The royal tour has revived a debate in Nepal to redefine Nepal-UK relations that allows Gurkha recruitment.
Pradeep Raj Onta
IN MEMORIAM: Britain’s Prince Harry with Pramila Rai, mother of Remand Kulung killed in Afghanistan in 2010 on Tuesday at a ceremony in Pokhara commemorating the Nepali nationals who have died fighting for Great Britain.
After the fall of Makwanpur Fort in May 1816, Gorkhali defenders agreed to ratify the Sugauli Treaty with the British East India Company under which Nepal surrendered nearly half of its territory, and allowed recruitment of its fighters into the British military in return for retaining its independence.
Two centuries later, the practice of allowing our young men to fight and die for other countries continues. Over 52,000 Gurkhas were killed in the two World Wars alone, and they continue to die -- 11 Nepalis in the British Army have been killed in action in Afghanistan in the past decade.
Britain’s Prince Harry is currently spending two weeks in the motherland of the Gurkhas with whom he served in Helmand. He is meeting families of those killed in Afghanistan, helping post-earthquake reconstruction, and urging the world to visit Nepal.
The royal tour has revived a debate in Nepal to redefine Nepal-UK relations that allows Gurkha recruitment on the 200th anniversary of the Treaty of Sugauli. A day before Prince Harry landed in Kathmandu on 19 March, an association of ex-Gurkha soldiers sent a letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron with some uncomfortable questions: why are Gurkhas who fought for the British Empire subjected to discrimination? Why are families of those killed or disappeared in the World Wars still not formally informed?
Gurkha veterans are also not satisfied with pensions and other facilities despite winning a major legal battle in 2004 that allowed them to settle in the UK. But their children above 18 still cannot apply for UK residency, and say they are separated from their children in their old age.
Among the 40 demands the Maoists issued before launching their armed struggle in 1996 was one to stop the recruitment of Nepali nationals into the British and Indian armies. They still see it an affront to Nepal’s sovereignty, although they are not pushing for a ban on recruitment anymore.
Lokendra Bista Magar of the UCPN (M) told Nepali Times: “Our youth must be ready to kill and die for our motherland, not for an empire that uses us as mercenaries to kill poor people like us in other countries.”
But retired British Army Captain Yam Bahadur Pun, President of the Gurkha Ex-Servicemen Welfare Association, says: “Instead of ending Gurkha recruitment, young Nepali men should be given alternatives. If they get better job opportunities here, they would not migrate to the Gulf or fight for a foreign country.”
The British Army is scaling back its uptake of Nepali nationals, recruiting only 128 last year, and this number is expected to decrease in the coming years. However, the British have separate agreements (to which Nepal is not party) to recruit Gurkhas on behalf of the security forces of Brunei, Singapore and Oman. Now, India also wants to supply Gurkhas to Brunei, sparking media criticism in Nepal.
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