A debate is going on about the role, accountability, and fairness, or lack thereof, of Nepal Army, one of the country’s oldest surviving institutions. Nepal Army is not a sacrosanct institution, and one can debate and criticize the institution in good faith. The country’s oldest institution, with a glorious history, always needs to be prodded for better reforms so that it stays relevant, does not compromise with core national interests and does not degenerate into a corrupt institution.
What is alarming about the line of the recent debate is the implied message: We are not capable of fighting war with any powers in the world, therefore we do not need to have an army at all. This fringe notion misses larger historical, geopolitical and social contexts. This narrative also presents the Nepal Army as if it has no role to play for the country, as if it is only a resource-gobbling institution.
We will be making a big mistake if we lose sight of what Nepal Army did for Nepal in the past and the potential role it can play to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, if/when these two vital arteries of the nation come under threat. It is true that Nepal Army has not fought any wars in the last several decades and hopefully it will never have to but let’s not forget its contributions, take note of what it has been doing and what it will have to do in times of unforeseen eventualities.
Not an idle force
Nepal Army is not an idle force as many of us tend to think. Nepal Army is a frontliner during the times of disasters and crisis. It stands at the forefront to provide vital relief during floods, earthquakes, avalanches, fires, landslides, air and other transportation disasters. Nepal Army soldiers have been there in rescue missions, medical assistance, evacuation, air rescue, mass evacuation, flood control among others. The draining of a dangerous lake by the Nepal Army had become a global news. Besides, some of the infrastructure projects we have today were constructed by the Nepal Army. According to the data of Nepal Army, they include the Kharipati-Nagarkot road, the Trishuli-Somdang road, Katari-Okhaldhunga road, Hile-Leghuwaghat road, Salyan-Musikot road, Surkhet-Jumla road, Baglung-Beni-Jomsom road, Drabya Shah Marga, Satdobato-Niwel-Balua road, Gorkha-Mankamana road, Gorkha-Aarughat-Orkhet road among others.
Besides, since 1975, Nepal Army has been on the ground to protect forests and national parks. According to NA data, some 8000 troops protect forest areas which has contributed to saving rare species. Its ‘Mountain Cleaning Campaign’ is invested in collecting tons of garbage from mountain areas including Everest. Its contribution to the UN peacekeeping is a well-known story. In the process, Nepali peacekeepers also stand as the goodwill ambassadors of peace and Nepal’s non-aligned foreign policy.
In other words, they are the ones who reach out to the sites of the disasters first of all, they are the ones who rescue people from floods and landslides, they are the ones to keep our national parks and wildlife protected. They have reached from the top of the world to the far corner of Africa.
Historian Sardar Bhim Bahadur Pandey writes in Tes Bakhatko Nepal that Nepal’s Army institution was pivotal in saving this nation from various external attacks— through the gallantry and tricks–during the war with colonial British in 1815 and the war with Tibet-China (1792).
In the 70s, Nepal Army successfully disarmed the Khampas, which had become a geopolitical thorn in the flesh for Nepal in the 70s. Most recently, Nepal Army prevented Nepal from being further ravaged by the misguided people’s war of the Maoists.
What makes the Nepal Army stand out from other security forces so far is that it is relatively free from political interference. The generals are not picked and chosen like it is done with the police chiefs and their deputies. Former Army officials say this is the key strength that has kept the prestige of the institution intact. “Promotions in Nepal Army are done through the defined policies and standards. Officials are promoted based on their merits, experience, service duration and performance,” said Suresh Sharma, who in the past served as the spokesperson of Nepal Army. “That tradeoffs happen in promotion is inconceivable within the army. Nepal Army conducts its activities as guided by the Nepal Army Act, approved by Nepal parliament.”
According to him, the government itself tasks Nepal Army in various development works, mainly track opening in remote and hard geographical terrain of the country. “It is not the Nepal Army which urges the government to award them such projects. It is the government which invites Nepal Army and assigns them particular projects where no other alternatives exist.”
Attempts had been made by the Maoists to politically influence the institution. One goal of the Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ after he came over-ground was to integrate as many PLA cadres as possible into Nepal Army—at least 20,000—to prepare a ground for capturing the national defense force and eventually the state. This plan became public after the secret videotape was leaked in 2009. Political leadership of the time handled the situation well and foiled this plan.
Prachanda made the second attempt to politically influence Nepal Army in 2009 when he sacked the chief of Army Rookmangud Katawal when the latter resisted the plan to integrate nearly all of 20,000 politically indoctrinated PLA soldiers into Nepal Army. His plan to sack Katawal and install a general of his choice at the top of the Nepal Army hierarchy was foiled by President Ram Baran Yadav, the supreme commander in chief of the institution.
Retired Nepal Army officials recall this incident with trepidation.
“If the attempt of Prachanda to sack Rukmangud Katawal and install Kul Bahadur Khadka in his place had become successful, it could destabilize and politicize the army institution,” said Prem Singh Basnyat, retired brigadier general and the author of books on military history of Nepal. “If that design had succeeded, Nepal Army would not remain an apolitical institution as it is today, it would probably be Maoistized (maaobadikaran),” he added. “Political leaderships have tried to politicize the Nepal Army but the Nepal Army leadership has so far been able to resist such attempts. Which is why people trust it more than other institutions.”
Just in case
What is happening around the world is scary. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does not seem to be going to end any time soon. The world is divided—with the West siding for Ukraine, and other big powers either staying neutral or silently supporting Ukraine. Back home in South Asia, China and India appear to be friends at one moment and foes at other moments. There is a real fear and concern that Nepal could be squeezed into this great geopolitical game.
Purna Silwal, major general (retired) of Nepal Army and the author of the book Nepal’s Instability Conundrum: Navigating Political, Military, Economic and Diplomatic Landscape put it in better terms. “Geopolitics is veering towards competition and conflict. We don’t know what will happen in Taiwan, for example, or when another world war will begin,” he said. “We are on a slippery slope. The strength of the military and defense budget is being increased worldwide as well as in South Asia.”
Silwal argues that Nepal should be really concerned about the ongoing geopolitical tensions. It is Nepal’s official position and commitment not to allow its land to be used against neighbors and friendly countries. “If, for example, one power attempts to or does use our land against another, then words will not be enough. Nepal Army will be a key to prevent the external aggressors from our land in such a situation.”
“Therefore, we need a stronger, more equipped, more professional and more resourceful Nepal Army,” he said.
Nepal’s geo-sensitive location is such that it could be dragged into the conflict that it has absolutely no role to play in its genesis and development. The African proverb that ‘when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers and they make love it is again the grass that suffers’ has always been relevant for Nepal. Now the number of elephants in geopolitics is more than two.
As a state not aligned with any security umbrella led by any big power or bloc, Nepal will have to take care of its defense by itself in case of the worst eventualities.
Nepal is not aligned with any security alliance or led by any big power or bloc. It will have to be self-dependent for its defense in case of eventualities. Every sovereign and independent nation keeps its own army keeping such potential risks in mind.
A Survey of Nepali People 2022 shows that Nepal Army is the most trusted institution in Nepal—with 91 percent people trusting it, while only 44 percent people trust political parties and 51.6 and 56.2 percent people trust provincial and federal government respectively.
That unprecedented level of trust must have come out of the belief that the institution is still impartial, apolitical, and the last bastion of defense for national security. It is up to the Nepal Army how to keep this reputation intact but the government and political leadership have no less role to play.
[Photo credits: Twitter handle of Nepal Army Spokesperson]