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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 March 2007, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
Gurkhas' quiet fight for equality
By Marie Jackson
BBC News

Gurkhas hold banners
The ex-servicemen want equal pensions for all Gurkhas
Ratna Roka and his twin brother, Ram, wore the green beret of the Gurkha Brigade with pride.

And like so many of their fellow Nepalese soldiers, they thought by laying their lives on the line for Britain, they would be treated like British soldiers in retirement.

But now, at 56, they live without a pension in the slums of Pokhara, Nepal, and spend their days crouching by the roadside, begging British tourists for money.

This uncomfortable image is presented as evidence by campaigning members of the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organisation at a large rally in London.

They are calling for equal rights with British soldiers.

'Worse off'

For the retired Gurkhas who remain in the UK, life is a little better than that of the Roka brothers, but not, they say, as comfortable as the British-born soldiers whom they fought alongside.

Yam Gurung devoted 20 years of his life to the Army, serving in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Falklands and the first Gulf war.

He retired in 1993 and is now on a pension that is one-sixth of the amount of a British soldier's. For most Gurkhas, this equates to about 130 a month.

Saran Limbu
It may be good for me but it won't be good for everyone
Saran Limbu

Home is a house in Watford, Hertfordshire, which he and his wife, Milan, share with two other ex-Gurkha families.

They all share a kitchen and a bathroom, but point out there are others much worse off.

On Wednesday, they joined an estimated 2,500 ex-Gurkhas and their families in a packed Parliament Square in London to demand equal rights.

Their hope was that the politicians sitting in the House of Commons on the other side of the road might hear their demands for:

  • Special payment to elderly Gurkha veterans living in poverty
  • A right to settlement in the UK for all Gurkhas
  • Equal pensions for all Gurkhas

    Earlier this month, the government agreed that Gurkhas who retired after July 1997 - when Hong Kong, the former base of the Gurkhas, was handed over to China - will be offered pensions on the same terms as the rest of the British army.

    But, to the disappointment of campaigners, that meant thousands of Gurkhas who retired before 1997 will miss out.

    We are still trying to find out our status - are we in the British army or are we mercenary soldiers
    Yam Gurung

    To such a close-knit community of ex-servicemen, it served only to divide them and stir up tensions.

    "It may be good for me but it won't be good for everyone," said Saran Limbu who retired in 2003 after 17 years' service.

    As demonstrations go, Wednesday's was a quiet one with a minimal police presence.

    Perhaps this was a reflection of their reputation as committed, hard-working people, who had remained loyal to the British since 1815.

    That was when, during an invasion of Nepal, the British East India Company signed a hasty peace deal allowing them to recruit from the ranks of their former enemy.

    Dressed in Nepalese topi hats or berets and wearing their medals with pride, some protesters spoke, not of anger, but of injustice.

    Woman with banner
    The government says Gurkha pensions are for retirement in Nepal

    To them there was an irony that while standing outside the Houses of Parliament - what they believe to be the heart of democracy - they were trying to redress an injustice they said had existed for almost two centuries.

    "We are still trying to find out our status. Are we in the British army or are we mercenary soldiers?" asked Mr Gurung.

    Some politicians, including Conservative Ann Widdecombe, Labour's Peter Kilfoyle and Liberal Democrat Vince Cable, had clearly heard their rallying cry and showed their support by signing a white banner.

    Mr Cable, Lib Dem treasury spokesman, told BBC News there should be a basis of equality for such "important and valuable members of the British armed forces".

    'Lower costs'

    "There are significant financial implications but within the defence budget this must be a priority," he added.

    The Ministry of Defence says Gurkha pensions were designed for retirement in Nepal, where the cost of living is much lower than in the UK.

    In a statement, it said Gurkha pensions were worth broadly the same as a good Nepalese salary and it was UK-wide policy, not just applicable to Gurkhas, that there should be no retrospective improvements to pensions and similar benefits.

    It added that not all Gurkha veterans received a pension, as was the case for some British and other veterans of World War II, and said the ministry did contribute almost 1m a year to the Gurkha Welfare Trust which provides financial support to more than 10,000 ex-Gurkhas.

    Retired Gurkhas demonstrate in Westminster

    Who are the Gurkhas?
    08 Mar 07 |  UK

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