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TOM OWEN-SMITH in LONDON


SHUBHA GIRI
FOR FLAG AND COUNTRY: Second World War veterans Lachhiman Gurung & Tal Bahadur Pun, who won the Victoria Cross during Burma campaign were among those who protested in front of London's High Court of Justice this week.
The street outside London's High Court of Justice rang with the sound of bagpipes this week as hundreds of retired Gurkhas and their families gathered to petition for the right to live in the UK.

Their protest came at the start of a two-day court hearing in which five ex-Gurkhas and a widow are challenging the British government's refusal to grant them settlement rights in the country. It follows a string of demonstrations in recent months?the latest part of a campaign stretching back to 2000 when the Gurkhas began agitating for equal rights to British soldiers.

On Monday a deputation of ex-Gurkhas delivered a petition with more than 25,000 signatures to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In March, 50 veterans had handed back their medals in protest at the government's treatment of retired Gurkha servicemen.

Many veterans arrived outside the court on Tuesday dressed in full regalia, their numbers boosted by sons, daughters, aged grandparents, and many supporters and well-wishers, including British army officers, members of parliament, and actress Joanna Lumley.

In 2004, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that Gurkhas would be entitled to apply for British citizenship and to settle in the UK after four years' service (see 'Ae Gorkhaliharu', #391), in line with soldiers in the British Army recruited from other foreign and Commonwealth countries.

However, the decision only applied to soldiers who had retired since 1997, when the Brigade of Gurkhas moved its headquarters from Hong Kong to the UK, following the former colony's hand-over to China. Those who had retired before 1997 were told they would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Most who have applied, like the six bringing this week's case to court, have been refused. Among the protesters were Second World War veterans Lachhiman Gurung, 91, and Tul Bahadur Pun, 86, who both won the Victoria Cross during the Burma Campaign.

Pun was allowed to move to the UK last year after a long legal battle. His application had initially been refused by the Home Office, which told him: "You have failed to demonstrate that you have strong ties with the UK." But following an appeal, Immigration Minister Liam Byrne reversed the decision, citing Pun's "heroic record" and the "extraordinary nature" of his case.

True, not every Gurkha has been awarded the highest decoration for bravery which the British armed forces can bestow, but the refusal of visa applications on the grounds that they lack "strong ties" to the UK is insulting to many ex-Gurkhas.

"We are British soldiers," said Santosh Thalang, chairman of the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organisation (GAESO). "We have been serving Britain for 200 years, but we still do not have the same rights as other foreign soldiers in the British Army."

The sentiment was echoed by banners carrying slogans such as: 'Wanted in Battle But Not in Britain' and '45,000 Gurkhas Died to Keep Britain Free'.

In the courtroom, the Gurkhas' lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, said: "However distant their country of origin, whatever the location of their headquarters at a particular moment in history, however remote the battlefields on which they fought and risked their lives and shed their blood, all the Gurkha soldiers, past and present, were fighting for this country. This gives them all equally strong ties to this country, to its life and history."

Tony Gould, a historian and former officer in the 7th Gurkha Rifles, also asserted that the 1997 move was, above all, administrative, and many Gurkhas had been living and training in Britain for a long time before that.

Apart from settlement rights, the Gurkhas have also been campaigning for equal pensions, as those who retired before 1997 receive about one-fifth of the amount paid to their British counterparts.

GAESO's legal adviser, Gopal Chintan, explained that many of the Gurkhas' conditions of service were established by the Tripartite Agreement between the UK, India and Nepal at Indian independence in 1947, which allowed Britain to continue recruiting Gurkhas from Nepal.

"The British Gurkhas' pensions have been based on the Indian Army pension," he said. "They are still basically treated like colonial soldiers."

The judge, Justice Blake, is expected to reach a decision on the case in the next few weeks. Apart from the six who brought the case to court, his ruling may have implications for several thousand pre-1997 retirees who wish to settle in the UK. Many have been waiting years for settlement rights and are hoping that this time their dream will be fulfilled.

Santosh Thalang said simply: "We are just asking for equality. That is all."


Drying up

One side effect of the right to UK citizenship for ex-British Gurkhas and their families has been a drastic fall in remittances in the past two years. Particularly hard hit have been towns like Dharan and Pokhara, where land prices have collapsed and hundreds of houses are for sale.

Since the new terms and conditions came in two years ago, allowing citizenship in Britain, Gurkha remittances to Nepal have been reduced by 97 per cent. Not only are ex-Gurkhas all opting for citizenship, but they are also investing their savings in Britain as they have no one to send their money back to in Nepal.

On retirement, Gurkhas pensions are paid in the UK, not in Kathmandu, Pokhara and Dharan as earlier. "The value to Nepal of this UK right to recruit Gurkhas will steadily diminish to zero," says one former Gurkha officer, "Gurkha recruitment into the British army is now a one way street."

The new Maoist government has said it wants to ban recruitment of Nepali citizens into the Indian and British armies, calling it "slavery". The only reason recruitment was still going on was because of the benefits Nepal got from the money Gurkha soldiers and pensioners sent home to their families. If this money dries up, the argument of those who want to stop the recruitment will be bolstered.

If the present high court decision in London goes in the favour of those who want citizenship rights to all soldiers, not just those who retired before 1997, up to 20,000 more ex-Gurkhas and their families would move to the UK.

If that happens, not only will remittances dry up, but most ex-Gurkha families will also sell their property in Nepal and take their money with them?exacerbating capital flight.

K B Thapa



LATEST ISSUE
638
(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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