The Blog

Bravest of Allies: The Gurkhas' Longest Fight

"Never has the trust that was then placed in the Gurkha soldier ever been in doubt. Alongside his British comrade in arms he has fought in many parts of the world and has proved himself to be of the closest friends and bravest of allies that Britain has known."

British Army website

Capt. Rambahadur Limbu's proudest moment was receiving the Victoria Cross from the Queen in 1966. The medal--the highest award for gallantry awarded to British and Commonwealth forces--was stolen from him on an Indian train as he made his way back to his regiment in Nepal. Now he feels victim to a different kind of robbery, and one that cuts much deeper; the British government's refusal to provide the fundamental rights and benefits that he and his fellows earned so gallantly in their service to the nation.

Gurkhas have served alongside British soldiers in conflicts across the globe, including the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq. In the two world wars alone, 450,000 Gurkhas saw action. They even guard Buckingham palace. But the 75-year-old British army veteran and acknowledged war hero is today spending his time trying to persuade the Ministry of Defence to honour the historic agreement that promises parity between he and his fellow ex-servicemen and other British army veterans. It is a battle he never thought he would have to fight, and one that is deeply humiliating.

Part of the problem is that the British public thinks it was all sorted back in 2009. Joanna Lumley's impressive tour de force and the resultant parliamentary ruling allowed settlement rights to 26,000 Gurkha veterans from Nepal--at least those who had served the British Army for at least four years and had retired before 1997. But although the negotiations of the London legal team of Howe & Co ended there, the shoddy treatment of the Gurkhas by the MOD did not.

"The fact remains that only the Gurkhas who retired after 2007 are today receiving equal benefits", says Dr. Ram Kandangwa, a veteran himself and a key figure in the Gurkha rights movement. Those who retired earlier--such as Capt. Limbu--receive nearly four times less pension than their British or Commonwealth counterparts for doing the same job.

After the 2009 settlement ruling, Gurkhas began arriving in Britain penniless and homeless, with zero support and no idea how to enter the system. Some had to be sent back to Nepal. "Utterly immoral" was how Dr. Hugh Milroy from the London-based charity Veterans' Aid described the ill-conceived Gurkha UK resettlement programme to the Observer's Nick Cohen.

Last month, Capt. Limbu, currently a senior advisor for the retired Gurkhas in Nepal, came to the UK to testify at an All Party Parliamentary Group on Gurkha Welfare, chaired by Jackie Doyle-Price MP. The hearing was set up to investigate injustices faced by the Gurkhas in terms of pay, pension and welfare facilities from the Ministry of Defence.

At the inquiry, Sir Gerald Howarth, a former MOD minister responsible for procurement, with 10,000 Gurkhas in his constituency, interrupted the testimony of an elderly Gurkha war veteran to demand that he provide his own accounting. To this, Falklands veteran and Communications Director of Gurkha Satyagraha, Deepak Maskey, replied, "Doesn't the MOD have its own records. Is it really up to veterans to provide accounts of what they are owed?"

If the majority of the British public believes that the grievances of the Gurkhas have been largely settled, it is because such a perception serves the interest of the British government. And one that has remained largely unchallenged, for although Gurkhas are fearless in fighting for others, they are less bold when it comes to fighting for themselves.

But even a brief conversation with the Gurkha community reveals that although Ms. Lumley's avenging profile may have won the Gurkhas an interim victory, there are wider issues that have yet to be adequately addressed. And people like Deepak Maskey are not backing down.

Lt. Colonel (Retired) Hamish Adams has served six tours in the Brigade of Gurkhas and commanded the Queen's Gurkha Signal Regiment from 1987 to 1990. In his statement to the inquiry, he said, "...there is a widespread feeling of discontent across all ranks and a sense of disillusionment that justice will never be forthcoming. The reluctance of the Gurkha officers to speak up should not be misconstrued as their acceptance of the status quo."

A debate on these issues, The Politics & Principle of Equality: Gurkhas and the British Army, will be held on Wednesday, May 14th at 6:30 pm at London's University of Westminster, moderated by international relations scholar, Dr. Dibyesh Anand.

The wartime actions for which Capt. Limbu was awarded the VC are jaw-dropping. In 1965, the 29-year-old Lance Corporal of the 2nd Battalion, 10th Princess Mary's Own Gurkha Rifles, was deployed to the dense jungles of Borneo. On November 21st, he and his advance fire party of fifteen Gurkhas had their sights set on a hill defended by five Indonesian soldiers--or so their reconnaissance had reported. But as Limbu and four comrades approached within ten yards, over thirty enemy soldiers leapt up from a hidden trench and opened fire.

Limbu, a solidly built and serious man recounts his story with dignified restraint.

"My two gunners were shot instantly. I called out to the others to retreat to the support group, while I rushed ahead. I prepared a grenade and threw it into the trench. I crawled through the scrub back to my platoon for back up, but most of the others had run away. I went back again to get my comrade who had been shot in the stomach. I threw myself on the ground next to him, but I had to retreat again because of the intensity of the fire. When I managed to get next to him I dragged him to safety, I returned to fetch the other injured gunner. I went back a third time to retrieve their weapons. I was being fired at from all sides."

In fact, Limbu was doing all of this in clear sight of two machine-gun posts. "One bullet went through the top of my hat (his hat today sits in the Winchester Museum). My comrade with the stomach wound begged me to shoot him so he wouldn't be captured. "I can't die like this," he said, "please shoot me." There is a pause in the story. It is clear that Capt. Limbu had obliged. "We were ready to do this for one another," he said. "You did not want to be taken prisoner there." When asked if he was afraid, he replies, "I was responsible for my party. My thoughts were not about my own safety."

The following part of the story tactfully omitted from the military archives is sadly revealing; not only of the discrimination that the Gurkha soldiers routinely faced, but the avoidably lethal consequences.

While patrolling the area a week before the attack on the hill at Sarawak, Capt. Limbu and his Company came across some Indonesian fishermen carrying arms. Suspecting that they were enemy informants, his company captured them and reported back to the British platoon commander, who promptly ordered their release on the grounds that they were civilians who posed no threat. Reluctantly, Limbu complied. The surprise attack from the hill occurred less than thirty minutes later.

"It was no coincidence," he states firmly.

After the attack, the surviving members of Limbu's company of one hundred and twenty men, hacked their way through the forest for three days without food or supplies. When they lodged a formal complaint to the company commander, he told them that they didn't qualify for supplies because they were not "real soldiers".

"He accused us of being cowards. Those who had lodged the complaint were court-marshaled. Nine corporals and three sergeants were forced to go home. Since I was only a lance-corporeal, they didn't do anything to me."

The majority of Gurkha veterans currently without a proper army pension belong to the groups that were made redundant after the Borneo campaign. Having lived through the horrors of combat, many are now struggling to live out their days with dignity. Almost half of them are living in poverty, receiving just forty pounds a month from the charitable body, the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Limbu himself struggles to cover basic medical expenses for his chronic arthritis. When asked how he feels about it all, he reflects for a while before he speaks.

"It is a serious betrayal. But I strongly believe that British people themselves respect us and want us to be treated equally. This time I'm hopeful that the Ministry of Defense and British government will finally deliver justice to the Gurkhas."

The foundations of Anglo-Gurkha friendship were laid after the first encounter between the British army and the Gurkhas in Nepal at the battle of Kalunga in 1816. So impressed were the British by the bravery of their enemy, the army erected memorials to both sides, inscribing the Gurkha memorial with the words: 'They fought in fair conflict like men, and in the intervals of fighting showed us liberal courtesy."

Surely, it is now time for us to show the Gurkhas the same.