January 13, 2009

Harry's set the clock back 10 years

A former sergeant, Nassir Khan, 44, from Blackburn, Lancashire, spent nine years in the Royal Artillery. But after suffering consistent racial abuse as a Muslim he sued the Ministry of Defence for discrimination and won a five-figure out-of-court settlement. He has family members still serving in the Army.

My first experience of racism in the Army came on the day I completed my enlistment. The lieutenant-colonel in charge put two pound coins down and said: 'Here is the Queen's shilling, go and buy yourself a cup of tea and a chapati.'

That was the start of what became a regular pattern of behaviour during my nine years in the military. It was not unusual to be called a 'Paki' or a 'black bastard'. I served during the first Gulf War and during this time I was told I was fighting on the wrong side, that people like me should be shot and that all Muslims should be put in holes. It got to the point where I was not sure whether the men who I was fighting alongside would not shoot me in the back.

I was the first non-white face in my regiment when I joined up in 1988. But even then I realised that the language being used was completely unacceptable. I always made an issue of it because I was not prepared to be verbally abused just for the colour of my skin, but it felt like a lonely fight.

There is a perception that this abuse is restricted to the lower ranks, but in my case the worst abuse came from the non-commissioned officers. When I eventually brought my discrimination case, it was against two senior NCOs.

That is why racism of any sort is so damaging and unacceptable and why what Prince Harry said is so disappointing. If the senior officers don't make it clear that using a word like 'Paki' is offensive and improper then how can they expect the lower ranks to do it?

Prince Harry has set the clock back another 10 years. I left the Army in 1999 with a medical discharge after all my attempts to transfer came to nothing. I was told there was no point me trying to join the special forces 'because they don't like Pakis'. I'm sure the back injury which forced me to leave was due to injuries when I was attacked by two paratroopers who racially abused me during training.

We are told that things have changed a lot. They haven't. I have a close relative who has been in for nearly 20 years and nothing has changed. He says the abuse is just the same. He transferred out of his regiment because it was so racist.

I am proud to have served my country. My great-grandfather served in the First World War and my grandfather in the Second. I was decorated during the Gulf War, but what happened to me destroyed my pride in the Army. I recently tried to join a reserve regiment along with a white friend. I was rejected because I was told I lived too far away. My friend, who lives 10 miles further away, was accepted.

I'm afraid there is still a long way to go before racism is removed from the ranks of the military.


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