They had, for generations, shown courage and sacrifice, fighting for Britain in countless wars. But yesterday the Gurkhas said they had been repaid by the Government with contempt and betrayal.
There had been an expectation among the warriors from Nepal and their many supporters that, after a landmark ruling by the High Court last year, those previously barred from settling in Britain because they had left the Army before 1997 would now be able to do so.
Instead, new laws unfurled by the Immigration minister Phil Woolas yesterday mean that, according to government estimates, only about 4,300 more Gurkhas out of 36,000 will be allowed to move to the UK, while campaigners argue that the rules may in reality benefit only 100 men.
The severe restriction in the numbers, said critics, flew in the face of the court judgment. Furthermore, it was achieved, they alleged, by "underhand and despicable" means. The Gurkhas were being asked to reach criteria for residency qualification which it was simply impossible for them to meet.
David Enright, a solicitor representing some of the old soldiers in their court battle, said: "They have set criteria that are unattainable. They require a Gurkha to serve for 20 years, but a rifleman is permitted to serve for only around 15 years. It's a sham and an absolute disgrace. It's actually far more restrictive than the old policy."
Ragprasad Purja, 43, left the Army after the 1997 date and thus has the right to live in Britain. He served 17 years – more than the average length of service – and said the 20 years ruling was deliberately setting the bar too high. "It is the saddest day for the Gurkhas. I cannot believe this Government made such a decision," he added. "I was proud of my service but now I am sad. It's not justice."
In reaching his verdict last September in a test case brought by five veterans and their widows, Mr Justice Blake concluded that the Gurkhas had earned "an unquestionable debt of honour from the British people". The Government ruling that denied Gurkhas who retired before 1997 an automatic right to live in the UK was discriminatory, illegal, and needed urgent revision, he declared.
Martin Howe, the solicitor who represented the Gurkhas in that case, said yesterday: "This is nothing less than an act of treachery. It has scant regard to the High Court judgment and scant regard to the wishes of the people up and down the length and breath of this country. We have a so called Labour Government prepared to give £ 200bn to the bankers but not a penny to the Gurkhas."
The actress Joanna Lumley, a long-time supporter of the Gurkhas, said: "I am ashamed of my Government."
Mr Woolas's new rule will allow about 100 Nepalis, mostly officers, who served longer terms than riflemen, into the country. Other criteria, such as being mentioned in dispatches, the awarding of a Ministry of Defence disability pension, or a close family member in this country would make up the rest who qualify.
The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, insisted the new rules were entirely fair, saying: "Anybody who has done 20 years service before 1997 is going to benefit from this decision. They can make the choice if they want to come to Britain. There used to be a bar at 1997 but we have moved that right back to make it possible for people to live in this country."
But the shadow Immigration Minister, Damian Green, said: "The Government is trying to evade the effects of a very clear court judgment. This is an insult to the Gurkhas. We have said all along the Government should not try to challenge the court."
Last autumn's High Court ruling was the latest chapter in the Gurkhas' struggle to get what they believe are their rights. In 2004, following prolonged lobbying, the Government allowed current serving Nepalese soldiers who had not left before 1997 the right to stay in the UK. Three years later, Gurkhas won the right to the same pension as British soldiers, but again with the 1997 caveat. A series of campaigns after than allowed individual Gurkhas, some of them with high military honours, including a VC, the right to UK residence.
In November, a petition signed by 250,000 people, calling on the Government to allow all retired Gurkhas to settle in Britain, was handed in to No.10. Chris Robinson, a former infantryman who helped to collect signatures in north London, said yesterday: "We were only looking at at the most 36,000 people coming here if Mr Woolas had applied fair rules. We mustn't forget 200,000 Gurkhas fought for us just in the two world wars and 43,000 of them lost their lives for this country."
The crucial question: Has the Government betrayed the Gurkhas?
Phil Woolas Minister for Borders and Immigration
Gurkhas who complete their service receive a lifetime pension that has been increased over the last decade. Up until 2007, the majority left the Army aged 33 and so could be in receipt of this pension for more than 50 years. Former sergeants (and above) receive a pension comparable to the salary of a member of parliament in Nepal.
In 2004, this Government brought in rules which for the first time gave those discharged from the British Army on or after 1 July 1997 the right to come and settle in the UK. This was the date of the handover of Hong Kong to China when the Brigade of Gurkhas moved its headquarters from Hong Kong to the UK. Before that, Gurkhas served mainly in the East before retiring in Nepal; after that, they were more widely deployed. There was never any suggestion that the opportunity to settle permanently in the UK would be offered to every former member and their dependents. There are about 36,000 former Gurkhas who would be given the right to settle if immigration controls were removed. Including their dependents, more than 100,000 people would be legally entitled to enter the UK.
I believe the revised guidance is fair and in line with the expectations of those who signed up to the Brigade.
Madan Kumar Gurung Retired Gurkha
The Gurkhas have given everything to this country for nearly 200 years, yet most of them are not entitled to the same rights as foreign soldiers. It is discriminatory and unfair.
My loyalty to the UK should be evident from the 24 years I spent as a Gurkha soldier fighting for the British. It was even recognised when I was given a medal for good conduct and service. I'm handing that medal back to the Government with shame.
In 2007, my request for settlement rights was turned down after a 14-month wait because my ties to the UK were "not strong enough" and I had not served as soldier in the UK long enough to qualify.
That is ridiculous. My regiment was based in Hong Kong. I could not serve in the UK but I fought on its behalf in Malaysia, Singapore, Borneo and New Zealand. During my time in Hong Kong we defended the colony from Chinese illegal immigrants. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, my regiment fought with the British soldiers in Iraq. We flew the Union flag and saluted photographs of the Queen, just as much as the British Army.
When I retired I had to return to Nepal because I was not allowed to settle in the UK. When this ruling was changed in 2004, I thought our services had been recognised. Instead, it led only to further discrimination.
Most soldiers from the Commonwealth serve in the same way as Gurkhas and are entitled to settlement rights after four years' service. I have always been proud to be a Gurkha. Today, despite the fact I am not allowed to stay, I feel ashamed and angry for my colleagues. It is the soldiers and colleagues that do not qualify for whom I feel most sorry.
We do not plan to boycott the Army or violently protest. We are just begging the Government to recognise our rights.