It was announced last week that the Prince of Wales will pay an official visit to Nepal in February. The way things are going in Kathmandu, he will be flying into trouble.
Prince Charles is Colonel-in-Chief of the Gurkhas, the legendary but rapidly shrinking fighting force famous, in the words of the First World War British Gurkha officer Sir Ralph Turner, for being "indomitable, uncomplaining, unwavering". But now they are complaining mightily about their pensions, and in a mood to do something drastic about them.
While they serve in the British Army, Gurkhas are paid essentially the same as British soldiers - a minimum of pounds 800 per month. On retirement, however, which for Gurkhas (unless they have done something very wrong) comes after a minimum of 15 years, they get a pension of only pounds 25 per month - far less than British soldiers, who after 22 years, if they managed to stay in that long, would retire on half-pay.
The British government's legal justification for this differential is the Tripartite Agreement signed by Britain, India and Nepal in 1947, following India's independence. Gurkhas also serve in the Indian Army, and at that time, to prevent a surge of Nepalese applicants out of the Indian Army and into the British, pension rates for Gurkhas in both British and Indian forces were pegged at the same level. And so it remains today. Some 50,000 Gurkhas serve in the Indian Army today, compared with 3,400 in the British forces. The pay in the two forces is wildly different, but pensions are comparable.
In Kathmandu the chairman of the Nepal Ex-Servicemen's Association (Nesa), Major Dipak Bahadur Gurung, has been campaigning doggedly for a raise in pensions for five years. To date he has had no success, and now his association has split in two, with the far more militant Gurkha Army Ex- Servicemen's Organisation (Gaeso), largely representing riflemen and NCOs, now demanding absolute parity with their British counterparts. They have held demonstrations drawing up to 6,000 people. They are also alleged to have been behind a mutiny in Brunei on 23 March in which the two British commanding officers of the Sultan of Brunei's private force were captured and held at gunpoint by their own men. As a result of that incident, 11 soldiers who were members of Gaeso were discharged from the force.
In an attempt to raise the stakes further, on 18 December Gaeso declared its intention to sue the British government. In a statement released in Nepal, they said: "We have already submitted a memo with our four-point demand to the new prime minister. If nothing comes of it, we will soon be filing a law suit." They intend to sue under the British Army Act and the Race Relations Act.
Major Dipak Gurung, head of the more moderate Nesa, says that the Gurkhas' grievances are well founded. "The Tripartite Agreement was justifiable 50 years ago, but now it's out of date," he said. "When a Gurkha leaves the army it is like sending a person from heaven to hell. We are spoiled in Britain. We get used to drinking beer, whisky and brandy.
"But when people are retired it's very different. You see the older retirees up in the hills, they're walking around without shoes, making a few rupees carrying loads, eating meat only twice a year."
But although the ex-British Gurkhas in Nepal would seem to be split between the moderately bitter and the extremely bitter, a highly placed British diplomatic source believes that many Gurkhas take a longer view.
"Many of them see that the future of the British Gurkhas is at stake," he said. "The regiment has shrunk from 16,000 in the late Fifties to 3,400 today. They realise that if the Gurkhas are seen to be too expensive, the British government might cut them back even further.
"The reason for Nepalese joining the British Army is the pay. A lot of the money comes back here to support extended families. Some see that risking the regiment's future would not be in the interest of their families."
The apparently miserly pension provision is eked out by money raised by the Gurkha Welfare Fund, a charity, which in 1997 spent pounds 3.2m in Nepal on helping older retired Gurkhas and their families, giving medical provision at centres dotted round the country, building bridges and contributing to water supply projects.
On the face of it, the Government's pension policy seems unfair, if not racist. In Nepal, however, where the cost of living is minuscule compared to Britain, enthusiasm for the Gurkhas' case is harder to detect among non-Gurkhas than envy for the rates they earn while serving. Any Gurkha soldier with a modicum of prudence should, over the course of 15 years, be able to salt away thousands of pounds for his retirement (unless his extended family spends it all first).
Major Dipak Gurung is obviously not an average case, but in retirement, according to his business card, he is head of Nepal Real Estate, Gandaki Noodles, and Gurkha Manpower International. His son went to a public school, Ardingly, in Sussex, and is now at a foreign university.
As a senior officer who has done his time at Buckingham Palace, Major Gurung couches his association's demands respectfully. "We would be very grateful if we were paid on par with our British counterparts," he says. His rivals, however, are in no mood for nice manners. They look at Singapore, and see Gurkhas in the forces there being paid pensions which are the same as native Singaporean soldiers. They are in no mood to back down. Prince Charles will need all his new-found charm to bring them round.Reuse content