KATHMANDU, Nepal – In one corner of the Nepal capital, young people are undergoing final training in pursuit of their unique lifelong dream: a place in the British Army as a Gurkhai soldier, seen as a ticket out of a life of uncertainty and poverty.
They arrive for training before dawn, lifting weights, sprinting and pushing the boundaries of their teenage body. Then they sit for hours in math and English lessons.
“I’ve worked for it since I was a child – everything I do is for it,” said 19-year-old Rabbi Mahat. “I can do it.”
But in another corner of the capital, Kathmandu, there is a sharp reminder that those who have managed to do so have faced unequal treatment during the service – and long after. Thousands of senior Gurkha veterans are involved in years of fighting with the British government for salaries and pensions along with other soldiers they have served with.
For many veterans, their struggle – in the form of protests, lawsuits and even hunger strikes near 10 Downing Street in London – has lasted longer than the duration of their active service. Thousands of elderly veterans – forces sent to fight in bloody battles on behalf of Britain, from the two world wars to Iraq and Afghanistan – have died without receiving the compensation and treatment they sought.
“I served 24 years,” said L. B. Gizing, who was in the British Army in Malaysia and Hong Kong. “But we have been fighting for our equal rights for 32 years. Unfortunately, we lost 50 percent of our veterans without getting them. ”
At about the time of retirement, in 1998, the Gurkha’s junior soldier’s pension was £ 45 (about $ 59 today) compared to £ 800 ($ 1,053) for a British soldier of the same rank, Mr Gizing said.
The struggle of veterans has intensified the debate in Nepal over the legacy of the colonial era, 200 years ago, according to which the British army recruits the most fit and bright in the country.
Two centuries of taking away large numbers of young people at the peak of their formative potential have left a deep mark on the nation, hampering the growth of a sustainable local economy. This has helped perpetuate the culture of finding work abroad, which has become the norm for many young Nepalese, even if working away from home brings only temporary relief at best, not a permanent way out of poverty.
About 3.5 million Nepalese – about 12 percent of Nepal’s poorest population – work abroad.
“A culture has developed that we should not work in the countryside,” said Yubaraj Sangrula, a law professor who has been involved in the Gurkha struggle for equal pay for three decades. “Rather, we need to look for work outside.”
Professor Sangrula said he believed that centuries of recruitment to the British service were an early and major factor in preventing the rise of a more prosperous economy at home when so many promising young people had completed their education at age 18 to travel abroad.
And many were often sent home before they had served long enough to claim a pension – or if they were eligible, the payments were a small fraction of what their British counterparts received.
But with a lack of good jobs, competition for a seat in the British Army, as well as the security forces of Singapore and Brunei, for which the British Army also controls the recruitment of Nepalese fighters, is exhausting. This year, more than 12,000 young people applied for just over 200 seats in the army, and 7,000 for the Singapore police.
After several rounds of regional selection, recruiters evaluate the endurance, strength and physical shape of the finalists.
When Mr Mahat, a 19-year-old candidate, was girded for the final election, his parents held their breath in their village about 20 miles from Kathmandu. But their son was confident: he was the best in his class with 120 students in the school, and was so strong that he easily performed most of the exercises in the previous selections.
The Mahat family borrowed money to pay for a place at the Gurkha Victory Training Center, one of about 150 such institutions across the country with a reputation for helping those hoping to earn a place.
The center offers a nine-month package for about $ 400. The walls are decorated with willing posters of secular life – elegant uniforms, chests decorated with medals, hats tilted in arrogance.
“If he succeeds, it will be like conquering the world,” said Sabitri Mahat, Rabin’s mother.
The recruitment agreement dates back to 1815, when the Kingdom of Nepal was at war with the British East India Company, which then ruled most of the subcontinent. When the Nepalese were defeated, the British made a proposal: instead of submitting to colonization, the Gurkhas, who had shown great courage, could serve in the British Army. Nepal was never colonized, but its population was exploited.
“India was a colony in terms of territory,” Professor Sangrula said. “Nepal was a colony in terms of population.”
For over a century, Gurkha fighters have served faithfully, coming to the aid of the British during the turning points of the uprising in India and the wars in Europe. (Gurkha historically referred to the tribes from which the fighters were recruited.)
It is estimated that how many Nepalese fought during the two world wars range from 200,000 to nearly half a million. Veterans of the Gurkhas say tens of thousands of Nepalese fighters have died or disappeared in the two wars.
At the heart of the current protests is an agreement that laid the groundwork for further recruitment after British rule in South Asia ended in 1947. The Gurkha regiments were divided – half joined the army of the newly independent India, and the British stationed the other half in Hong Kong.
When he signed the tripartite agreement in 1947, the Nepalese government was eager for potential abuses by imperial forces. He insisted on the treatment “on the same basis as other units in the mother army, so that the stigma of” mercenary troops “was destroyed forever.”
India has adhered to an agreement on equal treatment of Nepalese in its army. But the British are accused of neglecting this from the beginning.
For decades after the 1947 agreement, Gurkhas who were entitled to a pension after 15 years of service received a share of what their British counterparts had done. In the 1980s Fr. The captain of the Gurkhas with 22 years of experience will receive about £ 600 a year (or $ 800 today), compared to the £ 6,350 pension ($ 8,500) received by the British captain with the same length of service.
The position of the British government was that although the pension payments of the Gurkhas were far from equal, they offered a comparable standard of living for retired veterans in Nepal.
This argument was rejected by veterans, especially since many veterans are settling in Britain. After decades of protests, the British government agreed in 2007 to start allocating salaries and pensions along with British soldiers.
But pension parity was abolished only in 1997, when Britain significantly reduced its Gurkhas strength when it withdrew from Hong Kong. About 9,000 Gurkhas sent home that year were not eligible for the changes. Of the 3,000 relocated to bases in Britain, only their service after 1997 in the new plan was counted as full years.
A spokesman for the British Ministry of Defense said that the Gurkhas’ pension plan was “fair and would not make any retrospective changes”.
While veterans claim that collectively they cheat millions of dollars a year, money is not their main motivation, Professor Sangrula said.
“The only word they talk about is dignity,” he said.
Last June, the veterans agreed that if their pensions were equalized, they would pay a monthly salary to set up a university to give young people the skills to help them find work at home.
Because of the struggle of the soldiers who served before them, young hopefuls such as Mr. Mahat know that they will now receive the same benefits as their British counterparts.
Last month, his father was called to say that his son had been taken away.
“I am sure he is proud because we are proud,” Mr Mahat said of his son. “Before leaving for the final selection he told us:“ I will do everything for you. Your future will shine. “
Saskia Solomon contributed to reports from London.