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Monday, 20 November, 2000, 18:10 GMT
A force to be reckoned with
Gurkhas still carry traditional knives, known as kukri
After 15 years in the British Army, one dedicated soldier retired on a pension of just 58 a month. Why? Because he was a Gurkha. Now Lance Corporal Hari Thapa is fighting the country he fought for.

On the face of it, the decision to allow a former Gurkha to take his claim for race discrimination to a full industrial tribunal could be a serious setback for the Ministry of Defence.

Gurkha regiment plays Nepalese bagpipes
Gurkhas have the same military and ceremonial duties as British soldiers
On Monday, Lance Corporal Hari Thapa, 37, was allowed a full hearing of his claim that his pay, conditions and pensions are all inferior to those of soldiers recruited in the UK.

Yet speculation that this might open the floodgates for thousands of claims from former and serving Gurkhas have been dismissed by at least one senior military analyst.

Major Charles Heyman, the editor of Jane's World Armies, says only those who qualify for residency in the UK - such as Mr Thapa, who was born in Hampshire - could claim a pension comparable to that of their British counterparts.

"There can only be a handful a year who would be entitled to retire here."

Better to die than be a coward

Gurkha motto
According to an agreement dating from 1947, Gurkhas serving in the Indian and British armies are paid similar pensions - although these were doubled to about 58 for British veterans as of last April.

"In Nepal, a pension of 58 a month is untold riches," Major Heyman says. "To pay them at the same rate as a British soldier would destabilise the local economy."

It would be the equivalent of British soldiers retiring on a pension of between 70,000 and 80,000, he says.

Paltry payout

The majority of Gurkhas serve in the Indian Army compared with just 3,500 in the UK armed forces, down from the World War II high of 112,000.

1999 Nato peacekeepers
Gurkhas were among the first troops sent to Kosovo
Concerns over the relatively low entitlements came to a head last year following the death of two soldiers in Kosovo.

Sergeant Balaram Rai and Lieutenant Gareth Evans were killed during a mine clearing operation.

Because Lieutenant Evans was a British recruit, his family initially received death benefits many times higher than Sergeant Rai's family in Nepal.

Proud history

British and Gurkha soldiers first encountered one another almost 200 years ago - but on opposing sides in the invasion of Nepal in 1814.

After suffering heavy casualties at the hands of their adversaries, the British East India Company signed a hasty peace deal in 1815, which allowed it to recruit from the ranks of the former enemy.

Since then, the Gurkhas have fought for the UK all over the world, and their British officers are taught the Gurkhali language.

In the 185 years they have served in the British Army, the Gurkhas have won 26 Victoria Crosses, more than any other single group.

Their motto? "Better to die than be a coward."

First to trouble spots

More than 200,000 Gurkhas fought in the two world wars, with 14,000 killed in France, the Middle East, Gallipoli, Italy, Greece and South East Asia.

Gurkhas cleared the way for aid to East Timor
In the past 50 years, they have served in Hong Kong, Malaya - as Malaysia was then known - Borneo, Cyprus and the Falklands.

More recently, Gurkhas have served as peacekeepers in Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone.

They were put on standby to help when floods swamped parts of southern England this autumn.

Better class of 'squaddie'

After being stationed in Malaya and Hong Kong, the Gurkhas are now based at Church Crookham in Hampshire and Shorncliffe in Folkestone, Kent.

Rebecca Smith, of the Folkestone Herald, says the Gurkhas stationed locally are well liked and respected.

"They've thrown themselves into local life, taking part in charity football matches and such like."

The regiment appears to have a better reputation than that of regular "squaddies", she says.

"But that's possibly because they've made more effort to be liked."

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See also:

20 Nov 00 | Wales
Army accused of Gurkha 'bias'
27 Jan 00 | South Asia
Recruiting for the Gurkha regiment
28 Oct 99 | Europe
Benefit boost for Gurkha widows
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