Turning Gurkhas into a new ‘Victim Race’

The bizarre Battle of the Excluded Gurkha, led by Joanna Lumley, sheds light on the crisis of meaning in today’s Tory and Labour parties.

Brendan O'Neill
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Topics Politics UK

First things first: all Gurkhas and their families should be free to settle in Britain. They should benefit fully from Britain’s social services, healthcare and education system. All discrepancies in pay and pensions between British-born soldiers and foreign-born Gurkhas should be ironed out (1). If Britain is going to employ non-British citizens in its military forces, then it must guarantee them equal treatment and pay, instead of keeping the Gurkhas as a pet caste of money-saving, second-class military men.

However, the current Battle of the Excluded Gurkha, the campaign led by the clipped-toned actress Joanna Lumley to secure right of residence in the UK for retired Gurkhas, has become about something more than equal treatment. It has become bound up with contemporary politics – in particular with the development of a shallow brand of ‘New Conservatism’ and with the utter collapse of the New Labour government’s moral and popular authority.

The Gurkha campaign shows the extent to which the traditional wing of the elite – the Telegraph-reading, Tory-supporting officer classes, for whom the Gurkhas have always been ‘loyal friends’ – has embraced the politics of victimology over old-fashioned ideals of militarism and superiority. And it shows the extent to which the current ruling section of the elite – the non-officer-classes of New Labour – is now so bereft of purpose and direction that it can be rattled by the so-called ‘forces of conservatism’ it claimed to have defeated in the late 1990s.

Not for the first time, the Gurkhas are being used as a proxy army – only this time not to defend the interests of British imperialism, but rather to try to uncover some idea of ‘British values’ here at home, and to shift the pieces on the depressing chessboard that is contemporary British politics.

Reading about the current pro-Gurkha campaign – led by Lumley, daughter of Major James Rutherford Lumley, who served with the 6th Gurkha Rifles in the British Indian Army, and backed by virtually the entire media – you could be forgiven for thinking that the Gurkhas have only recently been treated badly. That in Major Lumley’s days in India, or ‘Inja’, they had a lovely life and it is only under the tyranny of uncaring, bureaucratic New Labourites that they have been turned into second-class soldiers.

Not so. The Gurkhas have always been treated as second class, as loyal but peculiar, as a race apart, as less intelligent than the white leaders of the British Army but a bit more trustworthy than the everyday wogs of Nepal, Burma and India. Indeed, the Gurkhas have long been an institutional expression of inequality: they were made and sustained, not by British decency, but by British racism.

The Gurkhas are a creation of Britain’s old colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’. Hailing from Nepal, and named after the eighth-century Hindu warrior saint Guru Gorakhnath, they were first recruited into the British Army following the Anglo-Nepalese war of 1814 to 1816, when British forces defeated Gurkha forces yet were impressed by their courage and tenacity. The Gurkhas were named a ‘Martial Race’ – that is, a race of people who were naturally brave, loyal and bloodthirsty. In the subcontinent under British rule from the early 1800s to the mid-twentieth century, the British tended to divide local peoples into two camps: ‘Martial Races’, those considered well-built for fighting, and ‘Non-Martial Races’, those judged to have ‘sedentary lifestyles’ and thus to be unsuited to serving in colonial armies: too slothful, inactive, uncreative, lazy (2).

This discovery of ‘Martial Races’ occurred across the British Empire. Sikhs in India were also judged to be a ‘Warrior Race’ who could be trusted to join colonial armies in order to crush uprisings amongst the ‘unruly’ sections of Indian society; the Masai in Kenya were also judged a ‘Warrior Race’ when they were considered useful for shoring up British rule in Kenya (3). Not surprisingly, the distinction between Martial Races and Non-Martial Races corresponded neatly with those who generally supported British colonialism, or who benefited from it, and those who did not: in other words, behind the separation of Third World peoples into ‘brave’ camps and ‘sedentary’ camps, there lurked the low politics of divide and rule. The Gurkhas became more institutionalised into the British military than any other ‘Martial Race’, forming their own brigade and fighting in the First World War, the Second World War, the colonial wars, the Falklands, Kosovo and Iraq. They became the colonial people employed to put down other colonial peoples.

The Gurkhas were discussed in explicitly racial terms. For nineteenth-century British colonialists, the inhabitants of south Asia were, for the most part, a disgusting and unthinking mass, lacking the intelligence or humanitarian instincts of the white race. In the 1860s, one British officer said ‘Asiatic soldiers’ do not have ‘the same pluck or moral courage as the European… unless drugged and maddened by opiates beforehand’ (4). One British observer said Indians and other south Asians ‘live in a different stage of civilisation and intellectual development… their only courage is apathy and their valour consists in animal ferocity. A native soldier, of whatever rank, has no heroism, and he is ignorant of honour in every acceptation of the word.’ (5) Gurkhas, by contrast, were considered not to be ‘fully Asiatic’, since they were brave and more loyal than other, non-heroic, dishonourable Asiatic peoples (6).

However, even when the Gurkhas were championed, it tended to be on the basis that their non-European racial features – their status as a Martial Race – made them perfect fighting machines. In the Victorian era, one writer said the great thing about the Gurkhas is that they do not have ‘a very high estimate of the value of life’; they are ‘less encumbered by the mental doubts or humanitarian sentiment [of Europeans], and thus not so moved by slaughter and mutilation’ (7). This image of Gurkhas as peculiarly fearless and emotionless has been exploited by the British military and military historians right up to the modern period – and it has, as one critical author said in 1990, tended to ‘deny the humanity of these soldiers’ (8).

That Gurkhas are now being treated as second-class citizens, different even from those non-British, Commonwealth members of the military who are granted full residential rights in the UK, is not all that surprising: their origin is as a band of fighters more trustworthy than your average Asian but ‘less equal’ than your average Westerner. It is not merely New Labour thoughtlessness that has made these men second-class soldiers, but rather the long history of their cultivation as ‘good wogs’ whose lack of humanitarianism could be harnessed for British imperialist ends. As late as last year, three Gurkhas lost a High Court case in which they sought to challenge their payment of pensions that were around ‘24 per cent to 36 per cent’ of normal military pensions (9). Such treatment is an ugly historical hangover from the fact that the Gurkhas have long been seen, effectively, as 24 to 36 per cent human.

The history of the Gurkhas explains the curious divide over their predicament today. The conservative wing of British society, those descended from the officer classes who look upon Gurkhas as their honourable servants, have enthusiastically embraced the new Gurkha cause. New Labour, meanwhile, which may be as militaristic as ever, but which lacks any institutional link to the old colonial practices of the past, seems completely desensitised to the ‘Gurkha issue’. Now a middle-class party that draws its MPs from think-tanks rather than from actual tanks, it seems blasé about the Gurkhas. The televised stand-off between Joanna Lumley, that well-spoken daughter of colonialism, and Phil Woolas, the bumbling, bureaucratic, northern-voiced minister for immigration, captured well the divide on the Gurkha issue.

However, it would be wrong to see this as some profound class clash, as some no doubt fantasise that it is. Rather, the Gurkha campaign exposes the hollowing out of both big-C Conservatism and New Labour.

It is striking how much the traditional section of the elite has rewritten the story of the Gurkhas, and by extension the meaning of British militarism itself, in recent weeks. Where once the Gurkhas were described as ‘brave’, ‘fearless’ and ‘ferocious’, today the words most commonly used to describe them are ‘old’, ‘infirm’ and ‘incapable’. The image of the knife-wielding Gurkha willing to defend Britain at any cost has been replaced by the image of a very old Gurkha in a wheelchair pleading (through his well-educated white spokespeople, of course) for some assistance. The Gurkhas have effectively been turned from a ‘Martial Race’ into a ‘Victim Race’.

This reveals the traditional elite’s creeping discomfort with old militaristic values. Unable to speak in the language of ‘glory’ and ‘sacrifice’, or to defend what are now seen by many as the embarrassing wars of conquest that the Gurkhas and others fought in, the posh pro-Gurkha campaigners instead use the contemporary language of victimhood and even multiculturalism to put the case for allowing the Gurkhas to stay in Britain. It is striking that the Gurkhas’ famous war cry – ‘Ayo Gorkhali!, or ‘The Gurkhas are coming!’ – has been turned by Lumley and her supporters into a cry about the Gurkhas coming here, that is, to cities in Britain in order to settle down. It rather captures the defensiveness and introspection of the traditional elite, whose big, unifying cause is to ‘bring home’ yesterday’s soldiers of conquest rather than to assert their own idea of Britishness today, whatever it might be. It signals a striking generational shift: where Lumley’s father trained Gurkhas to defend British interests and values, Lumley wants to protect Gurkhas from uncaring British bureaucracy.

Some Conservatives, most notably leader David Cameron, have leapt upon the new Gurkha cause in an attempt to define their vision of a ‘New Conservatism’: a flabby, unconvincing ideology built on woolly terms such as ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice’ and, ironically, more inspired by New Labourism itself than by the Lumleyites of old.

Most strikingly, however, the Gurkha residency campaign has shone a light on the moral and institutional corrosion of New Labour. Out of touch, out of shape, unpopular and indecisive, the government has swung, under pressure from a media-cheered, effectively one-woman campaign, from issuing a single A4 sheet of paper explaining why Gurkhas cannot stay, to losing a vote on the issue in the House of Commons, to rethinking its policy entirely (10). When New Labour came to power, it exploited issues such as foxhunting, which it banned, in order to take on what it described as the ‘forces of conservatism’: a largely imaginary band of old-style Thatcherites and red-faced toffs who Labour officials claimed were threatening ‘New Britain’. Now, New Labour has been rattled and riled by something approximating these ‘forces of conservatism’: Telegraph types who have hectored ministers and officials over the Gurkhas and won large-scale media support in the process.

This does not reveal the strength of some Bullingdon conspiracy, as some would have us believe, but rather the utter discombobulation of the New Labour project. New Labour’s fantasy war on the ‘forces of conservatism’ in the late 1990s expressed its sense of power and confidence (but lack of ideological vision) and its high level of support in the liberal media and amongst the local-council and civil-servant classes. Today, its spanking at the hands of the ‘forces of conservatism’ has been brought about by its own political demise, corroding support, and loss of direction. It is not really a newfound support for complete equality for foreign soldiers that has elevated the current Gurkha campaign; it is the collapse of New Labour that has allowed the campaign to take centre stage in British politics.

Once created to fight for the interests of a fairly coherent British elite, the Gurkhas now find themselves as cannon fodder in a shallow clash between different visionless sections of an elite that doesn’t know what it stands for. The best solution is to grant the Gurkhas full residential and equal rights, and then to have a serious and honest debate about what Britain’s political parties are for, and what British politics is about today.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume argued that today’s politicians couldn’t organise a credit spree in a bank. He also looked at the privatisation of politics. Frank Furedi argued that history has not yet begun. James Woudhuysen suggested the failings of British politicians stem from a lack of a cohering ideology. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

(1) For an example of unequal pay, see A cheap shot at the Gurkhas, Private Eye, 6 May 2009

(2) Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture 1857 to 1914, Heather Streets, Manchester University Press, 2004

(3) Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture 1857 to 1914, Heather Streets, Manchester University Press, 2004

(4) Warrior Gentlemen: Gurkhas in the Western Imagination, Lionel Caplan, Berghahn Books, 1995

(5) Warrior Gentlemen: Gurkhas in the Western Imagination, Lionel Caplan, Berghahn Books, 1995

(6) Warrior Gentlemen: Gurkhas in the Western Imagination, Lionel Caplan, Berghahn Books, 1995

(7) Warrior Gentlemen: Gurkhas in the Western Imagination, Lionel Caplan, Berghahn Books, 1995

(8) ‘Ayo Gorkhali!’, by KM Dixit, Himal, Volume 3, 1990

(9) Gurkhas lose pension court battle, BBC News, 2 July 2008

(10) General Joanna’s Day of Glory, Mirror, 9 May 2009

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Topics Politics UK