.g. even Maoist people's war. We can call ourselves as the organic fighters than those of the well-fed and well-cared trained western soldiers of their own who we can call broilers! Honesty was always there as it was related to their hand to mouth problem back home and if shacked for any disciplinary actions for raising the voice for equal treatment or polite behaviour! So the Gurkhas kept absolutely quiet throughout their service due to this fear of their white superiors. Some call it 'bravery' and others 'slavery'.
Whatever! The things got changed once the discrimination causes of the Gurkhas to Britain from its High Court to Downing Street to the Parliament Square, including the parliamentary halls and corridors. This was done mainly under the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights and the subsequent implementing Human Rights Act, 1998 (a subject this author specialised abroad and hired the best public interest/human rights law firms in the UK). This gave the Gurkhas full right to equality in all of their services they offered, particularly accompanied family accommodation, right to settle and equal pension with other associated benefits. The results were bang! Bang!! Bang!!! Compensation to Japanese Prisoners' of War and their widows (£10,000 each) increased pension due to Court battles (although not through the Court yet directly), family accompanied service as well as the right to settlement in the UK after retirement as equal to the other Commonwealth soldiers.
The issue then remained for those already retired and settled back in Nepal or Hong Kong after 1 July 1997 (the handover Hong Kong to China). These are the Gurkhas who really fought hard from the streets of Nepal to London and the corridors of the then Commission on Human Rights and the International Labour Organisation both stationed in Geneva. The British Ministry of Defence, feared of our fierce legal and public campaigns for the Gurkha rights then began with all kinds of tactical delays to slower down the speed of the success one after another.
This included first the formation of panel within to review the Gurkhas Terms and Conditions of Service and allowed the serving Gurkhas an offer to transfer their service for British pensions but limited to those retired on or after 1, July 1997 -- the date Brigade of Gurkhas Headquarters permanently moved to the UK. This again discriminated the pre-1997 Gurkhas which followed another massive court case while famous British actress Joanna Lumley joining the public campaign. Then the Gurkhas won this right too.
But what remains tragic today is, even after being settled in the UK, they had been denied the access to equal pension to all Gurkhas. Those retired after serving for more than four and less than 10 years of service had also been denied any pension -- classified as redundant -- which is not the case for the Commonwealth soldiers who are qualified all pension and benefit rights after four year of service as equal to their British counterparts. The denial of residential rights to those family members above the age of 18 and of medical benefits and other social services are also the issues to be settled now amicably.
This history of the Gurkhas is at the crossroads now. In one hand their recruitment is limited to 200 a year only hence the total serving Gurkhas are only around 3,700 in numbers. There has been a huge cut off for various cost and war technology reasons. However, the Gurkha grievances to be put unaddressed even as today is simply not fair for them so as the country, Nepal, that had faced the biggest loss in the history -- both economically, socially and workforce-wise. The Satyagraha Movement of the Gurkhas led by Gurkha veteran Gyan B Rai led to the formation of an all-party parliamentary committee of inquiry last ... --- that is at the final stage of its report. A delegation of UK Members of Parliament led by its Chair, Jackie Doyle-Price, is in town this week. They will sure be meeting with our heads of State and the government for additional 'consultation'.
But the point is the Gurkhas deserve equal treatment in all fields of their lives and the Britain must not prolong it further. In the meantime, Nepal must take a position that the Gurkhas should be declared eligible for their equal pension and benefits even they decide to reside in Nepal. Only then Nepal gains some economic benefits for its surrender to British wars -- the backbone of its modern economy -- whereas both the Gurkhas and the British taxpayers benefiting significantly -- less cost for Britain if this equality is provided up to Nepal and more prosperity for the Gurkhas they can live and enjoy their happy aged lives in their motherland. The continuation of their Nepali citizenship even if they decide to obtain UK citizenship for economic and social reason is another issue the Nepal government must be open for. This all will be in line with the Nepali Parliament's Human Rights and Foreign Affairs Committee report submitted to the government 15 years ago.
(Chintan is legal adviser to British-Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organisation -- BGAESO based in UK)