Ever since the first Anglo-Nepalese war (1814-1816) when the Nepalese impressed the hells out of the Brits by their sheer grit and bravery, Gurkhas have been recruited into the British army. For the last odd 195 years, Gurkhas have served the British Empire and later the British government in various war zones. They fought against the Sikhs in both the Anglo-Sikh wars in 1846 and 1848. Later when the Bengal Regiment mutinied against the British, leading to the First War of Indian Independence, the Gurkhas (along with the Sikhs) stayed loyal to the British. They also fought for the British Empire in Burma and Afghanistan.
During the First World War, around 200,000 Gurkhas served with the British army, in the killing fields of France and Belgium and in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, suffering around 20,000 casualties and winning over 2,000 gallantry awards. The number of Gurkha soldiers went over 250,000 during the Second World War. Though many a British Indian soldier defected to the Indian National Army, only a handful of Gurkhas deserted the British to fight for the Japanese.
After India’s independence in 1947, four of the ten Gurkha regiments in the British Indian army were transferred to the British army, while the remaining six went to the newly formed Indian army. Post 1947, the British army’s Gurkhas were based in Malaya and later in Hong Kong. They played an important role in crushing the communist insurgency in Malaya and also took part in the Falklands war.
After Hong Kong changed hands in 1997, the Gurkhas began to be stationed in the UK itself. On retirement, Gurkhas would return to Nepal and receive a pension, that was good money in Nepal, though much less than what the average British soldier received on retirement. Currently a Gurkha pensioner in Nepal is paid £173 a month, around three times the pension received by Gurkhas who served in the Indian army.
The Gurkhas are not the only foreigners to serve in the British army. However, they form the biggest chunk of foreign nationals serving the UK. Until the beginning of this century, there were very few foreigners in the British army, other than the Gurkhas. However, a shortage of recruits forced the British army to look to various commonwealth countries for additional manpower. The response was overwhelming. From the West Indies, Fiji and South Africa, foreign nationals responded in large numbers to join the British army. By 2005, there were almost 6,000 foreign nationals, other than Gurkhas, serving in the British army. The number increased to 7,000 in 2007. Since the Gurkhas number around 3,000, this meant that currently 10% of the 100,000-strong British army consists of foreigners. In the last two years, the British army has drastically reduced the intake of non-Gurkha foreigners into the army.
Since 1980, the Home Office has allowed foreign soldiers serving in the British army to settle in the UK under a policy called the Armed Forces Concession. However, Gurkhas have been excluded from the Armed Forces Concession since their terms of service did not provide for settlement in the UK. This position changed in 2004 when the Home Office changed the rules and extended the Armed Forces Concession to Gurkhas who had served in the army after 1997 (when the Gurkhas began to be stationed in the UK itself). Such Gurkhas could apply for settlement in the UK like other foreign soldiers in the British army. Those who retired prior to this date could not settle in the UK, since they had no ‘ties to the UK.’
In 2008, the 26,500 odd ex-Gurkhas receiving a British army pension in Nepal, who had been discharged out of Hong Kong prior to 1997, started a movement called the Gurkha Justice Campaign, for the right to settle in the UK. A review petition was filed in the High Court by five Gurkha veterans (Lance Corporal Gyanendra Rai, Rifleman Deo Prakash Limbu, Corporal Chakra Limbu, Lance Corporal Birendra Shrestha and Rifleman Bhim Gurung) and the widow of a Gurkha veteran (Mrs Gita Mukhiya) challenging the British government’s refusal to grant them entry visas. British actress Joanna Lumley whose father served with the Gurkhas, led the campaign.
In September 2008, the High court ruled that the policy which excluded Gurkhas who served prior to 1997 was unlawful. However, the High court also ruled that the difference in policy towards Gurkhas and other foreign soldiers was not racist. The Home Office was asked to issue new guidance on how applications from Gurkhas who retired before 1997 should be treated.
On 24 April 2009, a new policy was announced by the Home Office. Under the newly announced policy, there is no automatic right to settle in the UK for Gurkhas who retired before 1997. However, those pre-1997 Gurkhas who meet one of five conditions will qualify for UK settlement. The conditions are as follows:
1. Three years continuous residence in the UK during or after service. Gurkhas who quit before 1997 are unlikely to have this since they were based in Hong Kong.
2. Close family in the UK. Again, there will be very few pre-1997 Gurkhas who will have family members in the UK.
3. A bravery award of level one to three. The Gurkhas are brave, but not all soldiers win medals. Also, prior to 1997, there weren’t too many battles in which the UK was involved.
4. Service of 20 years or more in the Gurkha brigade. Only officers are allowed to serve for more than 20 years. Those who don’t make officer grade, are forced to quit earlier.
5. Chronic or long-term medical condition caused or aggravated by military service.
The Home Office’s intention is obviously to make sure that not all of the 26,500 odd ex-Gurkhas receiving British army pensions in Nepal make it to the UK. The UK is in recession and though there is a great deal of public sympathy for the Gurkhas, admitting 26,500 pensioners and their families will definitely cost the British taxpayer. The Home Office has said that the new rules will allow about 4,300 more Gurkhas to settle in the UK, but the Gurkha Justice Campaign has said that not more than 100 Gurkhas will make it through under the new rules.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the Gurkhas, but it is not difficult to understand the British government’s position as well. The Gurkhas are foreigners hired under a contract to serve the UK. The Gurkhas have performed yeoman service, but that does not entitle them to anything more than what their service contracts state. When the pre-1997 Gurkhas were hired, they were never told that they would have the right to settle in the UK. It is true that foreigners other than Gurkhas have got a much better deal, but then contracts are like that. You get what you sign up to and this applies even to very brave soldiers, unless your employer decides to give you a bonus or a little extra. The Gurkhas sought justice, but found the law instead.