Magazine article The Spectator

'You Grow Up with Footballs. We Grow Up with Kukris'

Magazine article The Spectator

'You Grow Up with Footballs. We Grow Up with Kukris'

Article excerpt

It's not often a chap gets to shake a hand that has personally accounted for 31 Japs in the space of one battle. But such was your correspondent's privilege outside the Royal Courts of Justice this week at the launch of a splendidly righteous case demanding fair and just citizenship rights for Gurkha veterans.

A tearful Joanna Lumley was there -- her father fought with the Chindits as a major in the 6th Gurkha Rifles -- as was a typically well-mannered crowd of perhaps 300 exGurkhas and their families. But the stars of the show were the two frail, elderly men sitting impassively in wheelchairs, with their unmistakable crimson-ribboned bronze crosses stuck proudly on their chests. There are currently only ten living recipients of the Victoria Cross and three, it almost goes without saying, are Gurkhas.

Tulbahadur Pun (now 86) won his in June 1944 at the turning-point of the Burma campaign, when almost all his section had been wiped out by Japanese machine guns at the Mogaung railway bridge. Firing his Bren from the hip he continued to advance alone under shattering fire till he reached the enemy bunker, polishing off three of the occupants with his kukri (the Gurkhas' legendary curved 18-inch fighting knife) and causing five more to flee in understandable terror.

The VC of Lachhiman Gurung (now 91) must rank among the most implausible ever.

In May 1945 his forward post at Taungdaw, Burma, was attacked by 200 of the enemy. With his two comrades lying wounded at his feet, Gurung -- all 4ft 6in of him -- continued to hold his position single-handed for four hours.

Quite literally single-handed, for his right hand -- and his right eye -- had been blown away by a grenade. Calmly, he continued loading and firing his rifle with his left arm alone, killing at least 31 Japanese at point-blank range.

'But we don't want to give the impression it's only VCs that matter, ' says the Gurkhas' lawyer Martin Howe, and he's quite right. When VCs are involved, the government can worm its way out with special dispensations, as it did last year with Pun, after the scandalous episode in which he was initially denied permission to settle in Britain for urgent medical treatment because he had 'failed to demonstrate strong ties with the UK'.

It's the other Gurkhas we should worry about: the ones who have given the best of their lives fighting for King or Queen and Country -- that's Britain, not their native Nepal -- but now find themselves turned away in their hour of greatest need. Under current pettifogging regulations, only those discharged after 1 July 1997 -- when the brigade's HQ moved to the UK from Hong Kong -- are eligible for 'fast track' citizenship. All the others -- the second world war veterans, the ones who served with distinction in Korea, Malaya, Borneo and the Falklands -- face the thankless task of persuading the immigration courts that they have 'close ties' to the UK. To give you an idea how hard this is, consider the fate of Lance Corporal Gyanendra Rai. He served in the Falklands war, was mentioned in dispatches and severely wounded by Argentine shellfire, yet his application was refused.

As the sage Rod Liddle himself pointed out the last time this issue cropped up, you'll get a bigger welcome in Britain these days if you're a pistol-packing Libyan, a suicidally fundamentalist Algerian or a Somali rapist than you will if you're a plucky, ever-cheerful, fiercely loyal little Johnny Gurkha. (And they are all little, by the way: if it weren't for the tea-coloured skin, the broad-brimmed jungle hats and the posters saying things like 'Gurkhas won 13 VCs but still unwanted by UK', you might think you'd wandered into a hobbits' convention). …

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