Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Our unspoken debt to foreign soldiers

Brown preaches about 'Great British Values', Is the treatment of Gurkhas one of them?
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The Independent Online

People often try and trip up ardent Republicans like myself by asking the killer question: "So who would you have as a President then, huh? Who? Red Ken or someone like Putin or Idi Amin maybe?" To which I have the perfect answer today: our ab fab Joanna Lumley, cultivated and ageless, her accent more polished than royal silver, loyal ally of the Gurkha soldiers betrayed repeatedly by the nation they have served. Year after year she campaigns with elegance, keeping in check the fury and frustration she must feel (God alone knows how).

Now comes another blow, treacherous and entirely unexpected. Or perhaps not. Under New Labour no trickery should be unexpected. These political dilettantes in power do not honour promises, court judgments, binding obligations nor the seriousness of office. Gurkhas are nothing to them, so are casually discarded, like used up shells or cartridges.

Paid substantially less than white soldiers, they received lower rates of compensation and pension benefits too, these legendary warriors who have helped secure victories in the major wars undertaken by this state. They were barred from living in this country too. Then a High Court victory last year gave them the right of entry and settlement, entitlements available to white veterans from Australia, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Canada and the US. Back in 1968 Labour institutionalised racist immigration treatment which is now embedded.

Mr Justice Blake praised Gurkha soldiers for the services they had rendered and declared an end to discriminatory rules. Over my dead body, responded Immigration minister Phil Woolas, the posturing Cabinet bovverboy who does tough and rough preposterously, like a bad actor in amateur dramatics. He rushed through a new set of impossible regulations that exclude most of those who might have benefited from the court judgment. Ms Lumley should stick Woolas in her cigarette holder and smoke him for breakfast.

Gordon Brown preaches to us incessantly about "Great British values". Is this one of them? I fear so. Perfidious Albion has long enlisted army personnel from the old empire and treated them most shabbily. I have never understood why so many joined up and still do, knowing that they fight for a Motherland which cannot value their sacrifices or treat them as she does her own. Colonialism leaves the ruled both humiliated and overawed long after the masters creep back home; the rulers meanwhile cannot shed the tendency to exploit and demean those they consider beneath their own civilisations.

The children and grandchildren of the rejected Gurkhas and others will continue to join up. Britain expects no less. Fijians and African nationals are today being maimed and killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thirty-eight Commonwealth nationalities are represented in our forces and one in ten new trainees are non-British. They have come in since a recruitment drive was started nearly a decade back. Just as Pakistanis were lured to work in heavy industries fifty years ago and Caribbean folk were invited over to work in the NHS. They were and are needed, but that doesn't bring them value or respect. The MoD does take care of the wounded, but some families say their boys are too soon forgotten and do not get what they are owed.

Tragically the story never changes. Twenty years ago, Caroline Adams wrote about Bangladeshis in the East End of London, many of whom had fought for the Allies. Mr Nawab Ali is quoted: "I was in Port Said when the Queen came there, she was Princess Elizabeth then. She said we will win this war and when we do, there will be pensions for everyone who fought. I am still waiting for my pension. Britain wanted us then. Now people have forgotten about that."

In the First World War the West Indian regiment was deployed and cash contributions of over two million plus goods were sent over from the Caribbean islands. Academic research shows these soldiers suffered extra awful hardships – insanitary conditions, poor diets and inadequate medical care.

Inequality made it feel worse. Letters by Indian soldiers of the Great War reveal their moving patriotism: "It is noble fate for us to be allowed to sacrifice our bodies for our King ... if we die on the field this is equal to entering heaven" and their degradation: "I was on a motor lorry and the lorry fellows being European didn't like to sleep with me being an Indian ... the hatred between the Europeans and Indians is increasing and it is not the fault of the Indians."

Some believe they are sent to the front to take the most punishing attacks. A monument was built in the South Downs for these men, unveiled by the then Prince of Wales in 1921, who said: "Future generations should not forget that our Indian comrades came when our need was highest, free men ... who were true to their salt." Some hope.

During the Second World War, it was more of the same. Testimonies show how prejudices kept down black men and women who signed up. Indians made up the largest ever voluntary war force – two and a half million men – and many, including Muslims, received the highest honours. However, until recently, surviving Indian veterans were not invited to commemorations. Baroness Shreela Flather and others finally got a permanent memorial near Buckingham Palace to the countless soldiers of colour who fought for Britain.

Ask British schoolchildren to visualise a brave wartime soldier and they will not think of an Indian or African – nor do the movies or most wartime best sellers. History forgets their contribution; this nation neglects their needs. There is no burning wish by the powerful to acknowledge earlier injustices or do better by those who still want to fight in our army. There is no shame and no guilt either.

The academic John Carey once wrote: "One of history's most useful tasks is to bring home to us keenly, honestly and painfully, how past generations pursued aims that now seem to us wrong or disgraceful." When it comes to our soldiers of colour, those aims and disgraceful behaviours carry on ad nauseam, unmoved even when looking at the dignified faces of the old Gurkha soldiers debased once more by the state they serve.