The Gurkhas: 200 years of exploitation

The Gurkhas: 200 years of exploitation

Tim I Gurung,
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A Gurkha veteran of World War II, the Malay Emergency and Borneo Confrontation, from east Nepal with his medals. Photo: Tim I Gurung

The Gurkhas need no introduction. The 200-year-old institution renowned throughout the world as the brave of the braves can stand on its own, and the Gurkhas are probably the only such fighters who can win wars in their name alone. However, an institution that lasts for more than 200 years cannot survive such a long period on its reputation alone.

Many factors have contributed to their survival and longevity, and the road to their ultimate invincibility wasn’t an easy one. They encountered many hurdles and sacrificed in an unimaginable way. Yet the only thing the world knows about the Gurkhas is about their bravery.

The Gurkhas’ story is not only about their bravery, but also their tragedy. They have been betrayed and badly treated by their people. Nobody wants to hear about that particular side of the story.

The main perpetrator of the systematic exploitation was no other than the puppet-master of the whole show – the British. The complicity of the Nepali rulers was not insignificant.

The Nepalese durbar (rulers’ court) was as guilty as the British. However, the Nepalis were only following as the British led. In many cases, both the British and the Nepal durbar were trusted with the responsibility of taking care of the Gurkhas in both war and peace. Unfortunately, the Gurkhas were betrayed by their own people who were supposed to protect them and ended up as victims for long without even realizing it.

The Gurkhas faced problems from the very beginning. The motive behind their very first deployment already betrayed them. The Gurkhas were brave and loyal, they could do the same level of job that any Westerners could do, and the British could pay them just a fraction of what a Westerner would have cost. That was the very reason the British wanted to hire the Gurkhas in the first place, and they never changed that policy for 200 years or more.

Being a Gurkha is not a choice but a necessity, for many reasons. The British were fully aware of the Gurkhas’ position and paid them just a little more than they could get back in their villages. Before too long, the Gurkhas became not only cheap but also dispensable. The British could get as many as they wanted from Nepal. Nepal was like tap water, and the British had their hands firmly on the faucet. Even better, the British didn’t also have to sign a contract to get the water; all they had to do was ask.

The Gurkhas were always at the forefront of war, and there wasn’t a single war in which they didn’t fight for the British. Initially, it was Bharatpur, Aliwal and Sibron, the Sikh wars and the West-East-North Frontiers, and the whole Sirmoor battalion was almost wiped out during the siege of Hindu Rao’s house in Delhi. Then, in World War I, they had to fight in freezing and inhospitable Europe and scorching deserts in the Middle East, and marched for days and nights without food and water. Nepal, with a population of about 5 million by then, sent 200,000 of its men to the war, and one in 10 never made it back home.

In World War II, about 250,000 fought alongside the British and almost 33,000 were killed, injured or missing. Another 204 lost their lives in the Malay Emergency, and 59 Gurkhas didn’t return home from the Borneo confrontation. Many more Gurkhas died during actions in Hong Kong, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Falklands, Kosovo, and other parts of the world.

The risk of being killed in wars is quite understandable. However, the ways the Gurkhas were treated during those difficult times were pretty discriminatory and in some cases even disgraceful. The Gurkhas were paid a pittance. They were paid one-tenth the rate of a British soldier before 1997, as a recent survey found. Unlike their British counterparts, the Gurkhas had no allowances whatsoever before 1997.

However, the worst case of them all was the rude treatment of veterans of both World Wars. The families of those killed in the wars got nothing at all, sometimes not even a proper acknowledgment of their death. Injured and crippled veterans were sent back home without appropriate compensation, and they were left on their own to nurse themselves. When the war finally came to an end, those deemed surplus were sent home empty-handed with little money or no future. Those tired, broken and vulnerable men went back dejected and never recovered.

World War II veterans

I had the honor of meeting many World War II veterans during my recent trip to Nepal; 99% of them had no pension and were surviving on a welfare allowance provided by the Gurkha Welfare Trust (GWT). They didn’t even express a sigh of grievances for their misery.

The Tripartite Treaty signed by the British, India and Nepal in 1947 was to regulate the terms and conditions of the British Gurkhas in the post-independence era and was supposed to protect the well-being of the Gurkhas afterward. Instead, the same treaty was used by the British to exploit the Gurkhas for the next four decades or so. The IPC (Indian Pay Code) was used by the British as a new tool for paying the Gurkhas less.

Whenever there was a war or an emergency, the water tap was opened, and then closed again once the danger had passed. Those deemed extra in the Brigade of Gurkhas were mercilessly culled again and sent home empty-handed. The Brigade of Gurkhas saw two major such rundowns, one in 1968-69 and another before 1997 in Hong Kong, and the Gurkhas were poorly compensated on both occasions.

The problem arose both because of the lack of a proper agreement between the two governments. It’s pretty standard practice that there should have been a written agreement between the two involved countries. All the terms and conditions of both supply and demand must have been thoroughly discussed including pay and pensions, and the actual work should only have started after both sides had duly signed an agreement. Surprisingly, though, both Britain and Nepal somewhat forgot about that significant piece of paper. The Tripartite Treaty signed by the British, India and Nepal in 1947 is not only outdated and unfair but also irrelevant by now. A new and updated treaty should have already been in place a very long time ago.

After the changes of immigration policy in both 2004 and 2009, the Gurkhas joining the British Army after 1997 were included in AFPS 05 (Armed Forces Pension Scheme 2005) and received the same pay and pensions as their British counterparts. However, there are still about 20,000 pensioners who earned less than a fraction of the British pensioners, and the British cannot condone such unfair treatment for so long.

It’s about time we looked into the matter and redeemed ourselves by stopping the 200 years of exploitation once and for all. The Gurkhas deserve much better.

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