Saturday afternoon found the Gurkha Museum in Winchester in its normal state of tranquillity. I thought they might have dispatched a sandwich board man to patrol the High Street invoking us to “see the khukuri that bloodied Gordon Brown”.
Big media showed no such reticence. When a weak government is dragged into the ring with an articulate sitcom star with her arms around war heroes, there could only be one loser. The Sun and Daily Mail forgot their aversion to immigration; the others largely overlooked that the right of Gurkha veterans to settle in the UK is more complex than Joanna Lumley’s emotive sound-bites.
For a start, the annual invasion of the British Army to cream off more than 200 of Nepal’s finest young men has been described as “shameful and humiliating” in key political circles in Nepal, perhaps understandably so. And if more of the veterans leave for the UK, Nepal loses the foreign currency payback.
I think I can sense why ministers chose not to put up the white flag to the media’s Gatling guns. The cost of conceding the Gurkha claims is contentious because no one knows how many might take advantage of the right to live in the UK. Ms Lumley suggests a figure of 8,000; others talk of 100,000 pushing the bill up to £1.5 billion.
Last month the Department for International Development (DFID) published its three-year aid commitment for £172 million for Nepal. In a wide range of social programmes this injection aims to help over 2 million poor people improve their lives. Whether or not the Gurkha expense comes from the defence budget, the DFID package exposes its generosity.
Gordon Brown’s team may also have been conscious of the political tensions in Nepal which culminated in the collapse of its coalition government a few days after the House of Commons vote. Whilst no one would suggest a connection with Ms Lumley’s Gurkha dramas, ministers would have preferred not to inject any new ingredient into the frothy cocktail of Kathmandu politics.
Poverty reduction and political stability in Nepal have particular significance because the 21st century version of the “Great Game” is under way in South Asia. India wants to stifle Maoist inspiration of the insurgencies plaguing many Indian states; NATO governments are fearful of any further instability in the region; and all are worried that China will embrace Nepal within its sphere of influence, strengthening its grip over Tibet.
We must behave honourably to the Gurkha veterans. But let’s remember that Nepal is more than a place on the map.
The sleepy Gurkha museum in Winchester assiduously avoids politics. It offers a proud military tradition and no more. But I’m sure that the custodians enjoyed the irony in the fall of Prachanda’s government.
A key component of the 2006 peace deal that ended the long civil war was the integration of rebel Maoist fighters into the army. The prime minister’s inability to force a reluctant army chief to implement the deal led to his resignation.
The Gurkhas and the British first became acquainted through fighting each other to a standstill in the early 19th century. They settled their differences by integrating their forces.
this article was first published by OneWorld UK