Gurkhas: Anniversary — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 10 June 2015.

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Photo of Viscount Slim Viscount Slim Crossbench 8:15, 10 June 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for the chance of a debate about Nepal and the Gurkhas. He mentioned that he particularly wished to raise the issue of the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Noble Lords have done that. One thing should be known at the start, which is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been extremely good to a number of military charities, and the Gurkha Brigade has done well by them.

The amount of money required to put Nepal straight is very great. One or two noble Lords have said that the Government must tell us exactly what is happening. I am rather sad that there has not been a general call within the country to get volunteers from the many Gurkhas who live here. Apparently there are a lot of unemployed Gurkhas around Aldershot and other places, and I would have thought they could be got together to volunteer for some form of pioneer company to go out to Nepal and do some work to help put the place straight.

Politically, we want to be very careful. China is not being pleasant to the Tibetans, and I have a feeling that Nepal is in their sights, long term, as well. As the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, said, it is about time some of the British Government got out to Nepal to assess the situation and make some firm judgments about how we can stand by Nepal and help it.

Noble Lords have heard about the Gurkhas’ courage. I speak as one who was a Gurkha. I had to work very hard to have the same courage. The Gurkha is also very generous about other people who are brave. In the great old Indian Army, it was not just Gurkhas. The great martial tribes of India, which still join its Army, be they Rajputs, Punjabi Musulmans or Maratha —you can go on—all have great histories of courage. The Gurkha is generous. He is even generous to a brave enemy. We all hated the Japanese, who were not a pleasant enemy, but no one is rude about the courage—the vicious courage—of a Japanese solider. The Gurkha would pay due tribute to his enemy.

I feel that the Government are not doing sufficient at the moment to really get to grips with the situation. Like the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, I was very suspicious over that Chinook incident. There was something funny about it—maybe the Maoist Government and the Russians. A number of people I have spoken to who have been bravely rescued said that it was by Russian helicopters and Russian pilots.

I think something is going on in Nepal. It is not well administered. After this awful earthquake, people have been putting their hands in their pockets and giving money that should go towards relief and that sort of thing. The trust also has its problems: veterans’ houses destroyed while medical centres, hospitals and old people’s homes put up by the trust have all disappeared. The British Government should take some interest in this.

Not only is the Gurkha brave but he is very flexible, inquisitive and not stupid. If I may just tell noble Lords a lovely little story from before World War II, some recruits had come down from the hills and, as their training and induction took place, they started to be educated. For the first time in their lives, they were suddenly shown a thing called a book and told, “If you read one of these, you will learn many things”. A recruit picked one up, looked at it and twisted it around. He said to the instructor, “I don’t quite understand about this book but you tell me one day I’m going to do this thing—‘read’ it. I’ve opened it and I want to know, do I read the white or the black?”. I call that rather intelligent questioning, when you look at the situation.

There is none better to be with than a Gurkha. Training and fighting is a pretty serious business but, take it from me, it is fun being with the Gurkhas. Please also take it from my father who, at a place called Sari Bair in Gallipoli, first met the Indian Army—a brigade of three or four Gurkha regiments and King George’s Own Sikhs, with Punjabi, Mussulman and Sikh gunners all fighting as one. They got higher up the ridge—they could see over it at one point—than any other British, Australian, New Zealand or French unit. They were decimated. In my father’s own platoon of the Warwickshire Regiment, of about 40 men, 27 were killed and everyone else wounded except for two. He himself was severely wounded but he always said, “If I can get through this, I want to transfer to the Indian Army and be a Gurkha”. I can tell noble Lords that his son felt much the same in World War II.