Numerical strength of Nepal Army comes into focus, once againDefenders of the current size say the army should be left intact while security experts reckon a review is overdue.
A debate is going on in Parliament, mainstream media and social media as to whether the Nepal Army should be downsized, right-sized, the status quo maintained, or if the size should be increased.
The debate was first triggered by two members of Parliament, Bimala Rai Poudyal of the CPN-UML in the National Assembly and Swarnim Wagle of the Rastriya Swatantra Party, in the House of Representatives, and now opinions are divided.
Top leaders of major political parties like the Nepali Congress, the UML, the CPN (Maoist Centre), and the Swatantra Party are silent but Rastriya Prajatantra Party has come up with a statement that it is “mysterious, unfair and unfortunate” for some “so-called intellectuals” and responsible political leaders to call for a reduction in the army’s strength.
“The Rastriya Prajatantra Party earnestly calls for everyone's common commitment to ending the unseasonable debate about reducing the size of the army and keep the Nepal Army intact as a strong, disciplined and glorious institution,” its president Rajendra Lingden said in a statement on Wednesday.
The debate has already started in the House. Soon after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2007, there was a discussion about “democratisation” of Nepal Army and there were also calls from various quarters to downsize it as the country had entered an era of peace with the former rebel Maoists joining mainstream politics.
After fierce criticism from various quarters, Poudyal and Wagle slightly changed their statements. Wagle, speaking in the House, had urged that as Sri Lanka had reduced the size of its army by a third, Nepal could take a similar step. The size of the Nepal Army was around 45,000 before the Maoist insurgency but now it has crossed the 90,000 mark, Wagle said about two weeks ago.
The army’s size was not reduced even after the restoration of peace in the country. After widespread criticism, Wagle issued a statement five days ago saying that the army has a glorious history and its pride should be maintained.
“As a responsible parliamentarian, I had met the army chief before speaking in Parliament. I understood that the Nepal Army came under pressure to perform various tasks, which I put across in the House. The road ahead now is to let the three security agencies put forward an integrated plan for their improvement and for there to be political consensus in this regard,” said Wagle.
He added: “Whatever is done should be done with the consent of the security agencies: increasing the number if necessary, reducing the total number through modernisation, or keeping it the same. There is a need to reform federal structures and bureaucracy which is becoming burdensome. This is what a national party sensitive to both [the country’s] finance and security policies would do.”
The statements by Rai and Wagle triggered a debate inside the House and the army also became sensitised as to why such remarks were coming out, one after another.
“I was even trolled on social media,” said Rai on Thursday while speaking at the Assembly. “I am not of the view that the size of Nepal Army should be reduced in order to cut costs but as per the programme, structure and budget, we were seeking an answer from the government and the defence minister whether we need the current size of Nepal Army.”
“In the Comprehensive Peace Agreement also, there is a proposal of democratisation, inclusiveness and reviewing the size of the Nepal Army. Now there is no war in the country; we have moved ahead from the unitary to a federal structure. Do we still need the same size of army in the changed context?” Poudyal asked.
But the UML and RSP supporters did not like the statements made by the two members. This time, when a new debate ensued on various platforms, the Nepal Army asked Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Purna Bahadur Khadka to speak up. Earlier in March, the army chief had said that it is the job of the Nepal government to determine the army’s size, not some self-proclaimed academics, experts and security experts working in non-governmental organisations and international non-governmental organisations.
Expressing his concerns over spreading rumours about the Nepal Army, its chief General Prabhu Ram Sharma, speaking at a gathering of ex-servicemen in Pokhara, said that it is the government that determines the size of the army to discharge its duty and responsibilities. He urged the general public not to believe propaganda and fake news.
But some security experts said there is nothing wrong in discussing the size, role and responsibility of the national army in Parliament.
Some informed parliamentarians have begun a discussion in the House, which is the right place to do so, said Indra Adhikari, who writes on security-related issues.
“I feel those who have a direct or indirect stake in the national army are against such debates. Those who support the idea of debating on the size, role and responsibilities of the Nepal Army are being called anti-national,” said Adhikari. “When there was a debate on state restructuring, there was a parallel debate going on and even documentation on it before drafting the country’s constitution in 2015.”
On July 14, Defence Minister Khadka made it clear in the National Assembly that there is no plan to reduce the Army’s size. “The number of the Nepal Army personnel is determined based on the needs of the country, the current state and situation, and the security environment within and beyond the country. In the future too, the same would apply.”
Minister Khadka said there has been an optimal utilisation of the Army for the country’s development and progress and its strength would be determined by the government on the recommendation of the National Security Council. According to him, even though the Army has 96,477 sanctioned positions in total, its current strength is only 81,277, including 6,772 women.
“There is no logic behind statements that we should not discuss the national army even in Parliament. The government can take this discussion to parliamentary committees too,” said Adhikari.
But communist leader Bamdev Gautam said on Thursday that the strength of Nepal Army should be increased to 200,000.
Speaking in the Assembly, Gautam said the number of the Army personnel should not be reduced under any circumstance and no one should insult the national defence force.
Geja Sharma Wagle, another security expert, said that discussion of the strength and role of Nepal Army in Parliament is natural.
“There should be discussions about the size, role, responsibility and budget of the Nepal Army under the democratic structure. The national army is a state organ so the House has the full authority to discuss any of them, including the army,” said Wagle.
“As per the comprehensive peace accord, there is a proposal of restructuring the Nepal Army as well as the state. While we restructured the state entities, we did not go about restructuring the national army,” said Wagle. “In order to make the Nepal Army a more accountable and democratic institution, it is vital that we discuss its role and strength. No one is above the law.”