The disillusionment among Maoist ex-combatants who wanted to join the national army is understandable. Ever since the three options for the PLA—integration, voluntary retirement and rehabilitation—were first floated on November 1, 2011, the enthusiasm for integration option among the ex-combatants has been eroding. According to the landmark November 1 deal between the four major political blocks in the country, the integrated combatants were to be inducted into a special Nepal Army directorate, which would be involved in development work, industrial and forest security and disaster relief.
The same agreement outlined that a maximum of 6,500 ex-combatants would be eligible for integration. But as doubts over integration criteria as well as the intent of opposition parties and the army establishment grew, enthusiasm among the ex-combatants for integration flagged. In the end, just 3,123 opted for integration, less than half the maximum threshold.
Since, the army’s internal assessment has revealed that around 1,000 of the 3,123 ex-combatants might be deemed ineligible on the basis of their age and education qualification. The PLA holed up in seven cantonments have rightly protested at what they see as a recruitment drive than integration of two forces which fought to a stalemate during the civil war.
As resentment among the cantoned ex-combatants has grown, so has the pressure on Maoist party establishment to address their concerns. Pushpa Kamal Dahal warned on Sunday that the entire peace process might be derailed if the opposition parties continued to stand against dignified integration of ex-combatants. If the rigid criteria—on age, marital status and education—were not relaxed, he warned, all members of PLA would opt for voluntary retirement. Although Dahal’s words might only have been aimed at soothing the fraying nerves of cantoned combatants who have chosen integration, he did have a point when he posited that complete failure of integration might trigger another cycle of violence in the country.
It is not entirely clear what Dahal might have been hinting at, but he perhaps meant that the ex-combatants, most of whom have come to believe that the army takeover of their camps back in April amounted to surrender, might be wooed by the CPN (Maoist) under Mohan Baidya. Indeed, one of the main reasons Baidya and co. have cited for the rupture in the Maoist party was the establishment’s support for the humiliating takeover.
Given the miniscule number that is still up for integration, just a slight relaxing of rigid criteria is unlikely to have much of an impact on future prospects of current army officials, much less foster political indoctrination in NA, as was initially feared.
The process should be carried out in a dignified manner, first, to prevent the disillusioned combatants from gravitating towards the radical party under Baidya. It is important to bear in mind that though combatants might choose voluntary retirement to access the funds with which they can start their lives anew, at heart many will continue to support Baidya’s narrative of surrender. Thus, Baidya’s ‘revolutionary ideas’ are sure to find many obliging ears, threatening to further prolong the transition.
Equally significantly, if the integration process is aborted, it will mark a serious breach of the trust and consensus that has characterized political agreements post-2006. If the opposition parties collude to derail one of the core Maoist agendas, UCPN (Maoist) might not be as amenable to compromises in future negotiations.
DEMOCRATIZATION OF NEPAL ARMY
In the brouhaha over integration, the no less important issue of democratization and restructuring of the national army seem to have been entirely forgotten. Democratization of NA to make it a more inclusive national institution has been long overdue. This can only be done through greater recruitment of people from all sections of the population, with special emphasis on the marginalized sections like women, Madhesis, dalits and janajatis. Some analysts believe that NA has already made huge strides towards inclusion and just about any kind of affirmative action would be inimical to the professional image of Nepal Army.
This argument is fallacious. For instance, these analysts point at the appointment of the first Janajati as the head of national army as a proof of NA’s more democratic nature and argue that the presence of around 7,000 Madhesis in the national force disproves the theory of their willful exclusion from national army. But as Glenn C Lowry, Merton Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University, said during a conference in Kathmandu recently, to argue that America is a more equal society on the basis that the country now has a Black president, is misleading. If anything, argues Lowry, a Black face at the top of the American government has become a handy tool to bat away voices for affirmative action for Black Americans who continue to face widespread discrimination. Similarly, token presence of a particular group in any institution should not be a basis to continue with discriminatory provisions against that group.
The integration has lost legitimacy with opposition parties and army colluding to bar ex-combatants and distracted from the vital restructuring issue.
Reforms are needed on other fronts too. First, the 92,000-strong (and expanding) army needs to be downsized, preferably to its pre-civil war strength of under 50,000. At a time a country like the United Kingdom, one of the UN Security Council members with combative presence in troubled regions around the world, is downsizing its army to 80,000, the rationale for Nepal, which is not involved in any combative role anywhere, to retain a bigger army is dubious. But the current government and army top brass seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Back in May, Army Chief Chhatra Man Singh Gurung, with the backing of Prime Minister Bhattarai, presented NA’s plan for reform before the State Affairs Committee of then-parliament, which, among other things, argued for retention of the current army strength.
Security Sector Reform (SSR) is vital for any post-conflict society. Failure to enact measures to remove the shortcomings in security organs (in Nepal’s case, that of exclusion, absence of democratic character and overcapacity) would, besides imposing unnecessary financial burdens on the state, also sharpen the conviction of the marginalized sections that NA, even after the demise of its chief patron in monarchy, is still a by and large elitist state organ serving the interests of a small section of the society.