Nepal Table of Contents
Owing to its historical position as an instrument of royal authority, the army had always assumed the role of protecting the king against threats to his political as well as physical survival. In the modern era, the 28,000-strong Nepalese Police Force ordinarily was the first line of defense in combating incidents of political and criminal violence (see The Police System; The Judicial System , this ch.). A primary mission of the army, however, was to back up the police whenever additional coverage or firepower was required. This mission, known as "aid-to-the-civil-power" in British parlance, posed risks for the regular army. Detailing soldiers to arrest demonstrators, root out subversives, and fire on crowds risked tarnishing the army's reputation for impartiality. Moreover, overuse of the army in domestic peacekeeping tasks undermined military morale and discipline, upset routine training cycles, and diverted soldiers from conventional defense chores, such as border security. Ordinarily, the army preferred to leave routine internal security chores to the police.
The army has performed aid-to-the-civil-power duties, including riot control and disaster relief. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, the army conducted sporadic counterinsurgency operations against Tibetan Khampa guerrillas operating in the remote mountains of northwestern Nepal. The campaign, which was finally suppressed in 1974, employed small army units trained in counterguerrilla tactics.
The army faced its most severe test during the strikes and demonstrations called by the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, or prodemocracy movement, in the spring of 1990. The prodemocracy movement, composed of a broad spectrum of political parties led by the Nepali Congress Party and the United Left Front (a group of seven communist parties), staged a civil disobedience campaign in support of its demands for sweeping constitutional reforms. The police responded to the crescendo of protests by arresting movement leaders, closing the university and colleges, and censoring news reports of the disturbances. When these measures failed to check the demonstrations, security forces made mass arrests and resorted to firing on unruly, although usually unarmed, crowds. By March 1990, army units were heavily involved in putting down the protests and often staged "flag marches," or shows of force, to prevent crowds from gathering or to signal the government's determination to enforce emergency regulations. On April 6, the day after King Birendra reorganized his government and agreed to institute constitutional reforms, a crowd of as many as 200,000 strong gathered in downtown Kathmandu. By all accounts, the army panicked and fired on the crowd as it approached the palace, killing at least twenty-five protesters. All told, security forces reportedly killed at least fifty persons during the height of the protests between February and April.
The national elections held in May 1991 witnessed an unprecedented peacetime mobilization of military force in Nepal. Many observers of the Nepalese political scene predicted widespread violence. To head off any trouble, the entire army was put on alert and deployed throughout the country to ensure a free and fair election. Its missions included protecting polling booths, monitoring campaign rallies, and patrolling streets and highways. In addition, 42,000 retired police and soldiers were pressed into temporary service. By all accounts, the army performed well. A minimum of violence and few electoral irregularities were reported (see Elections , ch. 4). Once the voting was completed, the army returned to the barracks, police auxiliaries were relieved of their duties, and the regular police force resumed normal duties.
Data as of September 1991