Nepal Army (NA) is perhaps the country’s existing oldest institution created in course of unification of Nepal. Monarchy that preceded the NA was abolished in 2008 but the military force has withstood all ups and downs of history and earned public trust and credibility for its service to Nepalis in time of war, natural disasters, pandemics and security threats. Founded by Prithvi Narayan Shah, the builder of modern Nepal, the NA was previously known as Gorkhali sena, who fought against both internal and external enemies to unify the nation. Following the demise of Prithvi Narayan Shah, his Dibya Upadesh (Divine Counsel) guided Gorkhalis in their military, social and economic conduct. Every soldier had kept it with them for 30 years during which Nepal’s territory had expanded far and wide.
Every time the political system and regimes change, there are calls for restructuring and downsizing the NA's strength. In doing so, attempts are also made to denigrate its historic role and legacy. Some political actors tend to see it as the old security machinery associated with the feudal regimes. It is true the army came under the control of powerful rulers like Bhimsen Thapa, Jung Bahadur Rana and king Mahendra. This was the matter of past. But it has accepted political changes and shown allegiance to the civilian government as the country underwent various democratic upheavals.
After the 1951 political change, an Indian Military Mission came to Nepal to ‘rightsize’ the NA. The number of NA personnel was downsized to 9,652 from 20,000 regulars and 20,000 temporary soldiers. The mission also set up its posts in 17 places along Nepal-China border. This was a clear design to bring Nepal’s security mechanism under the Indian security umbrella. The number of NA soldiers was increased to 15,855 in 2023 BS, stating that its number was cut by more than half. Following the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, some political leaders voiced for drastically downsizing the army, insisting that it cost a huge amount of tax payers’ money. This was a short-sighted outlook, which proved wrong as the country confronted security threat in the form of Maoist insurgency in mid-1990s.
However, late king Birendra initially refused to mobilise army against the Maoist rebels, citing that the latter were Nepali brothers and sisters. The Maoist conflict intensified after king Gyanendra seized power and imposed his direct rule. The NA was mobilised to control the rebels in 2058 BS. The number of soldiers was also increased dramatically. Their number was almost doubled in nine years from 2053 BS to 2062 BS. There were around 45,000 army men in the beginning of the conflict. In 2012, more than 1,450 Maoist combatants out of 19,000 verified by the UN Mission were integrated into the NA, which the then UCPN-Maoist claimed was a step toward creating a national army.
Though the integration of Maoist fighters into the NA brought no fundamental change in its structure and nature, it was a milestone in concluding the protracted peace process. The government has been mobilising the NA personnel for peacekeeping missions abroad, and humanitarian and development works, disaster management, protection of parks, wild life and vital structures, and security of VIPs. It has become necessary to develop it as a smart and efficient force equipped with modern technology, combat skills and adequate resources. However, the way the restructuring issue has been raised, the NA has been presented in a negative light. A Nepali magazine has recently published a series of articles seeking drastic reduction of NA strength.
The new debates on the NA's organisation and activities have riled Chief of the Army Staff (CoAS) Prabhu Ram Sharma so much so that he went on to say that ‘outsiders’ have no right to comment on the number of NA. Speaking at the Nepali Army Ex-Servicemen Convention-2023 in Pokhara recently, Sharma said that the size of Nepali Army would be decided by the government, not by self-proclaimed academics, experts and security experts involved in INGOs and NGOs. Sharma also warned against the rumours, misinformation and propaganda against the army. It was a strong comment made by any sitting NA chief against the ‘sponsored' narratives on the country’s military force.
Considered as a state within the state, the army is the last defence of national survival. It comes to the rescue of the people during the state failure, economic crisis and other emergencies. So the calls to cut army’s size and create bloated political structure do not sound rational. Now the army needs to be mobilised for the protection of border as well. A section of civil society members and political circle has demanded the so-called loktantrikkaran (democratisation) of the army. It is a defective notion because the army is not a political party but a body that operates under a chain of command. Discipline, meritocracy and professional ethics is necessary to boost its morale and institutional capacity.
In Nepal, many public institutions have lost credibility and efficacy to perform well but the army continues to win people’s huge confidence. A survey, conducted by the Kathmandu University and Interdisciplinary Analyst last year, revealed that around 91.2 per cent Nepalis have trust in NA. They were asked as to which state’s institution they rely on most. The NA needs to live up to the public faith in and expectation from it. Of late, the NA has drawn flak for investing the Army Welfare Fund in profit-making activities such as renting its complex for commercial purposes, running petrol pumps and acting as a contractor or ‘contracting agent’ for the Kathmandu-Terai Expressway Project, among others. Some time back, some senior army officers were implicated and arrested over financial irregularities related to the very fast track road.
Experts insist that army’s involvement in business activities erodes its professional competency and ability to defend national sovereignty in the time of crisis. Against this backdrop, the NA must recall the wise counsel of its founder – Prithvi Narayan Shah - who had discouraged his soldiers from getting involved in profit-making ventures for this would sap their loyalty to the state and the citizens. In his Dibya Upadesh, he says: “Whether a man be selected as a soldier or as a courtier, let him not acquire wealth. Give a man only honour, and that according to his worth. Why? I will tell you. If a rich man enters into battle, he cannot die well; nor can he kill.”
(The author is Executive Editor of this daily.)