London // Former Gurkha soldiers from Nepal have launched a legal battle in London for the right to live in Britain, the country they fought for. After finishing listening yesterday to two days of evidence, a High Court judge will decide if all Gurkhas, whose history of fighting in the British army stretches back almost two centuries, have a right to remain in the United Kingdom once they leave the armed forces.
Currently, only those who left the army after 1997 have an automatic right of residence in Britain. The government argues that those who left before have no natural ties to the United Kingdom because, up until then, the Gurkha regiment was headquartered in Hong Kong. The legal battle has stirred considerable emotions among Britons in support of the former soldiers and has prompted demonstrations outside parliament and the High Court, led by Joanna Lumley, an actress whose father fought with the Gurkhas in Burma in the Second World War.
Gurkhas have served in the British army since 1816 when their bravery and tenacity in battle was admired by imperial generals during the two-year Gurkha War, in which the British suffered heavy losses. An agreement was reached under which Gurkhas would serve in the British army, effectively as mercenaries. Today, about 3,500 Gurkhas remain in British uniform, mainly serving as infantrymen with the Gurkha Rifles. Almost 50,000 have been killed since 1816 and three times that number seriously injured. They are currently serving in Afghanistan and have done repeated tours of duty in Iraq.
At the High Court hearing, lawyers for the five former Gurkhas bringing the test case - a judgment which is not expected for several weeks - said the government's policy was discriminatory and that Britain owed "a special debt" to all Gurkhas. Edward Fitzgerald, the lawyer representing the former soldiers, said four had been refused permission to enter the United Kingdom because they lacked "strong ties" to the country.
"We submit that the Gurkhas, past and present, all alike have strong ties to this country," he said. "However distant their country of origin, whatever the location of their headquarters at a particular moment in history, however remote the battlefields on which they fought and risked their lives and shed their blood, all the Gurkha soldiers were fighting for this country. "Against that background, the continuing exclusion of Gurkha soldiers discharged before 1997 from the Armed Forces Concession was, and is, indefensible."
Before the hearing, hundreds of supporters gathered outside the High Court in central London. Miss Lumley knelt before two veteran Gurkha holders of the Victoria Cross - the United Kingdom's highest award for gallantry - and wished them luck. "I want to see justice done," she told Lachhiman Gurung, 91, and Tul Bahadur Pun, 86, both of whom served under her father in Burma, which is now known as Myanmar.
Gurkhas took their name from the hill town of Gurkha, the birthplace of the Nepalese kingdom. They first served as mercenaries under contract to the East India Company in the Pindaree War of 1817, in Bharatpur in 1826 and the First and Second Anglo-Sikh Wars in 1846 and 1848. They fought with the British to quell the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and became a formal part of the British-Indian Army the following year.
About 100,000 Gurkhas fought for Britain in the First World War, serving notably at Ypres, around the Suez Canal and at Gallipoli. They also saw action across the globe in the Second World War, when the Japanese rated them their most feared foes. The Gurkhas later served in the Gulf War, the Falklands, the Balkans, Sierra Leone and East Timor, in addition to recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. A total of 26 Victoria Crosses have been awarded to Gurkhas, whose motto is: "Better to die than to live a coward."
Gurkhas still carry the kukri, a curved, 18-inch knife, which was once part of their armour. About 230 young Nepalese are recruited to the British army each year - a tiny proportion of the 28,000 who applied in 2007. However, disputes over repatriation rights and pensions have marred the special relationship between the British government and the Nepalese fighters, whose ranks have always been dominated by the Gurungs and Magars from central Nepal, and the Rais and Limbus from the east.
Traditionally, after the Gurkhas have served their time, which ranges between 15 and 30 years, they have been discharged back in Nepal, where they have received a pension roughly one-sixth of that of their UK counterparts. But with more opting to settle in the United Kingdom, campaigners forced the government into agreeing last year that all those who retired after July 1997 would get the same pension as the rest of the army.
Now, those who left the army pre-1997 - and an estimated 2,000 of them are believed to want to settle in Britain - are battling in the courts for the right to remain. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org