Nepal’s abandoned soldiers of the Queen


PLACE : Gorkha region, Nepal
PUBLICATION : Le Monde Diplomatique, France  ( paper // web )

Fewer than 3,500 Gurkha troops remain with the British army, often on very active service in Iraq and Afghanistan, after decades of cuts in their numbers. Those who have returned to Nepal are given low, or no, pensions and little help with healthcare, and what there is comes from a charity closely linked to Britain’s ministry of defence.

In a paddy field perched on a steep hillside in Nepal, not far from the Himalayas and their eternal snows, a frail old man ploughs the few hectares of sloping and inhospitable land he calls his own. His thin frame cannot disguise his untiring determination as he spurs on his one and only buffalo, which drags the ploughshare through the mud to till his fields. This is the price he has to pay to harvest enough to feed his family with rice and maize mainly, and sometimes a bit of millet and a few potatoes. Every evening, when his toils are over, Managre Gurung sits on the steps of his hut and smokes a few cigarettes as he looks out over the landscape. This is one of the few luxuries this poor farmer can afford and this is what life is like when you are born in one of the poorest countries on Earth. Some would say that you can’t choose your own destiny, others might add that there is nothing unusual about this scene. Yet appearances can sometimes be misleading…

If we take a closer look at Managre’s deeply-lined face, we see that he resembles thousands of other men who are, like him, struggling to get the bare minimum and sometimes struggling even to keep themselves alive. The one thing they all have in common, apart from their glaring poverty, are the Tibeto-Mongolian features that betray their real nature to well-informed eyes. An expert in international warfare would know for sure that these men are veterans, former Nepalese soldiers, Gurkhas. Some of the most highly respected infantry soldiers in the world. Men acknowledged as “the bravest of the brave”, whose enemies tremble at their motto, “It is better to die than live a coward” and shake at the sight of the Khukri, their famous traditional knife.

The Gurkhas have fought exclusively for the British in just about all their military campaigns from the 19th century up to this day. They were involved in both World Wars, during which the number of Gurkhas in British regiments reached a record level of roughly 100,000 men. Managre himself played a part in putting down the Malaysian Insurrection (1948-60) and the revolt in the Sultanate of Brunei (1962) and it could be that he was also there when Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974. A large number of his fellow countrymen most likely participated in the military operations during the Falklands War (1982). More recently, his own sons have donned the Gurkha uniform and supported British efforts in the first Gulf War (1991), the NATO operations in Kosovo and the UN in Bosnia (1999). Nepalese soldiers are still serving the Queen in some of the most dangerous and bloody theatres of war on the planet, for example in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is good cause, given this hidden chapter of their lives that seems paradoxically so far removed from their present sufferings, to stop and reflect on why it is that these men should today find themselves in a state of near-destitution. One would honestly imagine that a military career in the powerful British Army would make a contribution towards improving one of the lowest standards of living on the globe. Shouldn’t these men’s dedication, loyalty and honour towards a foreign country, moreover a rich one, be properly rewarded? How is it possible that men who sacrificed their youth and often their health, leaving behind their family and children for years at a time, should nowadays have been left by the wayside, virtually penniless?

How can one accept that two soldiers
fighting side by side could be paid differently?

We can find a first part of the answer to these questions if we try to put ourselves in the context of the new distribution of military roles that followed the independence of India in 1947. This realignment will lead to an agreement, better known as the “Tri-Partite Agreement” (TPA), being drawn up between the United Kingdom, India and Nepal. The TPU stipulates that the Gurkhas, who are divided among the two separate armies, will be governed by identical terms and conditions, which establish amongst other things that “the government of the United Kingdom has agreed to use the corresponding Indian pay codes and rates of pay as the basis for the scale to be applied to Gurkha officers and soldiers”. This means in substance that the soldiers of Nepalese nationality employed by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) are not entitled to the same salary as the English colleagues of equal rank they fight beside. This is then the historical basis, dating back over 60 years, for the disciminatory practices that govern how the great majority of Gurkha veterans are treated today and contribute to their deplorable living conditions. Just because they are obsolete, or at the very least slightly outdated, does not come anywhere near to justifying, either legally or morally, why these practices should still be in force today.

It was undoubtedly the handover of Hong Kong on 1st July 1997 that forced the MoD to reevaluate the Gurkhas’ “Terms and Conditions of Service” (TACOS). Gurkha headquarters had to be moved back to mainland Britain from the Chinese island and it became very difficult from then on to justify certain “discrepancies” in their treatment. How can it be acceptable for two soldiers serving side-by-side in the same European barracks to receive radically different wages, for example? The only possible explanation would appear to be a racial one. Harmonisation therefore became inevitable.

The resulting amendment to the Gurkha TACOS will, however, only apply to those soldiers discharged and freed from any military obligation after the fateful date of 1st July 1997. Although these efforts should be greeted and encouraged, it is still legitimate to think that the transfer of Gurkha headquarters back to the United Kingdom does not, in itself, provide any rational or logical explanation for the discrimination practised prior to this date. In fact, it should be quite the opposite. This decision does not exonerate the British government one iota from its moral and even legal duty to listen to calls for them to treat equally and fairly any Gurkha who served the interests of the Crown with honour before 1997, often at the cost of great personal sacrifice.

For it is estimated that the Gurkhas suffered 150,000 wounded and 45,000 casualties, mainly during the two World Wars (but also in previous military operations and others right up to the present day). 6,500 Nepalese soldiers have been decorated for their bravery. These include no less than 13 Victoria Crosses (the highest award in the British military), as well as 2 George Cross Medals. Tales of the Gurkha brigade’s legendary bravery are too numerous to count. Yet, paradoxically, the extremely difficult conditions Gurkhas have had to cope with on their return to Nepal are shrouded in an eloquent silence, despite their service to the British government being often described as exemplary. One of their major difficulties has been the level of the pensions paid to retired soldiers, which are on average only a quarter of those paid to the “native” British contingent.

Premature return seen as
a betrayal and personal failure

Nevertheless, receiving any pension whatsoever, however small, is welcome relief in Nepal, one of the 15 poorest countries in the world (1). Unfortunately, many veterans have never even been able to claim these grants. The MoD, reacting to changes in the geopolitical and military environment, has regularly adjusted the size of the Gurkha contingent by making drastic cuts to the regiment. The army has thus discharged the majority of its Gurkhas and today they represent only about 3% of their troop level in 1940 (i.e. less than 3,500 soldiers). Many of these reductions have never been negotiated with the Nepalese authorities. John Parker quotes General Walter Walker on this subject, who was at the head of a battalion of Gurkhas in the Sixties in Indonesia and who reacted to the announcement that his unit was to be broken up with the following words: “I first heard about it in the middle of a campaign – let me remind you in the middle of a campaign. I naturally resisted, particularly when I found out that the King of Nepal himself, with whom we had a treaty, had not been consulted. And that was going on behind his back (2).”

Consequently, a large number of men were discharged from the military without completing their full period of service and a long way from the 15 years necessary to claim a soldier’s pension. By way of comparison, English soldiers have the right to a pension as soon as they have completed 2 years of service (3).

Hence a large number of veterans found themselves without the means to rebuild their lives in a country where standards of social welfare are comparable to those in the least developed countries of sub-Saharan Africa. A country that is ranked 144th out of 174 according to the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index and which provides neither unemployment benefit nor social security to soldiers. They would be forgiven for thinking that fate has played a nasty trick on them. Even worse, along with their delicate material position, many ex-soldiers have suffered psychologically from their premature return. Although few of them view it as betrayal, then they do at the very least see it as a personal failure. 61-year-old Bim Bahadur Gurung remembers the day when he was told that he was being discharged well: “I was happy to be part of the brigade but, that day, I felt like I had been used. I never asked how long I might have to serve in the army when they came to look for me in my village. You don’t ask questions when your dreams are fulfilled, (…) my family was so proud to see their son recruited into the British Army. It meant success! I was their great hope. But all that was quickly destroyed and replaced by shame and sadness.”

Those most affected and most vulnerable today are of course the veterans of the Second World War, but many soldiers were also “laid off” during the 1960s and 1970s, years when the Gurkhas were hit particularly hard by redundancies, and find themselves in difficulty. For now, the Gurkhas are waiting to see whether the government will decide to revise the military pension scheme and to grant retirement benefits to soldiers whose service was brought to a premature end. In the meantime, it is only the the support and generosity of the public that mitigates the suffering of the most affected households. One of these initiatives is the NGO Gurkha Welfare Trust, which was founded in 1969 to raise funds from the public. Its operational branch, the Gurkha Welfare Scheme (GWS), organises the distribution of financial and medical help to the poorest locally and implements various community aid projects (e.g. building schools and bridges, etc.) (4).

However, this organisation (and remember we’re talking about a charity here) has strange links to the MoD since the latter firstly covers its staff costs and secondly all of its administrative expenses. Hence the MoD controls the human resources of the 23 “Area Welfare Offices” (AWOs) which constitute the GWS’s field capacity. This is fairly worrying for a non-governmental organisation, even if it is impossible to deny that it must have some logistical benefits. Yet, in reality, the local teams (captains, sergeants, corporals, etc.) are part of a complex hierarchy that reports back via the military chain of command all the way to headquarters in Wilton, England, where the colonel in charge (an eminent member of the MoD) also happens to be the military attaché in Kathmandu. It is also of note that there is not one Gurkha, nor even one single Nepalese, among the GWT’s London directors. On the contrary; the organisation is managed by six generals and one colonel, all of them British.

It is impossible to say whether the MoD’s little “interferences” in the workings of the GWS charity can be related to obvious concerns that can be had about the fund’s transparency, the lack of clarity in the way the criteria to qualify for a pension are presented, about the distribution of the funds themselves and the book-keeping in general. It is nevertheless clear that this is a subtle way for the government to regain some prestige as it can, on the one hand, “supervise” public external financial aid and, on the other, improve its image through large-scale projects of its own choosing (at a lower administrative cost) but whose usefulness on the ground is doubtful.

It is certainly not difficult to find people who are ready to give their version of things. For example, one ex-soldier, who wishes to remain anonymous, is critical of some of the projects and of the Trust’s very “British” slant: “How are they supposed to know, from the other side of the world, the best way of managing and distributing the public’s donations, when they don’t really know who we are nor what it is like to live here? It’s all well and good them building schools, but we’ve hardly got enough to pay the rent…” Although he would not wish to condemn outright one of the rare organisations to offer the Gurkhas some support, one ex-Gurkha on the GWS staff does nevertheless raise some important concerns: “I’ve heard some of the administrators claim that 3,000 rupees per month (about 35 euros – Author’s note) is more than enough for a veteran and his family… I would really like them to come and see for themselves that this is just not the case…”

These are words that are hard to swallow and even harder to justify given the lengths to which the Gurkhas have to go every three months to receive their welfare payments. Four times a year, a procession of hundreds of veterans winds its laborious way up and down a labyrinth of steep slopes to get to one of the GWS offices, a journey that takes several hours – or, in some cases, even several days -, the sole objective being to collect this meagre tribute. For the most unwell, the obstacles are so great that they even have to scrape together money from their savings to hire the services of a porter… Which all goes to show just how vital these few rupees really are.

Despite these various concerns about the manner in which the GWS is managed, it has all the same raised what amounts to 10,000 monthly allowances (of 3,000 rupees, all-inclusive, that is to say £ 23 or € 35) for ex-soldiers and widows who receive no military pension. For many families, this is now their only regular source of income in a country hit by chronic unemployment and whose rural areas are plagued by the consequences of the Maoist rebellion as well as difficult climatic conditions (the monsoon, landslides, etc.).

The organisation has also begun a range of new activities to complement its medical aid programmes. As the pensioners’ needs grow greater as they get older and older, it is becoming urgent to increase the amount of funding for the treatment given in a small number of medical centres; there are not enough of these and they are grossly underfunded. So, since 2006, three itinerant doctors have been periodically visiting out-of-the-way villages and offering free appointments, care and medicine. Dr Neoman Limbu, who is reponsible for the Kaski area near Pokhara, acknowledges that this is “an efficient mechanism for providing more regular care to isolated hill communities. Almost the only access they have to medical care is once every three months when doctors are available in our premises while the payments are being made.” He does however add that there is still a lot to do, especially for cases requiring more serious treatment, such as patients with kidney problems.

Up to now, 47 cases of kidney failure have been detected among veterans. Every one of them faces a short life expectancy because there is not enough money for them to have a transplant. And there’s the rub. For Nepal does not have a single medical facility carrying out this type of surgery and patients have to consider going to an Indian hospital. 46-year-old Tika Ram Gurung, who was diagnosed as having double kidney failure 2 years ago, sums things up: “My kidneys are only functioning at 14% of their capacity and the doctors recommend I have an immediate transplant. But, unless I can raise 1.2 million rupees (£ 9,200 or € 14,000 – Author’s note) to have the operation in India, it won’t be possible. My military pension is only 11,500 rupees per month (£ 90 or € 135 – Author’s note), which is not even enough for dialysis. So I take nine pills a day and eat only rice and milk to keep my potassium level as low as possible. It’s the only thing I can do in my desperation.”

Despite his Victoria Cross decoration,
Mr Pun’s residence permit is rejected

These dismal health and financial prospects encourage the sick to go in search of money abroad, for example in India where wages and job opportunities are better. Despite the risk of their state worsening under the burden of tough and precarious working conditions. Devi Gurung, widow of Nar Bahadur Gurung, is one who has experienced the trauma of never seeing her husband again after he left in the hope of getting enough money together to save himself from tuberculosis. He never managed it. He died alone, in India, in 1995.

In addition, economic conditions in Nepal are such that more and more people are attracted by this type of exodus, even if they don’t have any real health problems. The idea of financial stability is more important than the sense that the family must stay together (although this had already been affected during the years the men were away serving in the army) and an increasing number of fathers with families and husbands find cause to emigrate. In many cases, these veterans opt for a “second military career”, this time a more lucrative one, as a security officer working for an international company in conflict areas such as Iraq or Afghanistan. It is not as if war were their calling but, never having received any education, their English military training did at least give them the opportunity to acquire a skill with a certain market value.

The vast majority would nevertheless prefer to have legal approval to go and settle in the United Kingdom, which, it is true, offers much better quality of life and much less risky prospects for the future. Such aspirations appear fairly logical given that these men have fought for a foreign country. Hence the British Embassy receives a flood of application forms for “Indefinite Leave to Remain” (ILR) despite the exorbitant cost of the process (75,000 rupees – £580/€830). Despite the possibility that, if their application is rejected, they will not be reimbursed the money it has taken them months and months to save, the veterans keep hoping that lady luck will smile on them. Even if this involves taking enormous risks…

For most applications are refused. The main and recurrent reason given is that the applicants “have not produced any satisfactory evidence demonstrating strong ties with the UK (…)”. We can therefore assume that the immigration services do not consider that serving a nation brilliantly is not sufficient to prove that one has “strong ties” with that nation. There must be some mistake… or maybe not. To give an example: would 84-year-old Tul Bahadur Pun, a war hero awarded one of the 13 Gurkha Victoria Crosses for his bravery during the Second World War, who also requires eye surgery to prevent him losing his eyesight for good, be granted a residence permit? No, not even him; in May 2007, the immigration office does indeed reject Mr Pun’s request.

The difference being that, in this particular case, the decision was made public and caused an outburst of popular anger because it had been none other than Tul who had saved the grandfather of actress Joanna Lumley from a certain death (to the great displeasure of the government as they had simply chosen to ignore this fact). This was enough for the press to publicise Pun’s case and bring Britain’s ingratitude to a national hero to the public’s attention. Thanks to pressure from the media and the general public, the decision was reversed and Tul Bahadur Pun, with the help of his lawyers and the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen’s Organisation (GAESO) (5), was able to leave for England in July the same year. The Gurkhas celebrated this gleefully as a victory, as one battle won in the Gurkhas’ long fight for equal rights.

However, even if Pun VC’s situation was certainly unacceptable, the fact still remains that he did not deserve to be treated any differently from thousands of other suffering veterans, although British declarations after the event described his case as exceptional. After all, loyalty and bravery are not an “exception” in the Gurkha brigade. Nevertheless, the Pun affair had the advantage that it acted as a general wake-up call, bringing the situation of his fellow countrymen to the attention of the mainstream media and changing the emphasis of some government policies.

Just as the French film “Days of Glory” (6) cast a new light on the Second World War and the injustices suffered by African artillerymen, it could well be that greater media coverage of the fate of these Nepalese soldiers could represent a crucial step towards their rights being recognised. So if French leaders could take the decision to bring the pensions of combattants from France’s ex-colonies into line with those of their French brothers-in-arms, then the British government cannot, in all decency, dig in on its positions and refuse these soldiers the respect of a nation and the dignity they deserve.

For it cannot be disputed that these “forgotten soldiers of the Crown”, the Gurkhas who retired before 1997, are still enduring the devastating effects of discrimination based on age, nationality and race that hails from a bygone age. It cannot be acceptable for British politicians to try and explain away the persistence of such discrimination within the army. In fact, every current politician should make the firm resolution to abolish such discrimination, which has no place whatsoever in a modern society like the United Kingdom, however glorious its colonial past may be.

Cédric Bosquet.

(1) The per capita GDP in 2003 was $ 240 ; almost 80% of the population live below the international poverty line of $ 2 per day.

(2) John Parker, The Gurkhas, The Inside Story of the World’s Most Feared Soldiers. Headline Book Publishing, London, 1999. p. 258.

(3) Ian MacDonald, Hannah Rought-Brooks, Rebekah Wilson, The Gurkhas, The Forgotten Veterans. GAESO, Kathmandu, 2005. Chapter 7.37, p. 64.

(4) In the year 2004, 48% of the budget was spent on individual grants and 36% allocated to community projects. Source: Gurkha Welfare Trust website


(6) French title : “Indigènes”. Directed by Rachid Bouchareb, 2006.