The demands being made by the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen´s Organisation (GAESO) of the British Government raise intricate questions that reflect the complexities that arise when one country recruits another´s able-bodied men as soldiers. The most important demands relate to pay and pension which amounts to GAESO insisting that Gurkhas be treated equally with British soldiers. The argument is that since Gurkhas are supposed to be an “integral part of the British army”, all terms and conditions of service should be the same, including what Gurkhas earn.
Complications begin right there: if the British Government were to agree that both British and Gurkha soldiers get equal treatment retroactively, many of the agitating Gurkha pensioners would get a rude shock. Most Gurkhas retire after 15 years´ service, which is when they become eligible for pension. British soldiers, on the other hand, are required to serve 22 years before they get pensions. Those who serve less than 22 years (but have put in more than two years in the army) begin to receive pensions only from the age of 60, the amount depending on the number of years they have served.
There is no similar provision for Gurkhas serving less than 15 years, and the majority of those receiving pensions would not have served 22 years. If GAESO got its demand of equal treatment on salary and pension, many Gurkha pensioners might have their monthly payments stopped, with the direction that they apply upon reaching 60. Should this happen, the pension they would then receive would of course be twenty times more than what they now receive. But, even after taking into consideration that the average life-expectancy of Gurkha pensioners is slightly higher than national average of 54, there is the question as to how many would be around to collect the amount.
(It must be stated that amidst the strident calls for equality, GAESO officials seem willing to reach some middle ground on their demand for pensions, such as the cut-off date when “equal pensions” would begin.)
Even as these complexities stand, and without going into the legality of the issue raised, it has to be asked how tenable GAESO´s position is in view of the ground realities. To begin with, Gurkhas are not conscripted. They join the British army of their own free will (although there is evidence that during World War I, Nepal´s then Rana rulers did conduct a conscription drive to please the British). In fact, when they do manage to get into the British army, the recruits know they are the lucky ones. For every new recruit clad in his first olive greens, there are hundreds who head back home disappointed, perhaps to join the ´lesser´ services, i.e. the Indian army and, failing that, the Nepali army. At the time of signing up, the expectation of equal pay with the British is farthest from the minds of these would-be Gurkhas; they want in, whatever the conditions and that´s that.
Also it cannot be denied that service in the British army opens many opportunities that are closed to Nepalis who serve in the Indian or Nepali armies. For instance, the Gurkha Reserve Unit, the Sultan of Brunei´s guards, employs more than two thousand ex-Gurkhas, with pay packets that are comparable to their earnings as British army soldiers. Ex-Gurkhas also find ready employment as security guards in places like Hong Kong (see following story) and the Gulf. While not every ex-Gurkha is successful in building a second career, it is certainly true that the British army connection has helped many former Gurkhas to live comfortable lives in relation to other servicemen.
Another of GAESO´s demands relate to those Gurkhas who were sent back at the end of World War II and during the cuts made in the British army in the 1960s without pensions. At the time of those reductions in army strength, no soldier, British or Gurkha received pensions, unless, that is, they had served the required number of years to make them eligible. GAESO wants that these veterans be awarded pensions.
There seems to be some merit in GAESO´s demand even though it goes counter to its “equal-treatment” demands. In the context of Gurkha recruitment, there is no denying that the British had been high-handed when they sent back Gurkhas pensionless.
For all the claims of empathy with “the boys”, the sahebs failed to appreciate what distinguishes Gurkhas from British soldiers. Gurkhas are career soldiers. For a Gurkha, joining a foreign army is born out of economic compulsion, and it is not something he tries out for a period before deciding whether he likes it or not. And, being a professional soldier, he expects all the benefits that go with soldiering, including a pension at the end of the day. This factor was never a consideration when the rules governing redundancy were being applied across the board on all of the British army.
It can be contented that WW II was, after all, was fought for the high ideal of “defending world freedom”, and the countries involved did not expect their brave young men to be rewarded. But were Gurkhas swayed by such lofty principles to fight the war? Most likely not. A war was on and they joined up, for the same reason that Nepalis had been joining the saheb´s army for more than a century – a chance to make some money and, if possible, see the world. It is because they were fighting for something other than imperial glory that many Gurkha veterans of the war felt cheated when they were sent packing with nothing more than their last salary, and a service medal.
A parallel can be found when the end of the Malay campaign made a large number of Gurkhas redundant. As is the norm, lump sums corresponding to 18 months´ salaries were handed out. Given the huge disparity in the pay scales of Britishers and Gurkhas, the latter got a pittance in comparison, although neither got pensions. It is a different matter that due to the different conditions in the two countries, ex-soldiers from the UK had many more opportunities open to them, while for most of their Nepali brothers-in-arms the only option was to go back to working the land, which they had left in the first place for an army career, and expectation of a pension. These considerations help explain the feeling among Gurkhas who had to leave the army with-out pensions that they were given a raw deal. However, demanding equal treatment does not address this issue.
Having It Both Ways
Two other demands made by GAESO have nothing to do with seeking equity with British soldiers. GAESO wants ex-Gurkhas to be given work permits in the UK on the plea that the soldiers, having given the best years of their lives to serving the British, should be allowed to work in the UK and its territories. The organisation also seeks British Government assistance in creating educational and training institutions for children of Gurkhas. Children of British soldiers enjoy no such facilities, but GAESO´s justification has a logic of its own.
GAESO argues that since most Gurkhas have to live without their families for 12 years out of a general service period of 15, their children grow up in the absence of a father figure, and tend to go wayward. Also, as the children have to change schools while moving to and from Hong Kong, and now the UK, their education suffers. Since it is their fathers´ service in the British army that is responsible for this, the British Government should do something about it.
A former British officer sees it differently: “The Gurkhas want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to be treated equally, but then again they want preferential treatment.”
There is also the question of the fate of the 3000 or so Gurkhas presently with the British army. By making the British Government irritable, GAESO might be putting the very existence of the Royal Gurkha Rifles (as the much-reduced Gurkha Brigade is now called) at stake. For London, faced with a public relations challenge, a court case, and what not, might find itself wearied into writing off the Gurkhas altogether.
The possibility that the British Gurkhas may be disbanded as a result of its activities does not seem to bother GAESO. Why should 3000 matter when a hundred thousand stand to gain? While the pragmatism of this view cannot be judged when there is no indication as to how its demands will fare, GAESO fails to consider the fact that 3000 is not an absolute figure. It means many times that number of soldiers over the years. (In terms of the Nepali economy, a conservative estimate has it that British Gurkhas presently serving bring in more than NPR 250 million, or more than USD 4 million, every month into the country.)
Meanwhile, there has been no public reaction from the serving Gurkhas till now. This, despite the fact that they are the ones who will be immediately affected, whether GAESO succeeds or draws a negative reaction from the British Government and public. A serving soldier says the Gurkhas have been subtly warned by their officers “not to rock the boat” since their very future may be
However, there seems to be conditional support for GAESO: the serving Gurkhas will cheer if GAESO gets its demands, but turn away from it if it fails. Take the case of the young Gurkha sergeant home on leave in Kathmandu. He is thrilled that he will be earning at par with British soldiers with the new pay code which came into force on 1 July. He also silently supports GAESO because the demands relating to pensions would secure him a lavish future.
Yet, the Gurkhas find nothing unfair in the present dispensation, otherwise they would not be serving. At the same time, they would not mind a change in the status quo, but only if that would gain them additional earnings. Therein lies the paradox.
Johnny and Tommy
There has always been a section of the British military hierarchy that has wanted the Gurkha Brigade disbanded, especially during the periodic reductions in the armed strength. Every time a cut is announced, quite a few British regiments, all with their own glorious histories of centuries past, are disbanded or amalgamated. Why, it is asked, should ´native´ regiments suffer even as a ´foreign´ one is pampered.
One might also ask why do the British want to hold on to the Gurkhas now that there are no colonial outposts left to garrison? Tony Gould, a former British army officer who is writing a book on the history of the Gurkhas, says there are two reasons why the Gurkhas continue to be part of the British army: “One is, of course, the long tradition, and all that. The other, more important one, is that so long as there is even a single Gurkha soldier in the army, if a situation should arise, more Gurkhas can easily be recruited. It is always reassuring to have a ready supply of soldiers on the standby.”
According to another retired British Gurkha officer, due to changing social values in the UK, as in the rest of the West, military service is no longer considered ´honourable´. Says the officer, “Because of this, our army faces an acute shortage of manpower. There have been cases where undermanned ´white´ regiments have taken in Gurkhas, and this situation is likely to continue into the future.”
Seen in this light, and despite the agitating pensioners in Kathmandu, it seems likely that Johnny Gurkha will be marching together with Tommy Atkins for some time to come, even if not into battle any time soon. And What of the Gorkhas?
While concern runs high for the 3000 odd Gurkha positions remaining in the shrinking British Army, no one is talking about tens of thousands (the exact number is unclear) Nepali men who continue to soldier as the Indian military’s own ‘Gorkhas’. In these days of South Asian bonhomie through the medium of the SAARC organisation, it will be a distasteful reminder to some that Nepali citizens stand ready to fight India’s wars, both internal and external.
Nepal has on occasion been embarrassed by the use of its citizens by a foreign power in post-colonial times, as when the British Gurkhas mopped up insurgents in Malaya, or when the Gabriel Garcia Marquez condemned them as mercenaries during the Falklands/Malvinas War. However, it is the use of Nepal-born soldiers by the Indian army which brings the issue too close for comfort.
The Gorkhas of the Indian army fought the Chinese in 1962, and the Pakistanis in 1948, 1965 and 1971. Despite the stipulation by the Ranas in the tripartite agreement of 1947 that Gorkhas not be used against Hindus, as part of the IPKF, they were deployed against the Tamils in Sri Lanka by Rajiv Gandhi. Today, as New Delhi uses its army to control insurgencies, Gorkhas are found fighting Kashmiris, Bodos, Nagas, Assamese, and stand ready to be deployed anywhere, with no questions asked by the home country.
Recruitment of Nepalis into foreign armies is the curious outcome of the economy and history of the hills of the central Himalaya. It reflects both a fact of life and an embarrassment as far as the sense of self of modern Nepal, the nation state, is concerned. No other SAARC member has its citizens fighting in the army of another member country.
As things stand, neither Nepal’s economy nor its internal politics will countenance any tinkering with the situation in which its citizens go to fight for the Indian state. Nepal can only hope that the peace offensive underway in South Asia will have a long run, at the very least, with no cross-border wars which will pit its nationals in battle with India’s enemies.