Gurkhas: Anniversary — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:23 pm on 10 June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 8:23, 10 June 2015

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, has said, it is a great privilege to take part in this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for obtaining it on this important anniversary.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, I completed a jungle warfare course in Kota Tinggi in 1965. I was fortunate to have the 6th Gurkhas beside me in Borneo. We used to keep Gurkha rations there so that platoons could come along the border ridge and into our base, and we could go to theirs. I shall always remember seeing a platoon going out of my base. The Gurkha sergeant in charge tapped his pack and said, “Gurkha rations”. Then he patted the magazine of his rifle and said, “Indonesian rations”, and with a grin he went out of the gate.

My own regiment, The Rifles, has been very close to the Gurkhas throughout its history. Indeed, it is a great pleasure to us that the Gurkhas wear the green and black buttons of The Rifles. For years, until the Royal Gurkha Rifles itself was formed, the two Queen’s Gurkha orderly officers who become her ADCs for a year used to be based with us at Winchester. That was a great link. It is very important to remember that this relationship with the Gurkhas carries many links with many regiments over many years.

I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, also mentioned the Indian connection. When I was adjutant-general I was privileged to go out to Nepal to do, among other things, something that has remained in my memory for ever: I took the attestation parade early in the morning in Pokhara. With the Himalayas behind them, these young Gurkhas came forward, put their hands on a Union Jack on a table and looked me in the eye as they took the oath. That was something tremendous; it has stayed with them and with me.

At that time we were concerned because we had closed our British military hospital in Dharan. I was therefore trying to negotiate with the Indians that our Gurkhas, on retirement to Nepal, could qualify to get medical support from the Indian Army, which had arrangements in Nepal; it meant buying into an insurance policy. The whole question of the employment of the Nepalese soldier, the Gurkha, was a tripartite agreement between Nepal, India and this country, and woe betide us if we ever forget that there are three employers of these wonderful people. All three benefit from them and have done so for a long time.

I am very glad that there was the event yesterday, which I did not attend. At least it gave the public an opportunity to recognise the support and help that the Gurkhas have given us. It reminded me of an experience during the Falklands War, when the Gurkhas came back from there, having had a miserable journey in the “Queen Elizabeth”—they did not like being on the sea. They were picked up and taken by train to Aldershot, and then they got out and marched to their barracks at Cookham. The streets were lined with people cheering them. Suddenly these people, who had been looking rather sad and down in the mouth, started beaming. Immediately there was good will and good spirit, and it lifted them. The British public ought to be given opportunities to show something back to the Gurkhas.

I am very glad that the contribution to aid in Nepal has been given but I for one have questioned why, immediately after the earthquake happened, the whole of the Brigade of Gurkhas was not flown out at once to Nepal, with all its troops, signallers, engineers and logistics people. That should have been the instant reaction in return for all the wonderful help that the Gurkhas have given to this country over so long. Anything less than full commitment to them is less than generous in return for what we have had.

Yes, I am pleased that the Gurkha Welfare Trust is remembered at the same time, and I am pleased that we should go on thinking about the future of the Gurkhas who retire here, but let us never forget that for 200 years we have had marvellous, brave, loyal and selfless service from some wonderful people, and we should be eternally grateful for what we have had.