For almost two centuries Ghurka warriors have fought and died for Britain on battlefields all over the world. And yet, for most of that time, the Gurkhas – Nepalese contract soldiers famed for their courage and their trademark khukuri knives – were paid far less than their British comrades.
Now their struggle for equal rights is almost over, thanks to Gurkha Justice Campaign, a movement launched in the early 1990s with the support of many Gurkha ex-servicemens’ organizations.
GAESO (Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen’s Organization, founded in 1990) was the first organization to push for reform. Others which joined in the struggle included NESA (Nepal Ex-Servicemen’s Association-founded in 1990), NESO (Nepal Ex-Servicemen Organization, founded in the 1990s) and UBGEA (United British Gurkha Ex-Servicemen’s Association, founded in 2001).
The campaign was initially limited to within the Ghurka homeland of Nepal. GAESO led the campaign from the very start and raised its voice against discrimination, The organization was headed by its Chairman Padam Bahadur Gurung, assisted by Chandra Bahadur Gurung, and supported by left-wing political parties.
Dr. Om Gurung, head of the Central Department of Sociology/Anthropology of the Tribhuvan University of Nepal, had a significant role in providing GAESO with the international platform that it needed. As a result, GAESO was able to organize national and international seminars and conferences, liaise with human rights organizations, and gain global exposure.
Once the Gurkha Justice Campaign reached the UK, GAESO operated through judicial avenues, won compensation for prisoners of war from World War II and filed cases related to inequality in Gurkha pay and pensions. It gained prominent support within the UK from the famous actress Joanna Lumley, whose father was an officer in a Ghurka regiment; from Gurkha Justice Campaign founder Peter Carroll; from the late businessman and philanthropist Sir Jack Hayward; and from former Ghurka Rifleman and human rights lawyer, solicitor Martin Howe.
Gaining global attention
While GAESO was leading the campaign, the BGWS (British Gurkha Welfare Society), formed by a group of retired British Gurkhas in 2004, succeeded in gaining UK settlement rights for former Gurkhas and their dependents. Thanks to this, Gurkhas who retired after 1997 with four or more years of service were for the first time allowed to settle in the UK.
Major (Retd) Tikendra Dal Dewan JP, chairman of BGWS, was invited to speak at the national conference of Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth in 2004. This was a first: non-party members had never before been invited to speak at the party’s national conference.
His pithy and critical speech at the conference received three standing ovations from an audience including the then party leader, Charles Kennedy. The resulting public pressure led to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair finally relenting; Ghurka settlement rights were at last announced on Sept. 30, 2004.
At the same time, Gyanraj Rai, an ex-warrant officer from the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers, led a team on a similar campaign by taking the Nepal government to the Supreme Court of Nepal, charging it with negligence of Gurkhas rights. Although the case was eventually dismissed by the Supreme Court, Rai continued to fight for the well-being of Gurkha veterans.
Settlement rights and equal pay
After their initial successes, campaigners set their sights on achieving full British settlement rights. Victory came, at last, on May 21, 2009 when all Gurkhas and their dependents were granted UK settlement rights.
The other arm of the campaign was monetary. Gurkhas serving in the British Army won equal pay and pensions in March 8, 2007. However, there was a gaping hole in the provision: those who enlisted before October 1, 1993 were not included. Although some improvements were made to their pensions, these veterans still lagged far behind their British counterparts. The Gurkha Justice Campaign wasn’t finished.
Due to personal differences and ideology, the GAESO leadership was accused of abandoning core principles regarding equal pay and pension demands. This led to the setting up of splinter groups, including BGESO (British Gurkha Ex-Servicemen’s Organization, founded 2009).
After teaming up with UBGEA, BGESO launched a hunger strike in London in 2013. Gyanraj Rai camped across the road from Downing Street demanding pension rights, compensation, equal treatment for Gurkha widows and free medical care for Gurkha veterans who had retired home to Nepal.
Rai’s hunger strike finally came to a close after 15 days, when the British government agreed to launch a parliamentary inquiry on the issue.
According to CNSUK (Center for Nepal Studies UK), there were some 16,065 retired Gurkhas and 6,870 widows (total 22,935) in 2013. There are around 22,000 pensioners at present.
GAESO’s founder Padam Bahadur Gurung now works on “The Gurkha Memorial Park” at Shamli Hill, Syangja, Nepal. Tikendra Dewan continues to run BGWS, as well as a successful UK utility firm, GnERGY. Gyanraj Rai is now the director of Gurkha Satyagraha, the most active Gurkha-related organization in the UK.