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Last stand of the Gurkhas

Former Gurkha solider and Victoria Cross holder Tul Bahadur Pun outside the Houses of Parliament, 24th April 2009. Photo: Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Peter Carroll was never the biggest fan of Joanna Lumley’s acting work. As he would later write in his book Gurkha, before he met her he had only watched “part of one episode” of Absolutely Fabulous, the sitcom in which Lumley played debauched, chain-smoking former It-girl Patsy Stone. “It left me cold,” he noted. “I just didn’t get it at all.”

Despite his lukewarm assessment of Lumley’s most famous role, Carroll found himself working side by side with the actor as they led one of the most ambitious and unlikely campaigns in recent British political history. And so it was that on the morning of 21st May 2009 Carroll found himself running at top speed across Westminster Bridge with Lumley, in a desperate attempt to make it to 10 Downing Street in time for a meeting with the then British prime minister, Gordon Brown.

“Joanna had booked a cab that didn’t show up, so my wife Lynne drove us, but the bloody traffic was terrible,” he recalls. “The clock was ticking. So I said ‘We’ve got to leg it.’ And it was just like in those films when the beloved one is about to get on an aeroplane. We started to run – and Joanna can get a shift on, I’ll tell you. We bumped into a few commuters, belted all the way up Whitehall and got there just in time.”

Peter Carroll and Joanna Lumley make their way at walking pace to a press conference in London, 29th March 2010. Photo: Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty Images

The pair’s panicked dash across central London was worth it: they made it to the meeting with Brown, who confirmed that the demands of their campaign would be met in full. All retired Gurkha soldiers who had given more than four years’ service to the British army would gain the right to settle in the country.

It was an extraordinary result and a rare positive news story in the midst of the deepest recession since the Second World War. In the UK, retired Gurkhas who had been living in fear of deportation could rest easy for the first time in years. In Nepal there was jubilation, and hundreds of former Gurkhas began making plans for a new life outside the impoverished mountain kingdom.


“Run they would not”

Britain’s first significant interaction with the Gurkhas came in 1814, when the armed forces of the British East India Company marched into Nepal. Their mission was partly political – the company was in the early stages of morphing from a commercial enterprise into an occupying force, and wanted to assert its territorial claims in the region in the light of Nepalese expansionism. Partly, however, it was about goats.

Francis Edward Rawdon-Hastings, the company-appointed Governor General of India, had spotted a commercial opportunity. In western Tibet the locals produced a highly prized material, cashmere, from a special type of pashmina goat which refused to breed anywhere else. If the company could gain direct access to the wool-growing areas, it could sell the produce back in the UK for a huge profit.

Gurkhas in traditional dress circa 1868. Photo: Hulton Archive

The problem was that the British territories in northern India were separated from the tantalisingly lucrative goat fields by the mountainous country of Nepal, then known as the Kingdom of Gorkha (from which the locals got their name). And so in went the company’s red-coated troops, confident that they would swiftly cut down any local resistance.

Their first inkling that all would not go according to plan came on 31st October 1814, the day before the war was officially declared. General Rollo Gillespie, a swashbuckling soldier who had killed his first man in a duel aged 21 and who once took on eight burglars in his home and killed six of them with his sword, set out to take the Gurkha fortress at Nalapani. Leading his men in a gallant attack, he was shot through the heart and died on the spot. The 600 Gurkhas manning the fortress went on to hold out against 5,000 British troops for a further month. When the British tired of frontal assaults and cut off the fortress’s water supply, the defenders survived for three days without a drop to drink before fighting their way out and escaping into the hills.

Throughout the remainder of the Anglo-Nepalese war, the outnumbered, outgunned Gurkhas took on the British with extraordinary courage and aggression. Ensign John Shipp of the 87th Foot who fought them at the Battle of Makwanpur in February 1816 would write in his memoirs that: “I never saw more steadiness or bravery exhibited in my life. Run they would not, and of death they seemed to have no fear, though their comrades were falling thick around them.” Their firearms were hopelessly outdated, but they deployed their curved 18-inch ‘kukri’ knives with great skill: it was said that once the blades had been drawn in battle they had to taste blood – either of their opponent or their owner.

A platoon of British Army Gurkhas wield their kukris as they take part in exercises in Oman, October 2001. Photo: Andrew Parsons / PA Archive / PA Images

A mutual respect developed between the two sides, to the extent that when peace broke out and access had been secured to the much-coveted goats of Tibet, Gurkhas were invited to join the East India Company’s Bengal Army. Thousands signed up. This marked the beginning of a long relationship with the British and the formation of dedicated Gurkha companies that marched under the motto “Better to die than be a coward”.

The military benefits of this casual attitude to death were neatly captured by former Royal Gurkha Rifles officer Major Gordon Corrigan in 1995 BBC documentary The Gurkhas. “Fatalism, if you’re an infantry soldier, is a good thing to have – because it means you don’t worry too much about being shot,” he said.

The Gurkhas fought for the British in the Anglo-Sikh wars and helped quell the Indian Mutiny in 1857. They battled in the doomed Gallipoli campaign during the First World War at the request of General Sir Ian Hamilton, who later ruefully claimed that if he’d “been given more Gurkhas in the Dardanelles then [he] would never have been held up by the Turks”.

Gurkhas fought side by side with Britain in the Second World War, taking on the Germans at Tobruk and Monte Cassino and the Japanese in Burma. It was here that 21-year-old Tul Bahadur Pun of the 6th Gurkha Rifles, having seen the rest of his section wiped out, picked up a Bren gun and successfully charged a heavily defended Japanese machine-gun position, an act for which he earned the Victoria Cross, one of 13 the Gurkhas have been awarded.

From left to right, Gurkha Victoria Cross recipients Agansing Rai, Tul Bahadur Pun and Ganju Lama, 12th July 1972. Photo: Roger Jackson / Central Press / Getty Images

It was also in Burma that George MacDonald Fraser, creator of the Flashman novels, fought alongside the Gurkhas. “These awfully happy, jolly, nice little men were the most terrible, dangerous fighting men on the face of the Earth,” he said, in an interview for The Gurkhas. “They were natural born killers.”

The Gurkhas served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo and Cyprus. They were deployed in the Falklands where legend has it that a group of Argentinian soldiers defending the capital, Stanley, were so panicked by the news that the Gurkhas were coming that they deserted their positions and fled. In recent years Gurkhas served in Iraq, East Timor, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Wherever they saw service, they unleashed their famous battle cry, screaming ‘Ayo Gorkhali!’ (‘The Gurkhas are upon you!’) as they ran towards the enemy, guns in hand and knives thirsty for blood.


The knock at the door

In 2004, Peter Carroll received a call from a local councillor in Canterbury. “I was a wannabe MP, trying to win the seat of Folkestone and Hythe for the Liberal Democrats,” says Carroll. “The councillor said, ‘There’s these Gurkha soldiers that have retired, and they’re in terrible trouble. They’re from your part of the world, will you talk to them?’ So I just said yes.”

One Sunday afternoon, four of them came to see him at home. “I’d never met a Gurkha soldier before. They came in, and they told me a story which at the time, frankly, I almost didn’t believe,” says Carroll. “They said that one of their friends, Tej Limbu, had been arrested, and taken forcibly to Dover detention centre to be deported. I remember saying to them, ‘Well, what’s he done wrong? Was he fighting?’ They said, ‘No, no, no. He just wants to work here. He wants to be a security guard or drive a bus.’ I was thinking, ‘Well that doesn’t seem like the crime of the century to me.’”

My simple view is that if you put the uniform on, and you’re prepared to take all that comes with that, then you become a citizen of the country”

Carroll’s visitors, all members of the recently-created British Gurkha Welfare Society (BGWS), explained to him that when Gurkhas retired from the British Army, they were discharged in Nepal. Unlike soldiers from Commonwealth countries who had fought for the UK, they had no right of settlement in the country. This arrangement dated back to the 1947 Tripartite Agreement between the UK, Nepal and India, agreed in the wake of Indian independence. Despite having given distinguished service, none of the men standing in Carroll’s room was legally allowed to be living in the country. They lived in fear of a knock at the door from the immigration authorities.

Some retired Gurkhas had come back to the UK under visitor visas then stayed, living in a grey area with no legal rights. Some, like Limbu, were identified and forcibly thrown out of the country they had served. “I was just gobsmacked,” says Carroll. “My simple view is that if you put the uniform on, and you’re prepared to take all that comes with that, then you become a citizen of the country you’re prepared to do that for.” He agreed to take on the Gurkhas’ cause, and to fight for their right to settle in the UK.

Carroll’s prior campaigning experience was limited. “I’d cut my teeth on local campaigns for zebra crossings and the closure of local Post Offices,” he says. “I understood things about communication, getting an audience, getting momentum, but in terms of anything of that scale, I had no idea.”

Undaunted, Carroll called Directory Enquiries, got the number for the BBC switchboard and, after being sent round in circles for quite some time, got a call back from the Jeremy Vine show. Carroll and one of the four retired Gurkhas appeared on the show and made their case to a sympathetic Vine. Similar efforts at the Daily Express gained the attention of journalist James Slack, who wrote a front-page story about the campaign.

Retired Gurkha soldiers protest in Liverpool for their right to British citizenship, 1st September 2004. Photo: Steve Parkin / AFP / Getty Images

The next step was a demonstration organised by Major Tikendra Dewan, leader of the BGWS, of 400 retired Gurkhas outside government offices in Liverpool. This was followed by meetings with Charles Kennedy, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, who helped get an emergency motion in front of the party’s conference calling for a right of settlement for Gurkhas. Dewan gave a moving speech at the Bournemouth International Conference Centre, the motion was carried and the dozens of retired Gurkhas who had attended were given a standing ovation as they stood to leave the hall. It felt as though the campaign was gaining real momentum.

Then in September 2004 came some bittersweet news. The Blair government announced that former Gurkha soldiers would be given the right to apply to settle in the UK – but only those who had retired after 1997, when their base was moved from Hong Kong to Aldershot. This ruled out soldiers who had fought for the British in the Second World War, Malaya, the Falklands and the First Gulf War.


The Lumley gambit

The campaign switched its focus to winning rights for the 36,000 Gurkhas who had been left marooned by what the Gurkhas saw as an arbitrary 1997 cut-off date. Carroll organised marches and demonstrations and worked with new Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg to take a delegation of veterans to Downing Street to hand back their medals in protest. He supported Howe & Co, a company of human-rights lawyers, as they filed for a judicial review of Gurkha rights.

But it was a visit to the small town of Cranbrook in Kent that would change everything. “I was out gathering petition signatures,” says Carroll, “and a woman tapped me on the shoulder, signed the thing and said, ‘You’re doing very well, Peter, but actually, you need somebody famous. Why don’t you try Joanna Lumley?’” Lumley’s father, James, had served as an officer in the 6th Gurkha Rifles, and she had grown up as a ‘child of the regiment’. Could she be the campaign’s secret weapon? It seemed worth a try. Carroll scoured the internet for contact details. “I sent loads of emails to mysterious people like agents and publicists,” he says, “but I thought the odds of something happening because of that were tiny.”

It was generations linked, it was history, it was life and death, right and wrong”

A few weeks later, Lumley got in touch. “She asked me a few questions. I was a bit shocked, so I was trying to be dead cool,” says Carroll. Lumley agreed to join the Gurkha Justice Campaign. “And, I’ll never forget, she promised me, ‘I’ll be with you until the end.’”

The pair made plans for Lumley to appear on the steps of the High Court on 16th September 2008, to mark the launch of the judicial review. When they arrived, the steps were so full of journalists, photographers and Gurkhas that Carroll had to barge open the car door and create a human shield around Lumley as she emerged. At the top of the stairs she met Tul Bahadur Pun VC, the hero of the Burmese jungle, who was sitting in his wheelchair, his blazer lined with medals. Pun had not just fought alongside Lumley’s father but had saved his life.

As Lumley bent down to greet him for the first time, Pun spoke to her through his translator, “I remember your father. It’s as if you’re my own daughter,” he said. Lumley, caught off guard, wiped away a tear. “It was theatre,” says Carroll, “but it was more than that. It was generations linked, it was history, it was life and death, right and wrong.” A photographer caught the moment, which became an iconic image for the campaign.

Joanna Lumley wipes away a tear as she meets Tul Bahadur Pun, who served with her father, 16th September 2008. Photo: Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

With Lumley on board, things picked up pace. Sir Jack Hayward, entrepreneur and president of Wolverhampton Wanderers football club, got in touch from the Bahamas to offer his help. When Carroll nervously asked him for £4,000, he responded brusquely by email: “I’m sending you £20,000. Don’t lose.” The campaign website gained 147,000 signatures on its online petition. The High Court appeal was successful and the government was required to come back with a revised policy within three months.

Then came disaster. On 24th April 2009, the new policy was unveiled by Phil Woolas, the minister of state for immigration. Gurkhas who had retired before 1997 would be allowed to settle, but only if they satisfied one or more of five criteria which were almost impossible to meet. One of these, a requirement that they had to have served for at least 20 years, effectively cut out anyone who had not been an officer. It was clear that the government had no intention of changing tack. “It was gutting,” says Carroll.


A bad day for Woolas

The Gurkha Justice campaigners started plotting once more, aware that they needed to regain the initiative, and that more marches and petitions wouldn’t be enough.

They toyed with getting a group of retired Gurkhas to get themselves arrested in Whitehall, possibly while chained to Lumley. They also discussed a “nuclear option”. “We asked Joanna if she would stand as a parliamentary candidate against [prime minister] Gordon Brown in the next general election,” says Carroll. “The idea was to get all the retired Gurkhas to go up and deliver the election leaflets and cause mayhem.” Lumley was not averse to the idea but was worried about what she’d do if she actually won, and accidentally ended up as MP for Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath.

Happily, the nuclear option was not needed, and Lumley did not have to confront a 450-mile commute between her home in south London and her new Scottish constituency.

Much to Carroll’s surprise, a non-binding opposition day motion in favour of Gurkha settlement passed the Commons on 29th April 2009. Twenty-seven Labour MPs rebelled against the whips in the first government loss of an opposition day debate since January 1978. This led to a brief private meeting between Lumley and the prime minister in which he reaffirmed his government’s stance and cited the costs involved in letting all Gurkhas settle. However, in response to her pleas, he did promise to look at the issue again.

His briefing to the press was to the point: ‘Joanna Lumley will be in Millbank at 4pm and she is angry’”

Lumley then made a shrewd political move, briefing the press that “The meeting was extremely positive. He [Brown] is wholly supportive of the Gurkha cause. He is going to come up with a new solution by the end of this month. I do trust the prime minister… I find him to be a man of integrity.” Brown was boxed in to a corner: should he accuse Lumley – who by this time was riding a wave of positive coverage for the campaign – of overplaying her hand, and risk the PR fiasco of Patsy Stone publicly denouncing him for a lack of integrity? Or decide to change course?

The final showdown, when it arrived, came in the unlikely form of a game of hide and seek. The government had sent letters to five former Gurkhas, including one cited in the High Court challenge, turning down their applications to live in the UK. Spotting an opportunity, Carroll raced to London and set up a press conference in the bar at Millbank Studios, home to the BBC’s political programmes unit. His briefing to the press was to the point: “Joanna Lumley will be in Millbank at 4pm and she is angry.” He soon received an anxious-sounding call from Downing Street, pleading with him to cancel the press conference, and suggesting that the Gurkhas’ letters of rejection did not actually constitute rejections. “That’s when I knew we’d won,” he says.

As Carroll joined a throng of journalists at Millbank, one whispered in his ear that Phil Woolas was in the building. “I looked and saw him with two aides on the next landing,” says Carroll. “Joanna said to me, ‘Should I follow him?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’”

Woolas was heading for the BBC studios and Lumley called out after him to stop and talk. He didn’t. Lumley set off in pursuit, and Woolas picked up pace, eventually taking refuge behind the locked doors of the BBC studios. Then a friendly reporter used his pass to let Lumley in, followed by Carroll, the campaign lawyers and journalists from Sky and Channel 4.

Chaos broke out. The studio workers started taking photos of the intruders, the floor manager demanded that everyone should leave and the journalists from Sky and Channel 4 refused on the basis that it wouldn’t be fair if only BBC journalists were allowed access to the story. Meanwhile, Lumley positioned herself outside the soundproof booth where Woolas was being interviewed. When he came out he agreed to a private meeting and then, to Carroll’s amused astonishment, to attend the press conference. In front of the assembled media – and a clearly uncomfortable Woolas – Lumley said that, “The minister has explained and I think we are all agreed that we are going to be able to help in the formulation of new guidelines, so that will be wonderful.”

Lumley looks on as immigration minister Phil Woolas addresses a hastily arranged press conference, 7th May 2009. Photo: Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Woolas made a somewhat convoluted defence of his position live on air as Lumley fixed him with a glare that could freeze lava. “I plead with people to understand the difficulty that any government would face in immigration law,” he said, rather forlornly. To go ahead without considering the cost and the precedent “may be popular politics but it would be bad politics”.

But the tide had turned. The campaign for the Gurkhas had become too embarrassing and distracting for the prime minister to sweep under the carpet. Two weeks later, Lumley and Carroll were sprinting hell for leather across Westminster Bridge to accept his congratulations on their victory.

Celebrations after the government announces a climbdown over settlement rights for Gurkha veterans, 21st May 2009. Photo: Shaun Curry / AFP /Getty Images


From Nepal to Aldershot

Granted the right to settle anywhere they liked in the UK, a bafflingly large number of retired Gurkhas chose Aldershot, the base of the Royal Gurkha Rifles since 1997. They now form an estimated ten percent of the population of this unprepossessing Hampshire town, and if you walk through the centre you’ll see people of Nepalese origin on all sides, often strolling around together in groups, a habit they’ve carried over from Nepal.

Former Gurkha Major Tikendra Dewan of the British Gurkha Welfare Society (BGWS), with whom Peter Carroll campaigned in the early days, set up a base in a former GP’s office in nearby Farnborough in 2004. He hoisted the flag of Nepal alongside the Union flag outside – which initially caused some consternation among the neighbours – and set to work giving practical help to new arrivals.

The first group to arrive were the younger Gurkhas, who had retired after 1997, and who had been given settlement rights by the Blair government. “The younger generation are all entrepreneurs,” says Dewan. “For them the important thing is owning your own property. That is primary. They work their socks off, they don’t take breaks or holidays, they want to clear their debt first. That and their children’s education is of foremost importance. They’ve boosted the local economy, they’ve opened shops, restaurants, taxi firms.”

Aldershot can do with the help: on its main shopping street today a quarter of the stores sport whitewashed windows and ‘To Let’ signs. Of those that remain open, one in six is occupied by a Gurkha-run business. Just round the corner, opposite long-closed branches of Woolworths and Blockbuster Express is the Empire, formerly a 1930s art deco cinema which has been renovated and reopened by former Gurkhas as a grand banqueting hall, and which acts as a focal point for the Gurkha community. Even Tiffany’s, Aldershot’s premiere lap-dancing club, is sandwiched between the Dhaulagiri Kitchen, specialising in Nepalese home-cooking, and a Gurkha-run off-licence.

A retired Gurkha in conversation in Aldershot town centre. Photo: Chris Whiteman / Alamy Stock Photo

There were some cultural adjustments to be made along the way. Dewan’s colleague Chhatra Rai recalls having to go in to bat for the dependent children of some new arrivals when they got into fights. “In the UK to use the F-word is nothing, it’s part of a conversation,” he says. “But in Nepal to swear is personal. So when kids were having a simple argument and used the F-word, that would trigger a fight. We took so many trips to the police station to explain things.”

When the pre-1997 retirees arrived, meanwhile, many of them found it hard to get used to the traffic, the weather and how to navigate the bureaucracy in their new home. In one rather sweet example of culture clash, Rai says that when they were issued with Freedom Passes entitling them to complimentary travel on public transport, they got in the habit of boarding the first bus of the day en masse and sitting on it all morning as it made its way to the depot and back. Aldershot’s commuters were understandably put out to find they couldn’t get on a bus because it was full of elderly Nepalese pleasure-trippers – but some tactful interventions by BGWS smoothed things over.

They’re all veterans. They’re veterans who survived in war. And as a result, they’re here”

In the early years after the 2009 campaign win there were also anxieties in the area that local services were not able to cope with the new arrivals, many of whom did not speak English, and Facebook groups including “Joanna Lumley has fucked up Aldershot and Farnborough” gained several thousand followers. The Daily Mail published stories about overrun doctors’ surgeries and citizens-advice bureaux and of unhappy, homesick Gurkhas who had been sold a false prospectus of life in the UK but were now unable to leave, having racked up debts to purchase their ticket over.

Dewan found himself giving talks to protest groups, some containing ex-BNP members, trying to dissuade them from holding a march against the Gurkhas. “I was very blunt and said, ‘Look, if there are problems, we must tackle the problems together for the benefit of this community. We’ll support you. But if you build a wall, that wall will last forever.’” A little bit of education often defused tensions. “There was a misconceived idea that the older generation were extended family,” says Dewan. “I said, ‘No, they’re all veterans. They’re veterans who survived in war. And as a result, they’re here.’”

Retired Major Tikendra Dewan of the British Gurkha Welfare Society. Photo: John Stillwell / PA Archive / PA Images

Although he has worked tirelessly to help the Gurkhas who have arrived in the UK, Dewan’s own priority was not to gain settlement rights for his former comrades in arms but pension parity. Retired Gurkhas were always paid far less in pensions than their British counterparts, and Dewan believes that increasing their entitlements in Nepal would have meant that many more of the older Gurkhas who have struggled with the transition to Britain would instead have chosen to stay in their home country. The overall cost to the British taxpayer of a pensions hike, he says, would have been far lower. He says that although he salutes Lumley’s work, the Gurkha campaign will never be complete until the pension issue is sorted: “We have won the battle but not the war” is the official BGWS line. Dewan has tried to raise his concerns over pensions with Lumley but has not been able to secure a meeting.

“A lot of what Tikendra says about pensions is sensible and logical,” says Carroll. “But if somebody says, ‘Oh, you get an equal pension but you’re still not allowed to live here,’ there’s something not right about that.” There was also a practical element to his decision to pursue settlement rights over pensions in his campaign. “I suppose I thought, of the two campaigns, which is the winnable one? For us the dominant message was that the Gurkhas were prepared to fight and die for us. They should be allowed to live with us.”

Carroll acknowledges that there have been problems with settlement over the last ten years. The government did not initially provide enough funds to support the influx of older Gurkhas, and some might have been better off staying in Nepal. “But I always reassure myself that what we did was give them a choice,” he says. “It sounds terribly simplistic, almost naive, but politics nowadays is so much about what will work and what won’t work. What people will like, what they won’t like. But actually sometimes it’s about whether something is right or wrong. And this time the country did the right thing.”


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