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Chapter 5. NEPAL: National Security


World War I vintage kukri, the Gurkha knife, with its distinctive notch above the hilt, and two soldiers

NEPAL IS RENOWNED for its fighting men, the fabled Gurkhas. The worldwide reputation of Nepalese soldiers as a superior fighting force can be attributed mainly to the qualities of the troops of Nepalese origin who have fought as contingents in the British Army since the early nineteenth century and for the Indian Army since its formation in 1947. With their long record of martial prowess and battlefield heroics, the Gurkhas provide one of the more colorful chapters of modern military history.

The history of the Royal Nepal Army is intertwined with that of the Rana Dynasty and its Shah predecessors (see Rana Rule , ch. 1). In the post-World War II era, the army served as a bastion of support for King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev and his heir, King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, Nepal's reigning monarch in mid-1991. Many Nepalese opponents of the monarchy complained that the military was a reactionary institution bent on defending a quasifeudal system of government in the face of mounting popular calls for democratization. More conservative Nepalese, however, regarded a strong king and a traditional military beholden to royal patronage as essential elements of political stability and national independence. During the 1990 Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, or prodemocracy movement, which transformed Nepal's political system into a broad-based constitutional monarchy with elected civilian leaders, the army was used as a stabilizing force.

Nepal's military establishment in 1991 consisted of an army of 35,000 personnel. Organized largely along British lines, the force included fourteen infantry brigades, an airborne battalion, an air defense regiment, a small air services wing, and a variety of independent infantry companies and supporting units. Service in the army, an all-volunteer force, generally was held in high esteem by the general public; benefits and terms of service were attractive by local standards. Although its soldiers generally were welltrained and highly motivated, Nepal lacked the resources to equip its army with anything beyond obsolete imported weapons. The officer corps had no political ambitions and invariably carried out the orders of the king and civilian authorities.

Although the military's stated mission was the classic one of defending the nation against hostile external attack, internal security--assisting the police, patrolling remote areas, and protecting the monarchy--constituted the military's primary mission. The country's precarious geopolitical position between two giant neighbors, India and China, made anything more than a token conventional defense impractical. In order to ensure the country's survival, Nepalese leaders have traditionally sought to maintain good relations with both neighbors and to obtain international recognition of Nepal's de jure status as an independent buffer state. The protracted trade and transit dispute that poisoned IndoNepalese relations in 1989, although eventually resolved amicably in 1990, reinforced the common Nepalese perception of an overbearing Indian government willing to use its economic and military advantages to intimidate its small Himalayan neighbor. Most Nepalese regarded China as a more distant but benign power that served as a strategic counterweight to India's supposed hegemonistic ambitions in the region.

Under the 1990 constitution, control over the nation's military is vested in the king, although the elected civilian government acquired new authority over military affairs and national defense. The 28,000-strong Nepalese Police Force, regarded by many observers as corrupt and inefficient, became a focus of the Nepali Congress Party government that came to power in 1991. The new government promised to reform the police system, overhaul the judiciary, and improve the country's deteriorating law-and-order situation. The constitution instituted significant reforms in human rights and judicial practices, both of which were the objects of considerable domestic and foreign criticism.

Data as of September 1991

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