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August - September 2008

Political News

LORD BILIMORIA speaks up for Gurkhas

Lord Karan Bilimoria Challenges the Government to survey the British public over Gurkhas right for indefinite stay to remain in Britain.

London, UK – Crossbench peer, Lord Bilimoria made a moving speech in the House of Lords in support of the Second Reading of the Immigration (Discharged Gurkhas) bill brought by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lee of Trafford. He said that there was a lack of leadership and that the Government had broken its covenant with the armed forces, asking “where is this covenant with our Gurkhas who have served this country for over 200 years?”

We give below an excerpt from his speech in the House of Lords

“My Lords, on the Friday before Remembrance Sunday every year, there is a ceremony at the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill. The ceremony is to remember, honour and show our gratitude to the 5 million individuals from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Africa and the Caribbean who served in both world wars. These gates exist thanks to the perseverance and tenacity of my noble friend Lady Flather, assisted by so many of my noble friends here, including my noble friend Lord Slim and the noble and gallant Lord—and field marshal— Lord Inge.

I am proud to be the chairman of the commemoration committee of the Memorial Gates. Last year’s ceremony was perhaps the most moving. We had Private Johnson Beharry VC there, the youngest VC holder. During the wreath­laying ceremony, the last person, at the end of the line of high commissioners and dignitaries, to lay his wreath was Tul Bahadur Pun VC, aged 87, one of the oldest living Victoria Cross holders. He got up but at the time he could barely see as he attempted to lay the wreath; however, two Queen‘s Gurkha orderlies who were smartly standing to attention rushed over and escorted this living legend and hero to lay his wreath. I do not think there was anyone present who was not moved. And there were many tears—tears of joy, tears of gratitude and tears of appreciation.

On Remembrance Sunday, I was on duty as Her Majesty’s representative Deputy Lieutenant for the London Borough of Hounslow. At that afternoon’s wreath­laying ceremony, standing next to me, was Tul Bahadur Pun VC Sahib.

Hounslow is the borough that he is based in. When I later heard that this individual—the bravest of the brave—had handed in many of his medals at Downing Street, including his MBE, as part of a demonstration to promote the rights of Gurkhas to stay in Britain, I was saddened and appalled. His protest came only days after he was refused treatment for a heart condition at an NHS hospital. He was told that he owed the hospital thousands of pounds in unpaid medical bills. Pun Sahib—one of only 10 Victoria Cross holders in the UK—was close to tears after he was humiliated at the cardiology ward at West Middlesex Hospital. He was originally refused entry to the UK by British officials in Nepal because he was thought not to have enough ties to the UK. Not enough ties to the UK, my Lords?

I was privileged to have been born into the Gurkha family, as my father, the late Lieutenant­General Faridoon Bilimoria, was commissioned into the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles, Frontier Force. I believe that when news of my birth reached my father, who was serving away from home, a holder of the Victoria Cross, Gaje Ghale VC, who was still serving at that time, was by my father’s side. The story goes that when he heard the news of my birth—when the telegram arrived—he jumped for joy at the news, and the ground shook because he was such a large man. When my father later had the privilege of commanding the battalion, his subedar­major was none other than Agansing Rai VC. I was privileged to be brought up with these living legends. There was a third Victoria Cross holder—it was awarded posthumously— in my father’s battalion in the Second World War, Netra Bahadur Thapa. In fact, my father’s battalion was known as the VC battalion because it had won three Victoria Crosses in the Second World War. Two of the VCs were won within 24 hours of each other.

When my father, before he retired, was General Officer Commanding­in­Chief of the Central Indian Army, he was also president of the Gurkha Brigade in India, and colonel of the 5th Gurkhas. I remember that in his office of the Central Army Command Headquarters, in Lucknow, there were two flags behind his desk: one the Central Army flag and, next to it, the 5th Gurkha regimental flag. I know which meant more to him.

In India today, the Gurkha regiments that were left behind with the Indian army at independence have flourished; in fact, there are close to 100,000 Gurkhas serving in the Indian army. As the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, said, there are, sadly, just over 3,000 here in the UK, and the historic Gurkha regiments here have been merged into the Royal Gurkha Rifles.
In India, the Gurkhas receive the same pensions as their fellow Indian army colleagues. In India, many Gurkhas, after retiring, have settled in India instead of retiring home to Nepal and are allowed to do so. Here, sadly— after a huge struggle—Gurkhas receive a pension but it is not equivalent to that of their fellow British soldiers. As we know, Gurkhas who retired before 1997 are not allowed to stay in the UK should they wish to do so.

My noble and gallant friend Lord Walker, the former Chief of the Defence Staff and now the governor of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where I am proud to be a commissioner, spoke in his maiden speech of the covenant that exists between the British people and the Armed Forces, as did my noble friend Lord Slim. Where is this covenant when it comes to the Gurkhas?

Many people do not appreciate that the Armed Forces are referred to as “the services” because those who serve in them are serving their country—they are performing a service. In fact, the motto of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is, “Serve to lead”. Where is the leadership in our treatment of the Gurkhas who have served our country with valour and dignity, when 43,000 young men lost their lives in both world wars, as the noble Lord, Lord Lee, said? Where is the leadership when the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt—a thoroughly decent and respected soldier, whom I have the privilege to know—highlighted the fact that a traffic warden gets paid more than a soldier? This is a chief of the Army staff who has the guts to speak up for his troops.

Where is the leadership when our defence forces are stretched beyond all limits on a budget which, as a proportion of GDP, is half what it was 26 years ago, at the time of the Falklands conflict? Where is the leadership when the defence forces are humiliated and insulted by having a part­time Secretary of State for Defence, who also has the role of Secretary of State for Scotland?

The covenant between the Government and our Armed Forces has been broken, and is shamefully broken every single day as our brave troops serve us loyally thousands of miles away. Where is this covenant with our Gurkhas, who have served this country for almost 200 years?

When Bhanubhakta Gurung VC passed away earlier this year, I read his obituary and citation to my children and said to them, “This is not a story; this is not a movie script—this is bravery beyond compare”. It is this bravery that has earned the Gurkhas their reputation worldwide as the finest, toughest and bravest soldiers, revered and respected in every corner of this earth. It is this bravery that has inspired us all.

I commend the Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lee, on correcting the injustice that exists. If someone who works for a corporation in the UK can stay for four years and then have the right to permanent residency, and thereafter the possibility of citizenship, there is no way that the brave Gurkhas who have served the country with unquestioning loyalty for four years, regardless of whether that service was abroad or here, should be prevented from remaining in this country, should they choose to do so.

I am confident that if the opinion of the British people were sought, their famous sense of fair play and justice would show an overwhelming wish for these brave and noble soldiers to be allowed to live in this country. I challenge the Government to conduct such a survey, act on its results and enact this Bill.

At the 150th anniversary of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles, Frontier Force, at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst last month, as a proud member of the 4 July 2008 : Column 498 regimental association, I heard a prayer written by the Reverend Guy Cornwall­Jones, whose father served in the 5th Gurkhas:

“Oh God, who in the Gurkhas has given us a people exceptional in courage and devotion, resplendent in their cheerfulness, we who owe them so much ask your special blessing on them, their families and their land. Grant us thy grace to be faithful to them as they have been faithful to others”.

Lord Bassam of Brighton responding to the speech of Lord Bilimoria said, “ My Lords, I have the difficult job of responding to the Second Reading debate of the Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lee, on a subject which, it is fair to reflect, has generated understandable emotion and passion and a central plea to the Government to review their current position.

From the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, in particular, we have had a very moving address to the House on the history of loyalty and commitment from the Gurkha regiments to the British Army and the British people. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for the way in which he set out his arguments and brought to your Lordships’ House his intimate knowledge, understanding and involvement from a family perspective of the Gurkha regiments.

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