The dark underbelly of Nepal’s bureaucracy and politics

Former Home Secretary Govind Prasad Kusum has exposed the ugly sides of Nepali political system and administration in “Prasasan Bhitrako Prasasan.” Here are fresh insights drawn from interview with the writer.

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 11 min.

I have my personal parameter to judge a book: It has to tell you what you don’t know, what you have not read about and/or enrich your learning and experience. Judging from this parameter, Govind Prasad Kusum’s Prasasan Bhitrako Prasasan (“Administration Within the Administration”) tells stories that will make you pause, now and again, and exclaim ‘Oh my gosh!’

Kusum, who served as the Secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs before he retired, has called the book a ‘documentation of experiences and events I witnessed during various times of my career.’ He says, in truth, the administration is not what it is seen from outside.

What he calls his personal experiences, however, are actually the exposition of the dark underbelly of our administrative and political system and also an open window to how foreigners try to play in the fluid political situation of Nepal.

Most events Kusum narrates revolve around post-2007 political change—the time when Nepal’s political transition was at its most fragile stage, when Nepal saw perhaps the biggest anomalies in its governance and when foreign actors presumably thought they had a greater say in Nepal’s internal affairs than Nepali political actors.  

Largely, this is what Kusum writes about.

He writes about Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood at a considerable length, including his going to meet Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal on slippers (Page 47) and about the infamous case of Salleri of Solokhumbu that took place in October, 2010. Kusum had advised Sood not to go to that place (49) and foreign ministry had concurred but he went anyway and the demonstrators threw shoes at him (50). Then Kusum talks about the Indian ambassador requesting him for permission to station Sky Marshals in Kathmandu airport, a request which Kusum flatly declined. “Indian security officials have been conducting security checks at Indian Airlines’ ramp. Your officers do security checks of the passengers before they board the plane. What more do you need?” (52), he asked Sood. “I actually wanted to say you have brought in sky marshals through proxies and disguise, but I resisted” (52).

Sood would push for Sky Marshal anyway and he lobbied for it at the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation which sent the proposal to the cabinet. Kusum writes that the cabinet approved the proposal but he never knew that the decision was communicated to the ministry. “I think this decision became public even before it was written in minutes and became controversial which helped to kill the Sky Marshal plan” (55).

Kusum also writes about how foreigners try to use the issue of Tibetan refugees to put Nepal in a difficult situation vis-à-vis its relation with China. “The Tibetan refugees living in India had long been coming to Nepal from India to launch anti-China demonstrations. The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu would obviously be concerned about it” (77). “They would enter Nepal by wearing saffron robes in the pretext of visiting Lumbini through Sunauli border point. Once inside Nepal, they would throw away that dress, wear pants and shirt and come to Kathmandu” (70). 

Whenever such protestors were arrested, he would receive pressure to release them. “An officer from UNHCR came and asked me to release them” (78). He mentions his conversation with Maria Otero, the US Under-Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights during her visit to Nepal in 2012, whom he tells about the illegal nexus that extracts money from the Tibetan refugees to bring them across the border to Nepal. “Some foreign NGOs are also involved in this. We have the proof of this” (82).

I sat down with Kusum to discuss issues he has mentioned, as well as those he has not, in the book. Excerpts:

You suggest in the book that there is a world of difference between the administration that we see and the administration that really is, which is nearly crippled by multiple factors. Has Nepal’s administration fallen so low?

Not exactly. If the administration and administrative system of the country was not functioning, the state would probably have crumbled. We would not even experience a semblance of rule of law which we feel today. There is administration and this is why the state is functioning.  But our administration has its own share of challenges and problems. When those who run the administration are not able to face and overcome those challenges, the whole of the administrative system faces a crisis. 

You talk about various pressures the leadership at the administration faces.  Where do such pressures mainly come from?

Such pressures come from political parties as well as foreign institutions.  Sometimes the government actors themselves force you to do things which you know are not right. Other times, the political parties pressure you to do things which you know are illegitimate.   

Will you explain more about the pressures from foreign institutions?

When they have to pressure they do it in such a subtle way one would not notice they are exerting undue pressure. It was the eve of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.  We received the information that Tibetans might stage protests against China in various parts of the capital. Peaceful protests would not be a matter of concern but allowing such activities to take place would be against our own commitment not to allow anybody to use our land against our neighbors and friendly countries. Not allowing our land to be used against China and India has been a bedrock of our foreign policy. So we closely watched the situation and arrested around 40 protestors from Kathmandu.

‘Political parties as well as foreign institutions pressure bureaucrats to serve their interests.  Sometimes the government actors themselves force you to do things which you know are not right.’

What we found out later surprised us all. These 40 protestors, who claimed to be Tibetans, were not the Tibetans living in Nepal. As a matter of fact, Tibetans living in different parts of Nepal have rarely been found to be participating in rallies and protests.  We found out that those 40 people were not the Tibetans living in Nepal.  So who could they be?

I directed that they should be put in detention and we need to find out who they are, where they came from and who mobilized them in the protest against Nepal’s neighbor.  We told them that they had to tell us who they were. No one would speak. In fact, they pretended not to know any language: Nepali, English or Hindi. We told them that we would put them in jail unless they told the truth. Then perhaps the person who was mobilizing them from behind the scene also asked them to speak the truth. Then on the third day they started to speak. They knew and spoke English very well and they admitted that they came from across the border in India to Nepal, they were specifically asked to take up that task by somebody and they said that they would never participate in such activities again.

Home ministry was pressured to release them immediately.  

In another incident, we arrested a foreigner from Chabahil. He was found to be counselling a group of people on how to stage a protest. A foreign diplomat asked me to release him immediately by citing human rights conditions.  I told him that the activities conducted by the arrested are against the law. We had audio-visual evidence of that foreigner instigating the people to launch the protest. We had to show that evidence to that diplomat.  After that incident, we rarely found cases of people from third countries coming to Nepal and provoking anti-China protests.

Why do our bureaucrats often fail to take a firm stand against the kind of pressures you just mentioned?

One main reason is that they do not have information and they do not study. So they tend to believe in whatever is told to them.  They become susceptible to following orders.  And they do not have the sense of confidence to deal with the pressure groups. Let me tell you about my experience. One foreigner came to my office and started to say that Nepal has thousands of stateless people because they have not been provided citizenship by the government. He said he would work for the cause of such people.   I said ‘who are you? What is the ground of your claim?’ Then he blushed a little.  Then he started to talk about human rights issues.

‘When the police arrest gangsters and criminals political leaders immediately make a call to the police headquarters even at the home ministry to release them. As a home secretary I faced a lot of such situations.’

I said I very much knew the human rights issues, I was a political science graduate and a student of international relations as well and he did not need to teach me. I asked him on which particular instance Nepal had violated the human rights principles. He did not have specific evidence to prove his claim. Then he started to say there are stateless people in Siraha. Then I asked him which particular place of Siraha and then he had no answer. I had an hour of conversation with him.  He returned from my office. He was rather embarrassed, I could clearly see that. My point is if we firmly stand on our ground we can withstand any illegitimate pressure.

But Nepali political actors themselves are often found to be meddling in the bureaucracy.  How often does that happen?

Political parties have the hangover of the Panchayat era. I mean they want for themselves what was there in the Panchayat for the rulers. They want their own men to be appointed as police chiefs and CDOs in their districts to maintain dominance in their areas. During the Panchayat, CDOs and police had to sustain the Panchayat system. Today, our leaders want to use the bureaucrats and police to sustain their hold on power and influence. This is unfortunate. When the police arrest gangsters and criminals they immediately make a call to the police headquarters even at the home ministry to release them. As a home secretary I faced a lot of such situations.

You suggest in the book that if Indian ambassador Rakesh Sood had taken your advice he would not have to face that embarrassing situation in Solukhumbu. Why was he so adamant?

In a meeting with him after that unfortunate event he said nothing to me but I could read from his face that he felt he should have taken my advice. I still wonder why an ambassador would still go for a journey to a place against which the home ministry of the country advises him not to go in a very good faith. Looking back, I can say that there was politics behind that incident. Maoists were constantly raising anti-India rhetoric in actions and words. This incident helped to expose the Maoists of Nepal.

Politicians and bureaucrats often blame each other when they fail to deliver services to the people. Why does this happen?

Actually, there is not always the relation of blame between the politicians and bureaucrats like you suggest. The politicians who lead the ministries with vision find themselves very much supported by the bureaucracy. For example, when KP Sharma Oli was the home minister in 1994 he was admired for his independent role. Even today, high ranking Nepal Police officials mention him with respect. When the same person was the prime minister, bureaucracy started to be blamed. When the ministers are guided by petty interests and ask the officers to work to serve those interests, bureaucrats should not support them. When the bureaucrats seek to do the same the politicians must stop supporting them. Opposite is the case in Nepal.

There is a tendency to transfer the top bureaucrats which has had terrible impacts on the functioning of our bureaucracy.  The political actors tend to take secretary transfers as a matter of pride. A secretary is transferred to as many as eight ministries within seven years; he is always made to feel so insecure at the hands of the government actors. Then he can never become a role model and source of inspiration for his juniors.

Frequent transfer of the bureaucrats is not good, it does not give confidence to the bureaucracy. They need to be assigned to work in the areas of their expertise and specialization. A secretary who has worked in the Home Ministry for years understands the whole length and breadth of that ministry. If you transfer that secretary to, say, the information and communication ministry, he will take at least six months to understand that ministry. If you transfer the Foreign Secretary, for example, to the Ministry of Finance the same thing will happen.  The ‘bravery’ the politicians show in transferring bureaucrats has tarnished their own image. Many good bureaucrats live with low morale because they are under the constant threat of being transferred once the government or the leadership in the respective ministries changes. 

How can we reform our bureaucracy then?

The key is to change the mindset.  And unless we can make corruption a taboo in bureaucracy it is not going to be clean. Speeches do not help. The driver of the driving seat decides where to take the bus. Bureaucracy is a part of the bus, it is the man in the driving seat that decides where to take the bus. Government actors and bureaucrats should be in unison as to where they are going, and where they are taking their bus to. Sad thing is, reforming bureaucracy does not seem to be a priority agenda of any political parties in Nepal. I have not read about any political parties talking about reforming bureaucracy in their manifestos.  

Again, it would be wrong to say our bureaucracy is not able to resist the undue political pressure. It actually depends both on the politicians as well as bureaucracy.  Often when we argue against their move, they say ‘what you say is right but our political party and leaders are not going to accept it.’ They say that they have to manage their cadres.  But when a bureaucrat takes a firm stand, politicians alone cannot do anything. So it takes both bureaucrats and politicians to reform the system.

Can you share any specific case of bureaucracy taking a stand against politicians?

I have mentioned it in detail in the book itself but let me share it briefly here. This is related to an infamous incident of Karima Begum slapping a CDO five times for not sending a new car to pick her up from the airport. We said this is condemnable, this downgrades the morale and image of bureaucracy.  I clearly told the political leaders no CDOs will be able to work with dignity from now on if you don’t take action against Begum. I had to hold rounds of meetings with the home minister. I had to issue two press releases from the ministry.  We had meetings with Madhav Nepal and Deputy Prime Minister Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar.  And they would say if action was taken against her she would switch to another party and the government would be brought down.  I said ‘so you risk destroying the morale of the bureaucracy to remain in power?’ This will backfire, I told PM Nepal and Deputy PM Gachhadar.  Finally, Begum was asked to make an apologetic statement. If we had not resisted she would probably not have done even that much.

What inspired you to write this book? What is your future plan?

I had decided that I would write a book after retirement while I was still serving in the government. The objective is to record my own experiences and memories so that they will remain in a documented form and people can read and research about the time I served in the government.  History has to be written by everyone.  Twenty years down the line, bureaucrats will find something to look back to our times and how their predecessors worked for the country and the governments.

‘The ‘bravery’ the politicians show in transferring bureaucrats has tarnished their own image. Many good bureaucrats live with low morale because they are under the constant threat of being transferred once the government or the leadership in the respective ministries changes.’ 

The triggering point for writing this book was a conversation with senior journalist Bhairab Risal.  He called me one day and asked what I was doing. I said I was reading and writing articles for the newspapers. Risal said articles do not create sustained memories among the readers. “You should write what you have been writing in newspapers in a book form,” he said. He rather insisted that I should.

I maintain daily diaries. I had all the details needed to write the book and so I started. I would recommend that every bureaucrat should write daily diaries.  They need to take note of whom they meet and what they talk about and on which date.

I am planning to bring out another volume of memoir where I will be uncovering other details.  At the moment I am working on a fictional work called Bhrikuti. It is based on the character of Princess Bhrikuti and history around that time. We get to read a little about her in history. I characterize her in the context of the seventh century through my imagination, drawing on her role in maintaining good relations between Nepal and China. The book will come out probably by May next year.