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The British, the Gurkhas: Worlds Apart?: By Satis Shroff (Source: The Kathmandu Post)

It was a magnificent scene: the proud Royal Scouts led British cadets, Territorial Army and Gurkhas over Waverly Bridge and along Princes Street. The Gurkhas were led by a man in a spotted leopard cloak beating a drum, followed by vehicles with armed Gurkhas.

Who are these Gurkhas? You might ask. They are Britain’s 3,500 elite soldiers from the small Himalayan country Nepal. These Gurkhas have fought and died with the British Armed Forces for two centuries. This year, according to the Scotsman, Gurkhas have been dumped back in Nepal with a stipend by the thousand. This, after two centuries of fighting your wars for you.They are not, never have been, paid the same as a British soldier.

When it comes to money-matters, the Brits have always regarded the Gurkhas as cheap labourers and mercinaries that you can recruit in a matter of months, or even weeks. There are always 28,000 young Nepalese who want to join the Royal Gurkha Brigade. Only 200 are chosen annually. What happens to the others? Do they join the Maoists to get battle experience? I knew one named Kunjo Lama who didn’t make it at the recruiting depot in Dharan (Eastern Nepal) and worked as a teacher in a Nepalese village in the hills rather than face the ignominy of returning home as the laughing stock of the hamlet dwellers. Losing one’s face is something serious in the Nepalese world, and for the Nepalese psyche. But Kunjo made it at the next admissions and even took part in the Falkland�s War at Port Stanley against the Argentinians. He showed me a photograph from his wallet of himself and his fellow Gurkhas in front of a helicopter, armed to the teeth during the war at the Malvinas.

Sometime later during a trip to London I saw how the South Asian people were living in London’s East End, where the Cockneys use to live earlier, with its brick-houses (Monica Ali’s ‘Brick Lane’). Nay, the Gurkhas didn’t even enjoy the same status as the asylum-seekers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Jamaica and other former colonies, settled in London’s East End or Southhall. The Gurkhas are based in Church Crookham, Hampshire, but they are lucky if they can return to their home country after fighting Britain’s wars and police missions in the British Rhine Army, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, Falklands, Lebanon, Croatia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

To think that so many ethnic Nepalese mothers have lost their sons, and so many children have lost their fathers and sisters their dear brothers fighting for the Glory of Britain, is indeed worth contemplating and discussing about in the London Parliament by the new government.

The Gurkhas, who are ruthless warriors at war, have always been obedient, loyal, disciplined and subordinate to their British officers for 200 years. Their loyalty and bravery have always been unfaltering. Had Indira Gandhi taken the Gurkhas as her personal bodyguards like the Queen of England, instead of the Sikhs, at a time when when the storming of the Golden Temple of Amritsar was a big issue in Punjab and India, I’m sure she would have lived longer.

But most South Asians think: that’s kismat. It was written that she had to die a violent death. Schicksalsdenken.

A Gurkha serves in the Army a minimum of fifteen and a maximum of thirty years after which they are discharged and obliged to leave Britain for Nepal. No, they aren’t allowed to stay on, settle down and enjoy the English countryside with their meagre pensions, as far as English lifestyles and pays-scales are concerned. The British government always uses Nepal’s pay-scales as a yardstick to pay off their loyal Gurkhas. Prior to the EU-membership of East Bloc countries, when a Polish worker came to help pluck the strawberries in the vicinity of Freiburg (Germany), they weren’t paid the actual rate for west workers in Germany either. Now that the Poles have no zlotys, and are paid in Euros in their own countries, it doesn’t seem to be lucrative to go all the way to Germany, with the result that the strawberries get overripe and go kaputt. Ethnic Germans are reluctant to do this back-breaking job under the blazing sun.

The British Army onced sacked 111 Gurkhas, and as a result the Gurkhas wrote a petition to the Queen of England to help the men who had been sent to Nepal, and to improve the treatment of the Gurkhas (who had after all fought for Britain in the Falklands) throughout the Army. The petition to Queen Elizabeth II was signed: Your Majesty’s most obedient servants. The all (sic) ranks of SP 1/7th Gurkha Rifles.

A question that vexed me is why the Gurkha children have to do the SLC (School Leaving Certificate) exams of Nepal, instead of the GCE ‘A’ levels, like all school-kids in England? The British government and the Nepalese monarchs never appreciated the importance of better, higher education for the offsprings of the Gurkhas. With British educational certificates and degrees thousands of sons and daughters of the Gurkhas would have had better chances in their lives and would be much better off than their soldiering Dads and brothers. The idea from the start was to put the Gurkhas and their families in ghettos alias barracks or lines, and no attempts were made to integrate them and their families in the British society.

If a Gurkha would join France’s Foreign Legion, they’d be taught the French language and would get a much better status in French society than the British give to the Gurkhas. I don’t want to say alas, but Nepal just wasn’t a French colony, though the French managed to come up to an enclave named Pondicherry in India. Nepal has no special relationships with the French but with the British

There have been isolated instances of Gurkhas involved in recent courtroom skirmishes with the British Ministry of Defence to receive the same pension and conditions as other British soldiers. Whereas an ex-Gurkha received 40,000 English pounds payment from Britain after a court ruling, which was an isolated instance, another Gurkha�s claim was rejected by a Nepal court. ‘Better to die than be a coward’ is the motto of the Gurkha warriors who are an integral part of the British Army. It should run ‘better to fight a battle with a good lawyer against the Ministry of Defence than against Britains foes, as we say in Germany: bis die Fronten gekl�rt sind.

Britain and its admirable people still have to do a bit of soul-searching on the question of their best friends-in-arms. The officers in the administration and the Defence Ministry think of the Gurkhas still as cannon-fodder and not as humans, at eye-level with the same rights and equality. They still play the game of the Raj: masters and servants. This must not be tolerated and must be put to an end by the new government at 10 Downing Street, for they have gone too far.

What is the difference between an asylum-seeker and a Gurkha in Britain? In the long run the asylum-seeker gets a British passport, British pay (if he or she’s qualified) and British rights and his or her children kindergartens, schools, colleges and universities in Britain, and become a part of the British mainstream. Not so the Gurkhas and their families.

Due to questionable ‘special relations’ between Britain and Nepal that haven’t been ratified yet, the poor Gurkha and his family have to say goodbye to Britain and head for the barren hills of Nepal. That’s the plight of what Sir Ralph Turner MC, 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles, 1931 said, “Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you.�

When you think of how true, loyal friends are treated for their faithfulness in even present-day Britain, you can only shake your head or hide in shame. During the Falklands War out in the Malvinas under Margret Thatcher’s premiership, the British were put in an embarassing situation by Argentina’s UN- representative for he accused the British of having deployed ‘Gurkha mercenary’ troops. The British government argued that and said it had special relationships with Nepal and that the Gurkhas were its own troops, belonging to and integrated in the British Army.

But the sad reality is: when a British leutenant saunters by, a Gurkha-Major is obliged to salute him! And not the other way around. This still means that all soldiers are equal in the British or Gurkha army, but some solders are more equal than the others, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which Gurkha school children learn in good English schools in India’s Darjeeling and Nepal. In this context it must be mentioned that 45,000 Gurkhas died in the two World Wars under the Union Jack and another thousand since then, even though the Gurkhas were reduced and demobilised to Brigade strength in the British and Regiment strength in the Indian Army. This was after the partition of India in 1947 after an agreement between Nepal, India and Britain, whereby four regiments from the Indian Army were transferred to the British Army, which then became the Gurkha Brigade.

It’s still the white sahib commanding the natives, despite the so-called handsome pensions that the Gurkhas receive, according to Nepalese standards. When I lecture in Switzerland I earn almost 100 Swiss Francs per hour. I think that it’s high time that the Gurkhas received the same wages as their British fellow soldiers. Please don’t come up with the Sugauli Treaty or ‘special relations crap’ that dates to the times of Queen Victoria and Junga Bahadur Rana.

I think it’s high time that the Gurkhas went to an international court in Strassburg, Belgium and received Flankenschutz from Human Rights Organisations in Britain, Britain Watch, NGOs and whatever.

If you don’t know the impact that the death of a Gurkha can have on his near and dear-ones, then please read the following lyric and think of the plight of the Gurkha mother:

A GURKHA MOTHER (Satis Shroff)
(Death of a Precious Jewel)

The gurkha with a khukri
But no enemy
Works for the British Gurkhas
And yet gets shot at
In missions he doesn’t comprehend.

Order is hukum,
Hukum is life
Johnny Gurkha still dies under foreign skies.
He never asks why
Politics isn’t his style

He’s fought against all and sundry:
Turks, Tibetans, Italians and Indians
Germans, Japanese, Chinese
Argentinians and Vietnamese.

Indonesians and Iraqis.
Loyalty to the utmost
Never fearing a loss.
The loss of a mother’s son
From the mountains of Nepal.

Her grandpa died in Burma
For the glory of the British.

Her husband in Mesopotemia
She knows not against whom
No one did tell her.

Her brother fell in France,
Against the Teutonic hordes.
She prays to Shiva of the Snows for peace
And her son’s safety.

Her joy and her hope
Farming on a terraced slope.

A son who helped wipe her tears
And ease the pain in her mother’s heart.

A frugal mother who lives by the seasons
And peers down to the valleys
Year in and year out
In expectation of her soldier son.

A smart Gurkha is underway
Heard from across the hill with a shout

‘It�s an officer from his battalion.

A letter with a seal and a poker-face
“Your son died on duty,” he says,
“Keeping peace for Her Majesty
The Queen of England.”

A world crumbles down
The Nepalese mother cannot utter a word
Gone is her son,
Her precious jewel.
Her only insurance and sunshine
In the craggy hills of Nepal.
And with him her dreams
A spartan life that kills.

gurkha: soldier from Nepal
khukri: curved knife used in hand-to-hand combat
hukum: Befehl/command/order
shiva: a god in Hinduism

Posted on: 2007-07-09 09:02:31