The British had used the Gurkhas in various propaganda campaigns during wars. Most often it was about the kukri, other times it was the topi, referred to as a wireless antenna in WWII. But the one used against the Argentines in the Falklands War of 1982 was a wicked one. The Gurkhas were portrayed as crazy, wild flesh-eating beasts who wouldn’t calm down until they killed and sucked the blood out of people. They fooled the Argentines with such nonsense, and the British won the war.
One of the big names who fell victim to such nonsense was Nobel laureate and celebrated author Gabriel Garcia Marquez who was prompted to pen a series of parables, dehumanising the Gurkhas in articles in many papers. As a result, the image of the Gurkhas took a beating, and the world started seeing the Gurkhas from a different point of view. There is an old saying – in love and war, everything is fair. But it doesn’t mean you berate or humiliate your troops. At the expense of the Gurkhas, the British got their way, but their actions clearly showed how they had valued the Gurkhas for ages.
The same British elitist mentality was to blame for the way they had treated our VC winners. Bhanubhakta Gurung VC was sent home empty-handed without a pension. The ill-treatment of Tul Bahadur Pun VC by the British Borders Control Agency on his arrival in the UK was disgraceful and prompted a public outcry. The British even brought one of the VCs (Subedar Lal Bahadur Thapa) into the UK and made him perform, imitating a shrill battle cry in front of a jubilant handclapping British crowd as if he were in a circus. Those actions clearly showed the lack of judgment on their part, and the British ended up disrespecting their greatest honour, the Victoria Cross, the highest award of valour in the whole British Army.
The British had never accepted the Gurkhas as equals and used many forms of trickery, treachery and flattery to discriminate against them. No matter what they have said or done in the past 200 years or so, it has served only one motive, and that was to use the Gurkhas as cheap labour. Thanks to the selfish, foolish and submissive nature of the Nepali rulers, the British easily succeeded, and the Gurkhas were the ones who suffered the most.
Pounds versus rupees
The final test of the British colonial and elitist mentality came in 1997 when the British had to leave Hong Kong, which meant the British Garrison stationed in Hong Kong also had to move out. The situation was made even trickier by the fact that Hong Kong also happened to be the last British colonial outpost and the British Garrison had nowhere to move to after Hong Kong. The reality of taking the British Garrison back to the UK did kick in, and as far as the British were concerned, that was a big dilemma.
Although the Gurkhas had already served the British for 182 years by then, the Gurkhas were always deployed in British colonies outside the UK. Understandably, the cost of the British Garrison was borne by the colony state wherever the Garrison was stationed. But the situation had changed by then, and the responsibility of paying the Garrison had now fallen back on the British treasury. The Gurkhas were not going to be paid in Indian rupees, Malaysian, Singapore and Hong Kong dollars but in Sterling Pounds, and the British had a problem with that. Paying the Gurkhas in Sterling Pounds meant equal treatment and the British found it very difficult to accept.
The British had taken the Gurkhas for granted for almost two centuries; they were accustomed to treating the Gurkhas in that particular way and found it extremely hard to change that old habit. But at the same time, the British didn’t want to end the Gurkha legacy too, as it would have been unfortunate as well since it could have hurt their reputation.
The British Army adopted a new pension policy, Armed Forces Pension Scheme (AFPS 1975) in 1975. But the Gurkhas were not included in the scheme even after they had moved to the UK. Only after the past decisions on the Gurkhas’ settlement rights in the UK in 2004 and 2009 were the British forced to make some necessary amendments on Gurkha pension. As a result, all the serving members of the Gurkhas received equal pay, pension, and terms of services on 8 March 2007.
But only the Gurkhas who enlisted on or after 1 October 1993 qualified for a pension equal to their British counterparts under the AFPS 05. The Gurkha veterans who went on pension before that date were and are still governed by the old and discriminative GPS, and although some improvements on Gurkha pensions have been made since then, it still lags a great deal.
According to the Centre for Nepal Studies UK (CNSUK), the discrepancy between the British and the Gurkhas on pensions was about 1000 per cent. For instance, a British Captain got a yearly pension of 5,269 British pounds while a Gurkha Captain was paid a meagre 606 pounds in 1989. As of 2013, there were about 22,935 (16,065 retired Gurkhas and 6,870 widows) pensioners and thanks to the new changes, the pensioners were divided into two groups – with new pensions or the old pensions. After the Gurkhas had won the right of abode in the UK, many Gurkhas are not living back in the villages of Nepal anymore, but the perspective of the British towards the Gurkhas have remained the same as before.
‘Always taken for granted’
The British have always taken the Gurkhas for granted. They have used all the tricks, deception and cunning ways to pay the Gurkhas as little as they possibly could and exploited the Gurkhas for the last two hundred years. The relationship between the British and the Gurkhas was never built on equal terms, no matter how history might have suggested. It was rather like a boss and a servant, and the art of flattery was used to cover that bitter truth.
We used to joke among ourselves whenever we were down that our position was as if we were a piece of tissue or a lemon. A tissue can be tossed away after it is used. So are lemons. After you have squeezed the juice out of it, you can throw it away. Unfortunately, the Gurkha story similar. We were so naïve and innocent, and knew nothing at all about the history of the Gurkhas that had played such an essential role in our lives.
It has already been more than 200 years, and yet the position of the British government has not changed a bit. But time has changed for good, the Gurkhas have found their voice, and they will fight for their rights. I still remembered like it was yesterday when I was still in the army, and one of the British officers always used to say this to all of us: “Baau Baaje Jasto Chhaina” (You are not like your fathers/grandfathers).
“Of course we are not,” we would say among ourselves without knowing what had changed.
Excerpted with permission from Ayo Gorkhali: A History of the Gorkhas, Tim Gurung, Westland.