Gurkha Veterans Fight a Colonial-Era Legacy Still Shaping Nepal

KATHMANDU, Nepal — In one corner of Nepal’s capital, young men are going through the final preparations in pursuit of their singular lifelong dream: a place in the British Army as a Gurkha soldier, perceived as their ticket out of a life of uncertainty and poverty.

They arrive for training before dawn, lifting weights, running sprints and pushing the limits of their teenage bodies. Then they sit for hours of math and English lessons.

“Ever since I was a child, I have worked for this — everything I do is for this,” said Rabin Mahat, 19. “I will make it.”

But in another corner of the capital, Kathmandu, there is a stark reminder that those who did make it faced unequal treatment during their service — and for long after. Thousands of older Gurkha veterans are engaged in a decades-old fight against the British government for pay and pensions on par with the other soldiers with whom they served.

For many veterans, their struggle — in the form of protests, court cases and even hunger strikes outside 10 Downing Street in London — has dragged on longer than the duration of their active service. Thousands of older veterans — of a force sent to fight in bloody battles on behalf of Britain, from the two World Wars to Iraq and Afghanistan — died before receiving the compensation, and the dignified treatment, they sought.

“I served for 24 years,” said L.B. Ghising, who was with the British Army in Malaysia and Hong Kong. “But it’s been 32 years that we have been fighting about our equal right. Unfortunately, we have lost 50 percent of our veterans without getting it.”

Around the time of his retirement, in 1998, the pension of a junior Gurkha soldier was 45 pounds (about $59 today) compared with 800 pounds ($1,053) for a British soldier of the same rank, Mr. Ghising said.

The veterans’ fight has heightened the debate in Nepal over this colonial-era legacy, a 200-year-old arrangement in which the country’s fittest and brightest are recruited into the British Army.

Two centuries of plucking large numbers of young men at the peak of their formative potential has left a deep mark on the nation, hampering the growth of a sustainable local economy. It has helped perpetuate a culture of seeking work abroad that has become something of a norm for many young Nepalis — even if the toil away from home only brings temporary relief at best, not a permanent path out of poverty.

About 3.5 million Nepalis — roughly 12 percent of the population of Nepal, which ranks among the poorest countries in Asia — work as laborers abroad.

“A culture developed that we should not work in the village,” said Yubaraj Sangroula, a professor of law who has been involved in the Gurkhas’ fight for equal pay for three decades. “Rather, we should seek jobs outside.”

Professor Sangroula said he believed that the centuries of recruitment into British service were an early and major factor in preventing the rise of a more prosperous economy at home, with so many promising young men ending their education at 18 to go abroad.

And many were often sent home before they had served long enough to qualify for a pension — or if they were eligible, the payouts were a small fraction of what their British counterparts got.

But with good jobs scarce, the competition for a slot in the British Army — as well as the Singapore and Brunei security forces for which the British Army also oversees recruitment of Nepali fighters — is grueling. This year, more than 12,000 youths applied for a little over 200 slots in the army, and 7,000 went for 140 slots in the Singapore police.

After several rounds of regional selection, recruiters appraise finalists’ endurance, strength and fitness.

As Mr. Mahat, the 19-year-old hopeful, girded for his final selection, his parents held their breath in their village about 20 miles outside Kathmandu. But their son was confident: He had topped his class of 120 students in school, and he was so strong that he had completed most of the exercises in earlier selections with ease.

The Mahat family had borrowed money to pay for a slot at the Gurkha Victory Training Center, one of about 150 such facilities across the country with a reputation for helping hopefuls earn a slot.

The center offers a nine-month package for about $400. The walls are adorned with aspirational posters of the high life — chic uniforms, chests decked in medals, hats tilted in swagger.

“If he makes it, it will be like winning the world,” said Sabitri Mahat, Rabin’s mother.

The recruiting arrangement dates to 1815, when the Kingdom of Nepal fought a war with the British East India Company, which then ruled over much of the subcontinent. As the Nepalis faced defeat, the British made an offer: Instead of submitting to colonization, the Gurkhas, who had displayed great courage, could serve in the British Army instead. Nepal was never colonized, but its population was subject to an exploitative arrangement.

“India was a colony in terms of territory,” Professor Sangroula said. “Nepal was a colony in terms of population.”

For well over a century, the Gurkha fighters served loyally, coming to the rescue of the British during watershed moments of rebellion in India and wars in Europe. (“Gurkha” historically referred to the tribes from which the fighters were recruited.)

Estimates of how many Nepalis fought during the two world wars range from 200,000 to nearly half a million. Gurkha veteran organizations say tens of thousands of Nepali fighters died or disappeared in the two wars.

At the heart of the current protests is the agreement that laid the foundation for continued recruitment after British rule in South Asia ended in 1947. The Gurkha regiments were split — half went to the army of the newly independent India, while the British stationed the other half in Hong Kong.

When it signed the trilateral agreement in 1947, the Nepali government was leery of the potential abuse in an imperial force. It insisted on treatment “on the same footing as the other units in the parent army so that the stigma of ‘mercenary troops’ may for all time be wiped out.”

India has abided by the agreement of equal treatment for the Nepalis in its army. But the British are accused of having flouted it from the start.

In the decades after the 1947 agreement, the Gurkhas who qualified for a pension after 15 years of service received a fraction of what their British counterparts did. In the 1980s, a Gurkha captain with 22 years’ experience would get about £600 a year (or $800 today), compared with the £6,350 ($8,500) pension a British captain with the same experience received.

The British government’s position was that although the Gurkha pension payouts were far from equal, they offered a comparable standard of living for retired veterans in Nepal.

This argument was dismissed by veterans, particularly since many veterans settle in Britain. After decades of protests, the British government agreed in 2007 to start providing pay and pensions on par with British soldiers.

But the pension parity was backdated only to 1997, the year when Britain significantly shrunk its Gurkha force as it withdrew from Hong Kong. Some 9,000 Gurkhas sent home that year were not eligible to benefit from the changes. Among the 3,000 shifted to bases in Britain, only their service after 1997 counted as full years in the new plan.

A spokesman for the British Defense Ministry said the Gurkha pension plan “is fair and will not be making any retrospective changes.”

While the veterans contend that, collectively, they’re cheated out of millions of dollars a year, money is not their primary motivation, Professor Sangroula said.

“The only word they talk about is dignity,” he said.

Last June, the veterans agreed that if their pensions were equalized, they would contribute one month’s pay toward establishing a university to provide young people with skills that could help them find jobs at home.

Because of the struggle of the soldiers who served before them, young hopefuls like Mr. Mahat know they will now get the same benefits as their British counterparts.

Last month, his father got a call that his son had been selected.

“I am sure he is proud, because we are proud,” Mr. Mahat said of his son. “Before he left for the final selection, he told us: ‘I will do everything for you. Your future will shine.’”

Saskia Solomon contributed reporting from London.

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