It is sometimes said that peace depends on the ratio of coercive power held by the government compared to those who might be tempted to challenge it in a civil war. Secure peace is always armed, with its use strictly regulated by law and overseen by a strong ‘civil society’.
A Maoist insurgency has been raging in about one-third of the country’s administrative districts for over five years now. Nearly 1500 Nepali lives have already been lost. The necessity of using effectively the coercive power of the state, in addition to negotiations and other constructive engagements, is being acutely felt. Normal ‘policing’ —some of it indiscriminate — has not succeeded in controlling organized assaults by a motivated and armed group adopting the techniques of guerrilla warfare, and that too in a rugged terrain amidst a population plagued by acute poverty
In the hill regions affected by insurgency, fear reigns supreme. Caught between a rock and a hard place — demanding Maoists and vindictive policemen — the people have started to lose faith in the government administration, which has been effectively confined to the district headquarters in more than one place. In certain pockets, there are what can only be called Maoist administrations in place. Clearly, the Nepali Congress government needs to resort to something drastic, and quite quickly too, if it is to retain credibility and live up to the promises it made to the larger populace in the general elections of a year ago.
The coercive power at the command of the Kathmandu government is of two types: the Nepal Police, the force which has ´handled´ the Maoists for the past five years; and the Royal Nepal Army, which has remained firmly in the barracks till now. Nepal has nothing in between in the form of a paramilitary force.
During the Rana oligarchy which lasted till 1950, it was the army that oversaw law and order, with civil administrative officials routinely holding military position. The Nepal Police was raised only after the Ranas were overthrown, with leaders who had faced the fire of the soldiers during the first struggle for democracy committed to separating law-and-order and national security functions.
A relatively younger force, much closer to the people and made to sway under the whims of the political leadership, the Nepal Police has the image of a poor cousin of the elitist army. In comparison to the soldiers, Nepali policemen are poorly paid, ill-equipped, inadequately armed, and consequently, less motivated. To make things worse, at the latest instance, the police was thoroughly politicised during the coalition government of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Chand) and the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), when its feisty home minister Bam Dev Gautam went about dismantling the command hierarchy established over the years. No thanks to Mr. Gautam, among others, the Nepal Police has turned into a force what does the politician´s bidding —hardly the ideal organisation to respond to the complexities of a Maoist ´people´s war´.
The Royal Nepal Army, on the other hand, commands fearful respect in Nepali society, partly because it is associated with the name of the king (note the ´Royal´ in the name, not given to the police), and partly because it has not yet had to prove its worth in a possibly messy internal security assignment. Still essentially commanded by the Chhetri elite of Nepal, the army has not had to fight an external war since 1858 (with Tibet, and a losing proposition at that), and uses its time protecting the king and the national parks, conducting ceremonial displays, and building the occasional highway. Nevertheless, in the minds of the people, the army remains the weapon of last resort if national society really begins to fall apart as a result of a wildfire insurgency that the political class of Kathmandu cannot contain.
Deploying the army is not a routine government decision, however. According to the 1990 Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal, which in so many areas reflects points of compromise between the royal palace, the conservative classes and the democratic forces, the army can only be bought onto the streets by the king upon the recommendations of the National Security Council. The Council, which has never been activated over the decade of democracy, consists of three members — the prime minister, the defence minister and the commander-in-chief. With Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala himself holding the defence portfolio, the effective strength of the council is two, and judging by their public utterances, both Koirala and the C-in-C Prajwalla SJB Rana appear to be in favour of deploying the army to control the Maoists.
A third option has now been suggested by a commission set up by the previous government (of Krishna Prasad Bhattarai) to explore the possibility of establishing an armed police unit. Chaired by Khem Raj Regmi, a former home secretary, this commission has come up with the idea of a paramilitary unit at the direct disposal of the government, said to be modelled on India´s CRPF. Tentatively named the Armed Security Force, initially the group would be composed of the existing riot police and the commando unit of the Nepal Police, and an equal number of trained personnel from the army.
There may be questions about costs, composition and line of command, but eventually such a force may have to come into existence, especially if the police cannot be brought back to professional stature. The state does need a specialised unit to face the challenges of increasingly sophisticated insurgents who are not engaged in merely a political movement, but have actually declared ´people´s war´, and are acting according to its violent precepts. The government does need to have something to fall back upon when a situation is neither just a civilian law and order problem, nor an outright attack by an external enemy.
Even while the Regmi Commission´s report was doing the rounds, Prime Minister Koirala set alarm bells ringing by wanting to ´activate´ the National Security Council. The Kathmandu intelligentsia fears, perhaps with sound reasoning in the context of the less-than-respectful postures of the army brass towards the popularly elected government, that Koirala´s action will let the military cat out of the bag. The army, itching to play a role, may be reluctant to return to the barracks once brought out, and it would also definitely claim a bigger share of the national revenue —it is well known that the generals and their paraphernalia come dearer than the inspector generals. But the counter to this argument is that the Maoist insurgency has spread as fast as it has, precisely because the underground leadership knows that the army is not within the direct control of the government. In such a context, it needs to be said that any action by Prime Minister Koirala to take the final step of wresting the army from the ambiguous grasp of the royal palace and under fuller command of the elected government, can only lead to a further strengthening of Nepali democracy. If the politicians try to ´politicise´ the army like they did the police, the army brass as well as media and the academia, as also the palace, should fight it.
While the debates on setting up of the paramilitary force and/or galvanising the NSC take their course, perhaps the government can try out a solution which would even render these two proposals defunct for the moment. The best course for now appears to be for Prime Minister Koirala to take firm steps to mobilise the army, but to keep it confined to a supportive role in the insurgency-affected regions. This would allow the police to face the heat with the confidence of a fall-back option, while at the same time saving the government from the embarrassment of having to make obvious use of the army to fight its own people.
(For the moment, with the government still unsure of its authority, the suggestion of the RNA providing support to the police has the colonels coming back to the home minister with their calculators and asking for V amount of rupees before the jawans come out.) Such an approach will necessitate the establishment of a civilian command to coordinate the efforts of the army and the police in the field, and in this context the (one more) idea of appointing regional governors does deserve serious attention.
Fighting battles is an unpleasant but essential task if the Kathmandu government is to re-establish authority and restore peace in all of the hinterland. No amount of political correctness amongst Kathmandu´s intelligentsia—rarely known to do its homework can cover this fact of public affairs in present day Nepal. And if and when the government really comes up with the will to go to ´war´ with the insurgents, rather than stay in holding pattern, the role of media and the larger civil society will be that much more crucial, to ensure that the innocent and deprived peasantry of Nepal are not caught in the crossfire. There is terror in the hills, and no credit is due for the violent ideology of the Maoist leadership nor the heavy-handed police action of the government in the years just past.