British bigotryThe UK government should acknowledge its unfair treatment of the Gurkhas and compensate for it
Many progressive changes have occurred within the Gurkha services in the last decade, of which two remarkable ones are the equalisation of terms of services for serving Gurkhas, and settlement rights to all with a minimum of four years in service. Retired Gurkhas, however, continue to face inequalities in their pension and other benefits. Gurkha organisations, which have now evolved as a formidable stakeholder, and the UK Ministry of Defence maintain conflicting positions in terms of their interpretation of many of these inequalities.
Against this backdrop, in 2013, Centre for Nepal Studies UK, a think-tank dedicated to advancing knowledge on Nepalis, undertook a thorough review of British Gurkha pension policies and published a report.
The report is very timely as it came out just before the UK government formed the All Party Parliamentary Enquiry on Gurkha, following the fast-unto-death of Gyan Raj Rai as part of the Gurkha Satyagaraha Campaign. Until now, no serious academic work has been done on inequalities that the Gurkhas face. Individuals and policy makers have had to depend on an array of oxymoronic statements from the British Defence Ministry which tries to patronise the Gurkhas and justify the inequalities. This report has thus not only equipped the emotionally-charged Gurkha campaigners with a powerful ammunition, but has also put forth their case objectively to the open-minded but uninformed politicians. The report shows that Gurkhas are still subject to grave injustice and gross violation of human rights.
Currently, 22,935 ex-British Gurkha pensioners and widows are still treated unequally in comparison to their British counterparts. There are 6,534 ex-Gurkha soldiers who do not receive any pension. An additional 542 ex-Gurkha soldiers discharged after 1975 do not receive service pensions. Of those who do not receive any pension, 3,438 that are identified as poor receive £40 a month from the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Gurkhas are not entitled to Preserved Pension, which is provided to British soldiers who have served for two years or more. The report elaborates mainly five important findings, which we briefly discuss here.
Violation of rights
To begin with, Gurkha pension and benefit policies do not comply with the principles of fundamental human rights. Unequal pensions provided to ex-British Gurkhas by the UK Government directly contradict the “equal pay for equal work” provisions enshrined in the charters of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, European Convention on Human Rights and in the conventions of the International Labour Organisation. Currently, Gurkha pensioners receive 300 percent less pension than their British counterparts, even though this situation in itself is a huge improvement compared to the situation in 1989 when the difference was about 1000 percent. Gurkha pensioners are separately governed by the Gurkha Pension Scheme (GPS) but 2,161 Gurkha pensioners, who were enlisted in the Army before October 1, 1993 and retired between July 1, 1997 and April 6, 2005 were given an opportunity to transfer from the GPS to the mainstream Armed Forces Pension Scheme 1975. Their service prior to July 1, 1997, however, was actuarially valued at only 23 to 36 percent for pension purposes.
Secondly, the changed context makes the British Defence Ministry’s claim of ‘fair’ and ‘legal’ obsolete. The Defence Ministry constantly maintains that the retired Gurkhas have always been well looked after and that they are not unfairly treated. For ex-Gurkhas, most of whom have become lawful residents in the UK since 2004, the rationale of ‘fair treatment’, tailoring their benefits to Nepal’s cost of living, no longer holds water, as recognised by the fact that the pay and the benefits of currently serving Gurkhas are equal to that of their British counterparts. What is necessary is equality based on moral principles and on the basic norms and values of human rights. Nothing can be deemed to be legal if that goes against these principles. Hence, Gurkha pension and welfare provisions need to be ‘equal’ and ‘legal’.
Thirdly, the UK government’s argument that making ex-Gurkhas’ pensions equal to that of their British counterparts would be expensive is a myth. Ex-Gurkhas in the UK have to rely on means-tested pension credits and other social benefits. The money spent on these benefits can be used to equalise the pensions or to pay welfare entitlements. More importantly, it would certainly mean respecting dignity by having entitlements rather than living on means-tested benefits, which the Nepali community is not proud of.
Internationally, the UK lags behind in respecting its foreign recruits. India recruits Nepali citizens under the 1947 Tripartite Agreement (TPA) and treats its Gurkha soldiers equally in terms of pay, pensions and welfare. Even the French government that had frozen its overseas soldiers’ pensions in 1959 is now providing equal pension since 2007. The US has also made a decision to provide equal benefits to its Filipino veterans under the same criteria applied to other US military veterans. It is only the UK government which still treats its Gurkha veterans who joined the British Army before October 1, 1993 unequally.
A new UK-Nepal agreement
Finally, the Tripartite Agreement is defunct and a bilateral agreement is needed. The UK government has made frequent changes to Gurkhas’ service terms, pay, pensions and other benefits as it deemed suitable and required by its needs at the time, without any meaningful two-way dialogue and consultation. Besides, India has repeatedly made it clear that it has nothing to do with the British Gurkhas, and that the terms of service of British Gurkhas are a matter entirely for Nepal and Britain. Hence, it is necessary to abrogate the TPA and sign a bilateral UK-Nepal agreement to reflect the unique circumstances of the British Gurkhas and to make Gurkha recruitment relevant with the changed context and time.
The report presents various ways forward to equalise the pension and benefits of Gurkhas in line with that of the British soldiers. It also concludes that the UK government should acknowledge that the Gurkhas were not always treated equally in the past and demands for retrospective compensation might have a considerable degree of legitimacy.
Laksamba is a senior researcher at Centre for Nepal Studies UK and Adhikari is a research fellow at the University of Oxford