British Defence Minister Geoffrey Hoon skirted the gritty issue of British Gurkha pay and pension during his visit to Kathmandu last week. But it will not go away because it raises a web of complex questions, and not only for the British and Nepali governments. At issue is more than the matter of mere monetary parity between British and Gurkha soldiers in pay and pension.
Individual fortunes are, no doubt, important. Why should Sgt Balram Rai's supreme sacrifice be valued at less than that of a white British soldier? Only racial discrimination and the injustice it legitimises as "fair-play" can account for the absence of international outrage at the perpetuation of such bias. If Sgt Rai's death is of relatively lesser value then why was there a premium on his life as a peacekeeper in Kosovo? Of equal concern is that after more than 50 years, a Gurkha soldier who survived the horrors of Japanese POW camp is not entitled to the ?10,000 the British parliament has voted as compensation for victims from its own country. And why? Because, the British argument goes, the Gurkhas were "technically Indian Army units" before 1947. Come on. Before 1947 India was a part of the British Empire.
Peacekeeping, it seems, is replete with horrors almost as repugnant as war waging. Peacekeepers of the world first go to war against "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans, and then they apply the same principle to different races in their own peacekeeping force. Just shows that peacekeeping by the poorer countries of the world to protect the wealth, economy, security and strategic interests of the advanced industrial nations is fraught with the same perils as war. When it comes to the vulnerable underbelly of Fortress Europe, people of all countries and races are rallied to the cause of "peacekeeping". Western security and strategic interests are too valuable to be guarded by lives from the West alone. But when peace is at stake in places that have fallen off the globalisation map, like Sierra Leone and, earlier Somalia, then peacekeeping is left to "third worlders". The West has little security and strategic concerns to motivate intervention in these conflicts except when the domestic compassion factor generated by television images of misery gets politically too hot to bear.
The problem with the poorer countries is not economic backwardness alone. The people of these countries are also poor in learning the lessons they should from such conflicts and the discrimination inherent in them. Their governments collaborate with the advanced countries that have already subordinated the United Nations to their own objectives in the name of globalisation, democracy, peace and human rights. These governments earn hard currency by sending contingents of their armed forces as peacekeeping troops. Everyone is happy with this cosy dollarised deal. Only the poor in poor countries are twice betrayed: by the rich nations and by their own governments.
Yet, these governments never learn. Even as the issue of discrimination in pay and pension of Gurkha soldiers in the British army is raging-and Nepali sentiment is deeply offended-the Nepali government wants its soldiers to be included in the UN peacekeeping mission to Sierra Leone. This is asking to be lynched. Foreign Minister Chakra Prasad Bastola has gone a step further: he wants British help to establish a regional international training centre for peacekeepers in Panchkhal. Yes, the same British with whom he ought to have taken up the pay-and-pension issue that is agitating Nepalis.
The Western world doesn't want body bags coming back from its war-waging or peacekeeping theatres. It is politically expensive and explosive even if it comes with a hefty pay packet. Cheaper, and smarter, to get those developing country soldiers to pull chestnuts out of the fires raging around the world at any given time. The least we can do is learn about the costs of war and peace, and learn to speak for the interests of our own people. Maybe the Japanese would have been forgiven for their barbaric POW camps sooner had the victims not been from the Western world.
Shastri Ramachandran is a New Delhi-based Indian journalist.