The Gurkha pensioner gets less than his British government. This is colonial legacy that creates an underclass of loyal, but cheap, soldiers.
Perhaps it was fated that among the first two British casualties on the ground as part of NATO forces in Kosovo, would be a Nepali Gurkha soldier. Sergeant Balram Rai of the 69 Gurkha Field Squadron of the Royal Engineers was working in a school compound near Pristina clearing cluster bombs dropped during NATO’s aerial campaign when they exploded, killing him and a British officer.
Fated because his death has suddenly put the spotlight on the issue of the British Gurkha’s pay and pensions. It was indeed news to a large section of the British public that Sergeant Rai’s widow will receive a compensation that is only 7.5 percent of what the widow of a British sergeant would get (a lump sum of GBP 19,092, annual pension for five years of GBP 939 and GBP 771 every year as opposed to a lumpsum of GBP 54,548 and GBP 15,192 every year that a British sergeant’s widow would get).
Against the backdrop of some amount of public indignation, several British political leaders raised their voices against this indication of bias. Even Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office acknowledged that those arguing against the disparity were “making a pretty powerful point”. All this came at a time, interestingly, when back in Kathmandu an uninspiring movement in Nepal by two groups of former Gurkhas demanding pay and pension parity with their British counterparts had been floundering.
The Gurkhas (a term the British use to denote soldiers from Nepal) became part of the British Army in 1817. But, along with their Indian peers, were always paid less than the British soldier. Even after Indian independence when only the Gurkha regiments among the various ‘native troops’ were divided between Britain and India, Britain continued with the practice of paying the Gurkha less.
For 50 years after being taken into the British army, the British Gurkha’s basic pay remained a mere fraction of his British counterpart’s. (The Indian army has not made any such distinction. Gorkhas, as the Gurkhas are called in the Indian army, enjoy the same facilities regarding pay, pension and promotion as Indian troops.) He was given overseas allowances which varied depending on where he was stationed, Hong Kong, Brunei, the UK, or elsewhere. The varying earnings, it was rationalised, reflected the standard of living in the different places (although this did not apply to British soldiers regardless of their posting).
It was only in 1997-a full 180 years after fighting under the British flag —that the allowances of the Gurkha were raised to be on par with the take-home salary of the British soldier. (By which time the size of the British Gurkhas, timed with the British pullout of Hong Kong, was reduced from 8000 to a ‘token’ number of about 3900.) But even so, the pension the Gurkha receives upon retirement, tagged as it is to the basic pay scale which is far less than that of the British soldier, remains a pittance — about a 20th of what a British soldier gets.
The British government has two arguments to justify the differential pensions. The first of these is that it follows the letter of the November 1947 tripartite agreement of Britain, India and Nepal which decided on the future of the soldiers in the British and Indian armies. The British government’s view is that the agreement clearly lays out that the pay scale of the Gurkha would be similar to that of the Indian soldier —although it only states that Gurkhas will receive rates of pay that “approximate to those laid down in the present Indian pay code” (emphasis added).
It becomes clear when reading the agreement that it was only meant to be a temporary arrangement, concluded in some haste since British rule had already ended in India. Among some ad hoc provisions is an annexure setting forth the suggestions of the Nepali government, including one that asks that “in all matters of promotion, welfare and other facilities the Gurkha troops should be treated on the same footing as the other units of the parent army”, regarding which the main body of the agreement says that “the views of the two Governments [viz. Great Britain and India] thereon will be communicated to the Government of Nepal in due course”. The annexure also contains a section that states: “The above mentioned points are to be incorporated in a treaty and or agreement to be signed between the parties in due course.”
Whether the views of the British and Indian governments were “communicated in due course” to Nepal, or if a further treaty/agreement was concluded and if so, what its contents were, has not been made public by any of the three governments. The silence on the part of the two foreign governments is somewhat understandable, but it is inexplicable that the Nepali government should continue to keep mum on the matter, particularly because it was an agreement entered upon by a patently non-representative regime of the Ranas, which was in its death throes at the time of signing.
A half century ago, when the sun was only just setting on the Empire, perhaps it had seemed natural for outright discriminatory clauses like the one on different pay and pensions for soldiers of the same army to be included in an international document. But times have changed. The premise behind the tripartite agreement has been challenged in a Britsh court by retired Gurkha Lance Corporal Hari Thapa, who was born in England and now lives in Wales. Corporal Thapa claims that his GBP 17.50 monthly pension after 15 years of service in the British army amounts to racial discrimination under the Race Relations Act 1976 a British legislation meant to bar discrimination on all grounds, including nationality.
There is some amount of legal ambiguity here though. A Gurkha gets a pension after 15 years in the army, while a Britisher would have to serve 22 years. But it can easily be argued that given a choice between being pensioned off after 15 years and working seven more years to be eligible for equal pension, there can be no doubt that the Gurkha would opt for the latter. The Commission for Racial Equality of the UK is backing Thapa’s case, and it remains to be seen if the courts decide whether there has been a violation of the Act(For that matter, the court could also look into the fact that Gurkhas are not given direct commissions into the British army.) The pension issue of all the former Gurkhas, some 26,000, probably hinges on the outcome of this case, since a judgement either way is going to set a precedent.
The second argument of the British administration concerns the difference-in-living-standards mentioned above, which is also the reason for the unequal compensation for Sergeant Rai’s widow. This argument is classically reflected in the British Ministry of Defence spokesman’s reaction to the Thapa case. Despite the fact that the former Gurkha now lives in the UK with full residency rights, the Daily Telegraph of London quoted the official as saying: “Gurkha’s pensions are intended to support them in Nepal. Suggesting they get the same as British soldiers is ridiculous.”
The differential pensions should be recognised for what it is: the legacy of a long-past colonial era meant to create an underclass of loyal soldiers. The British government would be loathe to admit this obvious point, preferring instead to hark back to age-old ties between the two countries, the special relationship that the Gurkha shares with his saheb, that they are not mercenaries but an integral part of the British Army, or other such homilies. There is no doubt that Gurkhas are held in some regard by the British, but the fact remains that the Gurkha comes cheap.
It does not further the cause of raising the Gurkha’s pensions, however, that Kathmandu-based organisations like the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen’s Organisation (GAESO) try to seize every opportunity to put Britain on the defensive. The latest was over the deployment of Gurkhas in Kosovo, which GAESO says goes against the 1947 agreement, a contention that does not hold water. There is no doubt that GAESO has done much to raise the level of general Nepali consciousness about the Gurkhas’ fate, as was seen in the unprecedented press interest that Sergeant Rai’s death and compensation generated. But one cannot help wondering that, after all, these ex-servicemen have nothing to lose. Even if it means goading the British to an extent that they consider putting an end to the whole business of maintaining the Gurkhas. The pensioners among them will continue to get their money. The losers would then be the nearly 4000 Nepalis who serve in the British army at any one time, and the loss of a significant source of employment to the Nepali highlanders and cumulatively a source of wealth for the whole country.
The end of Gurkha recruitment is certainly what a section of the Nepali political spectrum have wanted for a long time. This is especially true of the Left, which likes to see the Gurkhas as representative of the bondage to an ‘imperialist’ power. This ideological argument, however, never did correspond with the socio-economic reality of Nepal. That in 1998, (according to British army sources in Kathmandu) there were 30,000 applicants for the 230 recruits eventually selected is a powerful rebuttal of the Leftist position. There is no doubt that for many a highland lad, recruitment into the British Army is the passport out of the drudgery of a hard mountain life. And it has been that way for close to two centuries. (Having enjoyed a period in government, the mainstream Left now seems to have understood the compulsions of realpolitik. The Left politicians have not only buttoned up in their demands to stop Gurkha service in foreign armies, but, in a neat volte face, are now most vociferous in their call for equal pay and pensions.)
There is also the question of who speaks for the Gurkhas. Due to the British policy of recruiting Gurkhas only from particular ‘martial’ groups, there has been a clear cleavage in Nepali society between those who went into the British army and those who didn’t —the lahuray and the dhakray. So, while the lahuray families benefitted monetarily in the largely subsistence hill economy, the elite among the dhakray have consolidated state power in their hands over the course of the nearly two centuries since Nepalis began soldiering for the British. It has been institutions dominated by the dhakray which regard the Gurkha tradition as an affront to the collective national honour and which have been calling for an end to the Gurkha recruitment.
The cleavage mentioned above also explains the general indifference shown towards the Gurkhas’ case by Nepal’s non-martial (and ‘establishment’) communities, as also the unresponsiveness of successive Nepali governments. The wording of the 1947 agreement makes it clear that the various matters raised therein warranted subsequent discussions. But even the democratic governments in Kathmandu since 1990 have shown little inclination to come clean with the terms and conditions under which Nepalis serve in the British and Indian armies. All that successive prime ministers have done is to ‘promise’ to raise the question of pensions with the British government, which, for the acquiesence to the 1947 agreement it implies, is an approach that is more like that of supplicants seeking munificence.
Following the acute embarrassment over Sergeant Rai’s compensation, the British government recently announced that the question of pension and gratuities would be examined. But the embassy in Kathmandu once again pulled out the 1947 agreement, perhaps with a view to playing down any expectations. What is it about this document that its provisions are made out to be written in stone? Why can it not be changed to reflect the changed times? If the British want to maintain their Gurkhas, and there is no reason why they should want it other wise, the Nepali government should take the initiative to ask for a review and if need be work out a deal with Britain separately from India.
Given that the employment situation within Nepal is not likely to change any time soon, there is a compelling reason for the Gurkha to continue serving in the armies of Britain (and India). If Nepalis can drive buses in the Gulf, sweep the floors in Tokyo, do hard labour in South Korea, and by the millions work menially in India, why should employment in a foreign army, with the acquiescence of Nepali society and government, be called off?
Gurkhas can still play a vital role in the British armed forces. Britain’s role in the world stage may have shrunk, and chances of direct conflict situations may have gone down. But Kosovo-like peace-keeping obligations can only increase. There is also the fact that the British armed forces, like most Western armies, face a shortfall of volunteers. That is where the Gurkha connection, with a tradition and opportunity incomparable, comes in most useful for Britain. And the Gurkha supply line does extend indefinitely (as long as poverty dogs the Nepali hills) from which the British army can pick the very best. For a price no more expensive than native British soldiers, the Union Jack can still flutter proudly —held aloft by the famous soldiers from Nepal.