Gurkha veterans wage tough new fight to settle in Britain

Some 35,000 members of the legendary brigade have been denied the right to retire in the country they served.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    British actress and activist Joanna Lumley, right, addresses protesters outside the House of Parliament in London on Wednesday. Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government faces the prospect of an embarrassing defeat today in a parliamentary cross-party vote on extending residency rights to Gurkha veterans.
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They are regarded as the "bravest of the brave," a brotherhood of formidable soldiers from Nepal who have served Britain's kings and queens for hundreds of years.

But now, veterans of the British Army's famed Gurkhas are facing their final, and perhaps toughest, battle: to win the right to live in the country that they have fought for in two world wars and other conflicts.

Former Gurkhas, handpicked from Nepalese tribes in fiercely contested recruitment contests, are ratcheting up a campaign today against a recent British government decision to deny some 35,000 veterans residency because they retired before 1997.

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Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government faces the prospect of an embarrassing defeat today in a parliamentary cross-party vote on extending residency rights to Gurkha veterans.

The government unveiled new rules last week that it says will allow as many as 4,300 of the former soldiers to live in the country. Gurkha campaigners, however, have accused ministers of "betrayal," and claim that as few as 100 Gurkha veterans would meet the new criteria allowing residency, such as holding an award for bravery or having a serious medical condition.

Gurkhas say their loyalty is deserving

If the massive public reaction in the letters pages of newspapers and in the broadcast media is anything to go by, the government seems to have picked the wrong fight.

"It's a disgrace," says Madan Kumar Gurung, a retired Gurkha lieutenant, who is angry that many veterans are living in poverty in Nepal.

After serving in the British Army from 1969 to 1993, Mr. Gurung was initially told that he could not settle in Britain because he "did not have any strong ties" to the country. Since then, he has learned that he is eligible to stay, but says he is not happy: "My friends and colleagues cannot come. It's like a broken family.

"For us, it is a great honor and a privilege to become a British Gurkha and to serve the Queen," adds Gurung, who insists that he would be proud for his own son to follow in his footsteps.

He also lambasts the "injustice" of Gurkha veterans receiving much smaller pensions than other former British troops.

"The loving people of Great Britain have welcomed us, so why has the government not listened to them? Who does the government work for?" he asks.

Legendary fighters

The origins of the Gurkhas, who take their name from the Nepalese hill town of Gorkha, date to 1815, when the British East India Company signed a peace deal after suffering heavy casualties in the invasion of Nepal, a conflict that convinced the British that the Gurkhas were a "martial race."

More than 200,000 served in the first and second world wars, with an estimated 43,000 giving their lives. The regiment also fought in Malaysia during the 1950s, in the Falklands war with Argentina, and, more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Serving by the motto "better to die than be a coward," their exploits and traditions are the stuff of legend. One enduring myth holds that the traditional Nepalese curved knives known as khukuris, which Gurkha troops carry into battle, could not be resheathed once drawn unless it had tasted blood.

The Gurkhas were based in Hong Kong until 1997, when the former colony reverted to Chinese rule and their regimental headquarters was moved to Britain. Gurkha troops who have been part of the Army since then, including the 3,500 currently serving, can apply to settle in Britain.

Gurkhas take the fight off the battlefield

Today, hundreds of Gurkha veterans and their supporters are planning to protest outside Parliament, where the government position was challenged during a parliamentary debate.

In a later vote, both the opposition Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party were expected to be joined by government MPs from the Labour Party who are unhappy at the way the Gurkhas have been treated.

Earlier, Prime Minister Brown was told by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg that "those willing to die for this country should be allowed to live in this country."

Brown said that government was "very proud" of what the Gurkhas had done for Britain, but that policy must be made on "proper facts" and figures.

In recent weeks, newspaper front pages and television bulletins here have been dominated by images of wheelchair-bound and ribbon-wearing veterans of World War II accompanied by the tearful presence of Joanna Lumley, a British actress whose father served with the Gurkha regiment, and who has championed their cause.

Britain's immigration minister, Phil Woolas, told the BBC on Saturday that the government had introduced guidelines that would allow thousands of the veterans to settle in Britain. He claimed that bowing to pressure to allow all pre-1997 retirees to come could potentially open the door to 100,000 Gurkhas and their dependents and would set a precedent in immigration that would have deep repercussions.

But Peter Carroll, a town councilman for the Liberal Democrats in the Gurkha's regimental hometown of Folkstone, says that he and other campaigners simply want to put about 35,000 veterans on an equal footing with Nepalese troops currently serving in the British Army. Many of the 35,000 just want to stay temporarily in Britain to receive medical treatment, while others are seeking such jobs as bus-drivers and railway workers.

"The tales of their loyalty to Britain and bravery has been passed down through the generations, and yet they are still being treated as if we were living in old colonial times," Mr. Carroll says.

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