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Who decides the size of Nepali Army?

Who decides the size of Nepali Army?

What should be the size of the army in a country like Nepal?  Before the Maoist insurgency began in 1996, there were approximately 60,000 personnel in the Nepali Army. The number was significantly increased to fight the Maoist insurgents, and today the NA is 96,477 strong. In 2001, the government also founded the Armed Police Force, which acted as a paramilitary unit, to support counterinsurgency operations. 

Talks about resizing or ‘rightsizing’ the NA first found prominence after the Maoists joined the peace process with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2006. At the time, it was the right thing to do, since the former Maoist fighters were also being integrated into the national army, which would have increased the troop numbers and the budget.  

The CPA says: “... This includes, among other things, rightsizing, democratic restructuring reflecting the national and inclusive character and imparting training to the Nepali Army on the values of democracy and human rights.”  While the inclusive component of the CPA has already been implemented by the NA, the parts about rightsizing and restructuring have not. 

The size of the military has once again entered the national debate, and the NA is not taking it lightly. Responding to some media reports and opinion pieces, Army chief Prabhu Ram Sharma in March blamed “outsiders” for making comments about the required NA troop numbers. He didn’t name any particular individual or institution, but hinted that these “outsiders” were acting on the behest of foreign countries.

A few days back, the issue about the size of the Army was brought up in the National Assembly by CPN-UML lawmaker Bimala Rai Paudyal. Addressing the assembly, she said that there must be a review on whether the Ministry of Defense needs the current size of the national army.
“There aren’t any internal conflicts and there aren’t any chances of war from our neighbors,” argued Paudyal, also a former foreign minister.
Her remarks didn’t go down well with the military circle, as well as some politicians. Paudyal faced strong criticism, including from former Army generals, for stoking an unnecessary debate. 

Those against the idea of revising the size of the NA are of the view that this is not the right time to be debating about the issue. 

But Paudyal remains firm on her position. “Shouldn’t we evaluate the current scenario?” she says. “It is not necessarily a call for downsizing the army, but rather a suggestion to review whether to downsize or upsize the army.”   

She asks why there should be a controversy whenever we raise military matters. “These issues warrant serious deliberations and extensive research, especially considering our transition to federalism and the emergence of heightened border security threats,” says Paudyal. “Perhaps, we may even require a stronger army.”

The debate on the size of the NA is not a new one; it is a part of the CPA signed between the government and the Maoist party. The Interim Constitution 2007 had also mentioned about the size and democratization of the national army. The part 20 of Interim Constitution states talks about determining the appropriate number of the Army, its democratic structuring and inclusivity.  

In 2009, the Ministry of Defense had formed a committee to suggest ways for the democratization of the NA, but the report was never made public.

In compliance to the Nepali law which states that 45 percent of all vacant government positions be reserved for excluded groups, the Army in 2006, amended its Army Act. As per the amendment, out of the 45 percent reserved position within the NA, 20 percent of the seats are reserved for women, 32 percent for Janajati, 28 percent for Madhesi, 15 percent for Dalit and 5 percent for remote regions. But as far as the issue of rightsizing is concerned, there have been discussions in the academic sector but not at the state-level.

The Maoist party, which vehemently raised the issue of resizing the NA during the time of peace process, seems to have abandoned the topic now. As per the Maoist party’s demand, the Nepali Congress and UML too had agreed to mention this issue in the CPA, much to the displeasure of the Army. 

Deepak Prakash Bhatta, a security expert, says there can be discussions on resizing the NA only if the political parties, not individual leaders, officially make the position on it.  “Some people have spoken about it, but what is the position of political parties?” says Bhatta.

Both incumbent and retired NA officials suspect that some “foreign powers” are fuelling the debate.
One retired NA official says the NA does not have any objection to such a debate, but the recent noise about reviewing the size of the national army lacks maturity. “This is a very sensitive and comprehensive issue which requires in-depth study and deliberations,” he says.  

Purna Chandra Silwal, retired major general of the NA, says in a precarious geopolitical scenario marked, among others, by the Ukraine war and increasing Sino-Indian hostilities, countries have become more serious than ever before about their existence as their ballooning defense spending shows. “But, paradoxically, some of our leaders and opinion-makers are calling for downsizing of the national army,” he adds.

Major political parties have so far chosen to steer clear from the debate. UML senior leader Shanker Pokhrel says this is “an ill-timed debate” because we are passing through a political instability, and anarchism is creeping into society. “The size of Nepali Army is not only related to security aspects but also the international peace mission,” says Pokhrel.  

The current debate on the sizing of NA itself is problematic because it is too focused on downsizing it, instead of holding discussions on determining the right size. There could be discussions about the size of the army, experts say, but it can be decided only after assessing the long-term internal and external threats. Of late, beyond providing security, NA is also engaged in big development projects as well. 

Krishna Prasad Bhandari, NA spokesperson, says the Army is aware and informed about the ongoing discussions about the national army.  “The Nepal Army has been effectively and successfully performing the tasks provided by the government and mentioned in the constitution,” he says. 

Defense Minister Purna Bahadur Khadka has also defended the current number of NA in Parliament.  Speaking in the meeting of National Assembly Khadka on Thursday, he said the number of the army is determined on the basis of the country's geographical location, national necessity and current international scenario. He also said it is the government who decides the number of military personnel based on the recommendation of the National Security Council.