Restructuring the security sectorWagle must be thanked for touching the tail of the tiger despite the attendant risks.
Celebrity parliamentarian Swarnim Wagle artfully carved his earlier statement about rightsizing the Nepali Army, sliced straight sentences into thin strips, cut them into ingestible pieces, and then swallowed them raw. But now, Wagle has taken a 180-degree turn from his interpretation of recent developments in Sri Lanka, which has announced reducing its military strength to half by 2030, and their lessons for Nepal.
The Nepali Congress (NC) has lost the ability to take any political initiative. Under party chair Sher Bahadur Deuba, the NC reacts only when the direct interests of its leader are threatened. Being the favourite political front of the permanent establishment of Nepal (PEON), the CPN-UML likes to maintain a meaningful silence about the status quo. Even the CPN (Maoist Centre) appears to have become a pale shadow of its revolutionary past.
Just as among individuals, selective amnesia is not so uncommon among groups. People tend to forget things that they don’t want to remember. Such has been the fate of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2006 that had declared an end to the decade-long armed conflict in the country. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, back then better known as the fierce guerrilla leader Prachanda, was one of the signatories of the compact.
Since the signing of the seminal pact, Premier Dahal is heading the government for the third time, which he claims is likely to be his last. It is possible that he no longer keeps a copy of the CPA on his table. He may have already forgotten that rightsizing the Nepali Army, retraining its personnel in the values of democracy and human rights, and restructuring the organisation to ensure a democratic, national and inclusive character were some of the most important provisions of the peace deal. In fact, the pledges made in the CPA seem to have disappeared from public memory altogether.
Even though the Nepali Army hasn’t fought on the external front in defence of the territorial integrity of the country since its abject surrender to the forces of the East India Company and the subsequent Treaty of Sugauli in 1816, it continues to be considered the instrument of last resort of the state of Nepal. Respected as a holy cow, the political will to restructure the Nepali Army is conspicuous by its absence.
The much-ballyhooed proposals of Security Sector Reform (SSR) of the early-noughties have disappeared from public conversations. International and national consultants are no longer seen making the rounds of various donor agencies with their slick presentation slides about ways of modernising the country's army, paramilitary force, police, intelligence agencies and secret service. Wary of rubbing the PEON the wrong way, the “international community” doesn’t want to hear SSR in polite conversation.
With a totalitarian regime in the north, an elected autocracy in the south and a global hegemon up above that uses democratic rhetoric only to advance its geopolitical interests, the SSR agenda has fallen off the priority list of all the three important external players—China, India and the United States—in the internal affairs of Nepal. On that point, Wagle is perhaps correct in assuming that a “political consensus” and the “consent of security agencies” are fundamental conditions for the implementation of SSR in any form.
Even though reform of the Nepal Army and the intelligence agencies seems extremely unlikely for now, conversations about its importance must continue. Restrengthening the Armed Police Force (APF) to transform it into the primary agency of internal security will be in line with the international convention of keeping soldiers away from policing duties.
When Maoist insurgents overran Dunai in September 2000, the government tried to mobilise the army to fight them. King Birendra had once told Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai that the army was under the sole control of its supreme commander; he refused to allow the then Royal Nepal Army to fight the insurgents. The Royal Nepal Army brass put conditionalities to come out of the barracks such as the declaration of a state of emergency. It was in sheer desperation in 2001 that Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala had to take the decision of forming a paramilitary force. The Royal Nepal Army and its remnants in the top echelons of the Nepal Army never forgave Koirala for creating a parallel instrument of coercion directly under the control of the executive wing of the government.
The APF has an extensive mandate—from controlling an armed rebellion to guarding the border, it is empowered to do everything that the Nepal Army can do except in the case of external invasion when it must assist the army as a secondary force. Whether it is able to do so is a different matter altogether.
It needs the dexterity of a commando unit to protect national personalities and installations while the agility of a guerrilla force is necessary to overpower terrorists. Riot control is essentially coordinated policing while rendering relief to the victims of survivors of natural calamities is a humanitarian task. Except for the discipline, commitment and esprit de corps of the force, there is little in common in discharging differing responsibilities of policing customs, regulating revenue safety, guarding industrial activity and offering railway security. Peacekeeping in UN missions requires a different set of skills.
Perhaps the APF needs to be broken into at least two units for better preparedness and deployment. An elite commando unit can protect personalities, guard installations and fight terrorists while the more restrained and inclusive wing can be assigned for border patrol, revenue safety and election duties and to assist the provincial police in riot control, emergency relief and industrial security. Since none of these tasks requires frontal formations, the strength of the APF can be substantially reduced even as its effectiveness is enhanced with better combat training, superior technology and higher mobility.
Howsoever contested and controversial the Constitution of Nepal 2015 be, it confers “State police administration and peace and administration” powers upon the government of the Pradesh, which is officially translated as “State” but is more often referred to as “Province” in everyday use. The list of concurrent powers in Schedule 7 does confer coordinating authority upon the federation, but continued control of the federal government over the Nepal Police in its present form is against the letter and spirit of the supreme law of the land.
Since the dissolution of the Nepal Police is out of the question, control over a large section of its operation must be handed over to the provincial governments. The federal government should limit its role to what has been called strategic policing, which is defined as “a proactive and data-driven approach to law enforcement that focuses on addressing underlying causes of crime and disorder”.
The reorientation of the federal police service—and not a force—should limit its role to cutting edge policing such as cyber crime, white-collar crime, organised criminality, coordination with Interpol and synthesisation of policing in the provinces. The SSR studies and debates of the past need to dusted off and updated to reignite the rightsizing debate. Wagley must be thanked for touching the tail of the tiger despite the attendant risks.