Wednesday, August 24, 2011
The Debt owed by the British ( and Malaysians too) to the Gurkhas
Wednesday, October 01, 2008 - The Telegraph
posted by Major (Rtd) D.Swami
Like all of his colleagues who retired before 1997, when the Brigade of Gurkhas moved its headquarters from Hong Kong to Britain, Lal Bahadur's connection to the UK was deemed too tenuous for him to be allowed to live here – a judgment overturned this week by Mr Justice Blake. But Lal Bahadur voiced no sense of grievance. He was simply happy to be hosting a young Englishman in his hut.
In Nepal, the Gurkhas are a caste apart. Their numbers are drawn from several ethnic groups who live in the Himalayan foothills, making up much of the country's population. To other Nepalis, the families who serve in the British Army are known as "Lahures", after the city of Lahore, in modern Pakistan, where Nepali men went to join the British Indian Army in the 19th century.
The British started recruiting Gurkhas after they fought the East India Company to a standstill in the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814-16. In the 20th century, they fought almost everywhere the British Army went.
They were in the trenches of the First World War in France and Gallipoli, and with Lawrence of Arabia in the desert. In the Second World War they fought in North Africa, Europe and most famously in the horrific campaigns in the Burmese jungle, where they excelled at guerrilla warfare. Nine thousand of them died, and more than 2,700 were decorated for bravery. Their officers believed that their hardiness, discipline and courage made them among the finest infantry in the world.
When walking in the hills, signs of the Gurkhas' pride in this tradition – which has continued in recent years in Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan – are everywhere. In villages and towns, old soldiers decorate their houses with crossed khukuris – the common household tool they have made famous as "Gurkha knives" – with their regiment number beneath.
Once, on a hilltop facing the Himalayas, two days' walk from the nearest road, I came on a monument to a man who had died in the village below. It was decorated with two crossed khukuris and the figure II, for the 2nd Gurkha Rifles. Perhaps, if he was old enough, the man was among those captured by the Japanese when both battalions of the regiment were trapped as Singapore fell in 1942.
Not long before I met Lance Corporal Limbu, another man known as "VC" had died in the nearby town of Dharan, which was built around an old British army depot. He, too, was a local celebrity, and the townspeople filled the streets for his funeral.
Naik (the equivalent of "corporal") Agansing Rai won his VC fighting the Japanese near the India-Burma border in 1944. "Under withering fire the naik and his party charged a machine gun, he himself killing three of the crew," his citation reads." The first position having been taken, he then led a dash on a machine-gun firing from the jungle, where he killed three of the crew, his men accounting for the rest. He subsequently tackled an isolated bunker single-handed, killing all four occupants. The enemy were now so demoralised that they fled and the second post was recaptured."
Such tales of valour have spawned a whole genre of military histories, often written by retired British officers. They have also been used as propaganda: during the Falklands War, a photo of Gurkhas queuing at a grindstone to sharpen their khukuris was released to the Chilean media. As hoped, it found its way to Argentina.
But the Gurkhas pay a price for such a reputation. So strong is their bond with Britain that they often fail to reintegrate into Nepalese life. Although they are admired within their own communities, many Nepalis regard them as half-foreign. Most have learnt useful skills, but rarely find employment in Nepal. Many set up their own businesses, or take work in shipping or in troublespots abroad.
In view of all this, the ungenerous policy of the British government became increasingly unpopular and embarrassing. As the Gurkha rights movement developed over the last decade, the Ministry of Defence quibbled. Retired servicemen formed organisations to press claims for better pensions, terms of service that matched other soldiers, and the right to settle in Britain when they retired. They took the MoD to court again and again, and in most cases they won.
The MoD repeatedly offered limited concessions that were rejected by veterans. In 2006, it was said that Gurkhas could settle in Britain, but only if they had retired after 1997. Under public pressure, the Home Office began allowing "pre-1997" Gurkhas to settle in Britain, but only if they could get here first. As the farce continued, the British embassy in Kathmandu started refusing even tourist visas to veterans, because they knew the Home Office would let them stay.
As Gurkhas typically retire at 35, most of the men who take advantage of the new ruling will still be of working age. But it will be of little help to those living in the greatest hardship. During the Second World War, tens of thousands were recruited, then discharged when peace came. Those who are still alive, well into their eighties, live in villages across the hills, often without access to roads, water or electricity.
I met one such man at the Hindu temple in Dharan. His wife was sick, and he could not afford medicine to treat her. In his ragged clothes, he had come to sacrifice a chicken and pray for her recovery instead.
There are around 10,500 old men like him who were honourably discharged, but did not serve long enough to qualify for a full pension. They receive a "welfare pension" of £24 a month from the Gurkha Welfare Trust, which relies on private donations. This goes further in Nepal than it would in Britain – but it is not enough. For these men, even a bus to town can be a crippling expense. Flying to Britain would be out of the question, even if they wanted to.
There are also longer-term problems. Some British officers complain that if the Gurkhas keep suing the MoD and winning better pay and conditions, they will price themselves out of the market.
For its part, Nepal's Maoist government has said it would like to stop foreign military recruitment, but only once Nepal's economy can support its own people. Yet while young British men continue to shun the army, leaving it perpetually below-strength, and while Nepal remains mired in crippling poverty, neither outcome seems likely.
Indeed, this year, as every year, at least 14,000 young men will be starting their training up in the hills, hoping to win one of the 230 jobs available each recruitment season. Despite its complications, the relationship between the British and the Gurkhas looks set to last well into its third century. @ 6:43 PM 0 Comments
Posted by JOE CHELLIAH @ JOHAMI ABDULLAH at 9:54 AM