Gurkhas: Anniversary — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:46 pm on 10th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench 7:46 pm, 10th June 2015

My Lords, yesterday I was privileged to attend the Gurkha pageant held at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where I was proud to be a commissioner for six years.

Throughout the pageant, my eyes welled up with childhood memories of being brought up among the Gurkhas—it all came flooding back. My late father, Lieutenant-General Faridoon Bilimoria, was commissioned into the 2/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles, Frontier Force, and commanded his battalion in the 1971 war for the liberation of Bangladesh. His battalion suffered heavy losses and casualties, including officers I had known and grown up with as a child. How ironic that a couple of decades later I would found a brand, Cobra beer, which we supply to thousands of Indian restaurants in the UK, the vast majority of them run and owned by Bangladeshis.

I am on the commemoration committee of the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill and was chairman of the committee for six years. These gates exist because of the amazing tenacity of one individual, my noble friend Lady Flather. The Memorial Gates commemorate the contribution of the 5 million volunteers from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean. Inscribed on the ceiling of pavilion next to the gates are the names of the Victoria Cross and George Cross holders, three of whom were from my father’s battalion, the 2/5th Gurkhas—one posthumous.

Gaje Ghale VC and Agansing Rai VC were living legends, who I was fortunate to have grown up with and have been inspired by for the rest of my life. Agansing Rai VC was subedar-major when my father was commanding his battalion. Legend has it that when my father, as a young captain in a remote area in north-east India, received the telegram of my birth, Gage Ghale was next to him and jumped for joy. The ground shook, because he was such a large man.

What I learned about the Gurkhas really quickly is that they are the kindest, most caring and most gentle people. For example, when I took my South African possible future wife on her first visit to India, my father’s retired driver, Bombahadur, who continued to serve with my father at retirement, took me aside and said, “Baba, you should marry her!”. My father’s beloved Gurkha had given his approval, and of course then there was no question but that I was marrying Heather.

However, these kind gentle people in peacetime are the fiercest warriors mankind has known. Just reading the citations of the Gurkha VCs makes your jaw drop with feats that are, quite frankly, superhuman. Sir Ralph Turner, a former officer of the 3rd Gurkhas, had written:

“Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you”.

We are celebrating the Battle of Waterloo and the 200th anniversary of the Gurkhas’ service in the same year. I visited the site of the Battle of Waterloo earlier this year. If the Duke of Wellington had had Gurkhas among his troops, the Battle of Waterloo would not have been won on the playing fields of Eton or because Blücher came to the rescue; it would have been won because Napoleon’s troops, including his beloved Imperial Guard, would have been running in fear back towards Paris, fleeing from the fierce Gurkhas, just as the Argentinians did in the Falklands.

It was disheartening when I first spoke about the Gurkhas in this House in 2008 to start the fight for the Gurkhas who had served in Britain for four years to have the right to stay on in the UK if they wished to do so. It seems so unfair that a person could work for a company for four years and have the right to stay indefinitely, and yet someone who was willing to commit the ultimate sacrifice was not, at that time, allowed to. After that debate—I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lee, who initiated the Bill—Joanna Lumley, whose father had served in the 6th Gurkhas, came to the fore and spearheaded a public battle that generated an outcry among the British public, who were overwhelmingly appalled at this injustice and unfairness. I will never forget in one television interview how Joanna Lumley humiliated the then Home Office Minister, Phil Woolas. Of course, we won the day and justice was delivered.

We should never take for granted what these amazing men have done in the past 200 years for Britain and India. I have been very outspoken in my criticism of the SDSR in 2010, when cuts were made to the Army that I believe were negligent, cutting the number of Army troops to 80,000—not even enough to fill Wembley Stadium. Today, there are barely 3,000 Gurkhas in the British Army, with the Gurkha regiments amalgamated into one, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, with just two battalions, and some in the Queen’s Gurkha Signals, the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers and the Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment.

However, in India, the Gurkha regiments left with the Indian army after India’s independence have flourished, with six battalions per regiment, an additional regiment formed—the 11th Gurkhas—and Gurkhas serving in all other arms of the army as well. There are approaching 100,000 Gurkhas serving in the Indian army, recruited from Nepal and India, who, after they retire, settle in both India and Nepal. They are a vital backbone of the Indian army. Will the Minister agree that the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Gurkhas are for the British and for India? It was a privilege today to show General Dalbir Singh Suhag, Chief of the Army Staff of the Indian army, around Parliament—all the more for me because he is also from the 5th Gurkhas. When my father was commander-in-chief of the central Indian army, an army of 350,000 strong, I always felt it meant more to him to be president of the Brigade of Gurkhas and colonel of his regiment.

Could the Minister commit, where the Prime Minister is unwilling to in this dangerous world that we live in, to the NATO commitment of 2% of GDP spent on defence? Could the Minister also reassure us and confirm that there will be no further cuts to the Gurkhas? I look forward to the forthcoming SDSR report and hope that this time it is not about means before ends but about looking carefully at the needs first. It is our duty to look after the veterans, and I commend the work of the Gurkha Welfare Trust and all that it does for Gurkhas to live out their lives with dignity. Can the Minister confirm the commitment for future support of the Gurkha Welfare Trust to continue the wonderful work that it does? Will the Government reassure us?

His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who was present at the pageant, said:

The Brigade of Gurkhas is more than just a fighting force, it is also—in every sense of the word—a family”.

Particularly at this time, with the devastating earthquakes by which so many Gurkhas have been affected so tragically, does the noble Earl feel that we are doing enough to support the Gurkhas in Nepal? Will the Minister confirm that? Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected in the two disastrous, tragic earthquakes. Major-General Ashok Mehta, my father’s second-in-command, said:

“Two hundred years of distinguished soldiering have put a halo around the Gorkha in the hall of fame. In this hour of national calamity it is the Gorkha-ness of the Nepalis that will be the greatest enabler to confront the monumental tragedy”.

In my own company, Cobra Beer, I sent out 200 hundred letters to our Nepalese restaurant customers straight after the first earthquake to offer our support to raise funds, and I am delighted to say the restaurants have raised almost £200,000. That is the wonderful spirit of giving in our country.

A fellow Zoroastrian Parsee, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw—popularly nicknamed by the Gurkhas as “Sam Bahadur”—said:

“If a man says he is not afraid of dying he is either lying or is a Gurkha”.

Prince Harry, who was also present at the pageant yesterday, said that,

“there was no safer place than by the side of a Gurkha”.

This is the Ayo Gorkhali, or “Here come the Gurkhas”, the cry of the Gurkhas—the finest fighting force the world has ever known. The Gurkha motto is:

“It is better to die than be a coward”.

On the 150th anniversary of the regiment of the 5th Gurkhas in 2008, which took place at Sandhurst—I am proud to be a member of the regimental association— I heard a prayer written by the Reverend Guy Cornwall-Jones, whose father served in the 5th Gurkhas. That prayer said:

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”.

As a nation, we can never thank the Gurkhas enough. We will be eternally grateful to them.