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Royal visit puts focus on Britain’s 200-year association with Gurkhas

KATHMANDU : Prince Harry’s visit to Nepal has brought into focus the more than two-century-old association between the Himalayan nation’s brave Gurkha soldiers and the British Army, including anger among some veterans. The visit, during which the 31-year-old royal will interact with families of Gurkha veterans, has highlighted the uneasiness in the relationship because of unequal service and retirement benefits given to the soldiers. The fourth in line to the British throne served for 10 weeks alongside a Gurkha brigade during his 10-week stint in Afghanistan in 2007-08. He hopes to “deepen his understanding of the Gurkhas” during this trip.

“For me, this trip is also personal,” Prince Harry said during a reception hosted by the Nepal government on Saturday. “I am so grateful that I will have the opportunity to pay tribute to some of Nepal’s most famous ambassadors, the Gurkhas, admired the world over for their fearsome bravery and courage but also for their humility and kindness.” On Tuesday, the prince will meet two Gurkha families in Pokhara whose homes were damaged by last year’s earthquakes. He will spend the night at the home of an 86-year-old widow of a Gurkha veteran. “I served alongside Gurkhas during my first tour of Afghanistan and look forward to visiting the communities that have produced and supported these extraordinary soldiers,” he said.

While the visit is eagerly anticipated by the families of the Gurkhas, a section of veterans is unhappy that their service and sacrifices haven’t been adequately appreciated by Britain. “Don’t show us your drama (of compassion towards Gurkhas) Prince Harry,” Padam Bahadur Gurung, president of the Gurkha Army Ex-servicemen Association (GAESO), said at a news conference in Pokhara on Sunday. The Gurkhas, he said, have paid a heavy cost for serving the British Army. Gurung asked for adequate compensation for families of more than 40,000 who died during the first and second World Wars.

On Friday, a day ahead of Prince Harry’s arrival in Kathmandu, hundreds of Gurkha veterans and their families demonstrated outside the British embassy in Kathmandu and submitted a five-point memorandum. Carrying placards and flags with slogans such as “200 years of slavery” and “200 years of exploitation”, the demonstrators sought equal pension for those who retired before 2000 and compensation for families of soldiers killed on duty.

History of Gurkhas’ association with the British Army

-Impressed by the bravery of Gurkha soldiers during the war between the British East India Company and Nepal in 1814-16, it was agreed by both sides in the Treaty of Sugauli of 1816 that soldiers from Nepal would be allowed to volunteer for service in the EIC army.

-After the EIC, Gurkhas continued to be recruited to the British Army. They have fought for Britain in every war in the past 200 years. Nearly 200,000 Gurkhas fought for the British in the two world wars. Gurkhas have received 13 Victoria Crosses.

-After India’s independence, India and Britain agreed on continuing to enlist their services under a tripartite agreement with Nepal. The Indian Army has seven Gorkha regiments with more than 30,000 soldiers.

-Britain has four Gurkha regiments, but the number of soldiers from Nepal has been reduced over the years to just 3,500 now. Every year, 240 Gurkhas are recruited.

-Gurkhas have fought a long legal battle with the British government for equal pay and pension and compensation for those killed in service.

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