Nepal's Gurkha soldiers seek justice from Britain

Retired Gurkha soldier Ek Bahadur Rana lives in a squatter settlement on the banks of a heavily polluted river in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital. The only financial support for Mr. Rana, one of thousands of Nepalese soldiers who served in the famous British Gurkha Brigade from 1949-1959, comes from his elder son who works at the Gurkha Army Ex-servicemen's Organization (GAESO), an outfit that has been fighting for the rights of former Gurkhas for almost 15 years now.

"But my elder son also has his own family to look after," says Rana, who receives no pension for his 10 years of service for Britain.

More than a decade of struggle by former Gurkhas, who spent their youth in the British Army fighting at the frontlines of the bloodiest of wars Britain has engaged in, has failed to ensure equal treatment for Rana, or any Gurkha who retired, was wounded, or was killed from 1816 to 1997.

But earlier this month, Britain took a step toward equal rights for Gurkhas when it announced that future Gurkha recruits would be allowed to join the same Armed Forces Pension (AFP) plan that British soldiers enjoy. The announcement also says that those who served after July 1, 1997, will enjoy the benefits of the AFP plan for the years following that date, effectively excluding tens of thousands of former Ghurkhas like Rana.

"I was engaged in guerrilla warfare for three years in Malaya in the mid-50s. More than courage, the warfare required inordinate patience," says Rana. "For as much as five hundred hours of walk and vigil in the jungles, the enemy would show up for not more than two seconds. We had to do what we were there to do in those two seconds," recalls Rana, who cooked food for British soldiers for the rest of his seven years in the brigade.

"Today, I have nothing to show for those glorious years. It was not worthwhile, really, fighting for someone else's country. No one recognizes us as heroes here, as it was not Nepal that we fought for. And Britain hardly cares," says Rana.

Rana was paid at most £46 per month during service, while his British counterparts were paid £450. When he left service, he got six month's pay, which was hardly enough to ensure financial security even in a poor country like Nepal.

Gurkhas' old, unequal pension plan

Before this latest review, the British Army had a special pension plan for Gurkhas in which they received only one-sixth of what British soldiers received under the AFP. Additionally, to qualify for that inferior pension plan, a Gurkha needed to serve for at least 15 years, while a Commonwealth soldier could be eligible for the AFP program after just two years in service.

While the recent review ensures pension parity for future Gurkha recruits, the cut-off date effectively leaves out nearly 40,000 living Gurkhas who retired before 1997, many of whom, like Rana, live in abject poverty in Nepal.

"If only I received pension today like Commonwealth soldiers, I wouldn't have to worry about food and medicine. I would have been living a dignified life, without having to depend on anyone," says Rana.

In a letter faxed to GAESO and the United British Gurkha Ex-Servicemen's Association in Nepal, Col. R.J.J. Ellis defended the cut-off date as being the day "when the (Gurkha) Brigade became a UK-based force." On that day (July 1, 1997), the brigade was moved to Britain from Hong Kong following the latter's handover to China.

What has been particularly disappointing to former Gurkhas in Nepal is this statement by Colonel Ellis in reference to the cut-off date: "There can be no question of revisiting the issue of pensions prior to 1997, as we maintain that these remain fair in the circumstances...."

Gurkhas charge an evasion of responsibility

Former Gurkhas in Kathmandu have said that by putting the cut-off date beyond the purview of revision, Britain has totally evaded its responsibility toward a vast majority of former Gurkhas. "The only consolation is that the announcement has given legitimacy to demands we have been raising for the past 15 years," says Padam Bahadur Gurung, GAESO chairman. "If Gurkhas serving after the cut-off date are eligible for equal treatment, it logically follows that those retiring before are, too," he said.

The Gurkhas have been serving the British crown ever since forces of Britain's East India Company developed admiration for them during the Anglo-Nepalese war in 1814-15, when a poorly armed and vastly outnumbered Nepalese army successfully resisted a British campaign to expand its empire towards the Himalayas. Ever since, the Gurkhas have acquired a reputation for being some of the toughest fighters in the world.

Since 1816, Gurkhas have fought at the frontlines of almost every major war Britain has been involved in, including the two World Wars. Britain has awarded more than 6,500 decorations to Gurkhas for their bravery and loyalty, including 13 Victoria Crosses and two George Cross medals.

A conservative estimate of an eight-member independent international commission that visited Nepal in May 2005, put Gurkha casualties during Britain's military campaigns since 1816 at 45,000. An additional 150,000 were injured, according to the commission's report.

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