May 23, 2002
Look Out, the Gurkhas Have Come! With Lawyers
ONDON, May 21 — Padam Gurung was a teenager with little education and few prospects in the rural foothills of the Himalayas when the British came recruiting, back in 1958.
It was a one-way interview.
"I was told it was mandatory to join the British Army," said Mr. Gurung, now 60. He left his village and his country, pledged allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II, and became a Gurkha, a member of the renowned Nepalese force that has been part of the British Army for nearly 200 years.
Grateful, at least, to have a job, Mr. Gurung went along with the lonely years far from home; the condescension and contempt from his British commanders; the growing realization that the Gurkhas were treated differently from other soldiers. But it was not until some years after he was forcibly retired with a pension, then worth about £5 a month, that his discontent hardened into real anger.
Now, he and a number of other former Gurkhas have begun legal proceedings against the British government in the High Court here. Britain, they say, has discriminated against them for as long as they have been part of its army, paying them far less than other British soldiers and denying them a range of rights their colleagues take for granted.
The case has an unusually high profile, in part because Cherie Booth, the wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair, is on the Gurkhas' legal team, essentially charging her husband's government with human rights violations. Money is an important part of the argument, but the larger question is the Gurkhas' place in a modern country that, they say, still follows the classic colonial model of exploitation and abandonment.
"It's an issue of status," said Mr. Gurung, speaking through an interpreter in London. "I want to find out if I'm Nepalese, or if I'm British."
The Gurkhas, known for their fierceness in combat, their deadly use of the curved khukuri knives and their ringing battle cry — "Ayo Gurkhali!" or "The Gurkhas have come!" — have served in the army since the early 19th century. They were recruited from several ethnic minority populations, and treated as pawns in a wider game both by the ruling Nepalese dynasty and the British empire. Thirteen have been awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy.
More than 15,000, according to official estimates, died in the two world wars. Tens of thousands more were wounded, and many were left disabled, unable to work, and consigned to poverty back home. About 3,600 currently serve in the British Army; 28,000 live in Nepal.
Phil Shiner, the lawyer whose firm, Public Interest Lawyers, brought the case, says the public record obscures a shameful history of poor treatment. In the old days, this included not only lower pay, but also punishment for using English, lower quality food and living conditions, different disciplinary standards and an insistence that they practice Hinduism — when most were Buddhists.
A lot has changed, but the essential inequity remains, said Mary Des Chene, an adjunct professor of Asian Studies at Emory University in Atlanta and the co-editor of the journal Studies in Nepali History and Society.
"The crucial thing to understand is that this whole argument has to do with equal compensation for equal work," she said. "This is pure racial discrimination. You look back historically, and the interest for the British has always been in getting the best soldiers they can as cheaply as they can."
In their suit, the Gurkhas are asking for parity in pay and pensions; equal treatment; education for their children; the right to have their families with them during their service and opportunities for promotion.
Allowed to serve in the army for only 15 years — far less than other British soldiers — and forbidden to seek work in Britain afterward, they also want the right to receive British work permits. Many return home with meager savings. With no access to British-style benefits, they soon find that they are almost as poor as they were when they left.
In Mr. Gurung's case, he tried to subsist as a farmer on a tiny plot of land, his only real income coming from his pension. He never earned enough to educate his two children, and his 21-year-old daughter, he said, is now doing menial jobs in Hong Kong.
"We tried to negotiate for a long time by writing to the British prime minister, organizing international conferences, and gathering support," said Mr. Gurung, who is president of the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organization in Nepal. "This lawsuit was our last resort."
The British Ministry of Defense says that it will not comment on particulars of the Gurkhas' claims while the case is pending. But in an interview, a spokeswoman said that the current-day Gurkhas, at least, knew what to expect when they took the job. "It's a matter of the terms and conditions that they sign up for when they join the British Army," she said. "Now they've decided that they're not happy with the rules they agreed to."
But recently retired Gurkhas contend that they were never told exactly what those terms were. One of the plaintiffs, whose name has not been released because of concerns that he might be harassed in Nepal, was horrified to discover how differently he and British soldiers were treated.
When he was stationed in Brunei, he said, the British soldiers were housed in modern apartment buildings with tight security; the Gurkhas lived in rundown houses with little security. The British soldiers got shopping allowances; the Gurkhas did not. British soldiers typically take their families with them at government expense, but most Gurkhas are allowed to do so for only three years during their career.
When he retired this winter, the man was given a monthly pension of about £88, compared with £450 for a British veteran of his rank and seniority, Mr. Shiner said.
Britain contends that with their lower cost of living, the Nepalese should be able to make do with less, and points out that they receive pensions sooner than Britons do.
In 1997, Britain increased the Gurkhas' annual allowances so that their take-home pay roughly matched that of the British. Veterans' pensions have been increased, too, but remain much lower than for other British soldiers.
But the changes hardly help veterans like 84-year-old Durgabahadur Sunar, who lost four toes on his right foot and half of his left leg in Burma in World War II. He returned home with less than £3 in cash and now has a £25 monthly pension, Mr. Shiner said.
"The Gurkhas have been far too patient," Mr. Shiner said. "They should have complained a lot harder, a lot longer ago."