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Fri, April 12, 2024

‘Federalism is not feasible or viable for us’

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Keshar Bahadur Bhandari, PhD

Brigadier General (Retd)

Senior Vice-President, Nepal National Ex-Servicemen's Association

General Secretary, Nepal Institute for Strategic Studies

After having served in the Nepal Army for 34 years, Keshar Bahadur Bhandari, PhD, retired from service as Brigadier General. He was mostly involved in training and says that some of his students have gone on to become the chief of army staff. “There are many others who hold high positions at present and I am happy that I have been able to contribute to their personal as well as professional development,” he shares. Bhandari has served not only within the country but also in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a Military Advisor to the United Nations. With keen interest in national security affairs, he joined the Secretariat of the National Security Council when it was established in 2058 BS. “One of the first tasks we focused on then was to draft the National Security Policy which had still not been drafted in Nepal,” he recalls, adding that though the policy was drafted it is yet to be implemented for various reasons. Having always been interested in writing, it wasn’t until his retirement that Bhandari decided to get involved full-time in academics. “I started writing articles and also completed my PhD in national security,” Bhandari says. He also decided to write a book titled, National Security and the State, which was recently launched in Kathmandu. This new book from Bhandari delves into the army’s trajectory over several decades into Nepal’s various important political and geopolitical issues. The author also talks about the destabilising factors that have impacted the development of the country and he cautions about religion being used as a political tool for destabilisation. Yet again, Bhandari calls to attention the need for a National Security Policy. In this edition of Business 360, we spoke to Bhandari on the importance of some of the issues he has raised in his book. Excerpts:

What was the main reason for you to write ‘National Security and the State’?

Previously, people in Nepal did not have any idea about National Security Policy (NSP) and even the army did not know much about the concept. From politicians all the way to the general public, everyone used to believe that security is the concern of the army. Yes, the army knew about maintaining security but didn’t know what exactly a National Security Policy is. If you look across the world, every country keeps this policy in priority. But what is NSP? Everybody should understand that NSP is not only the army’s business. Every citizen should know about it. National Security Policy deals with issues related to national interest, of issues that are beneficial for the nation. The country could face different types of security situations in different intervals of time, NSP is the document that spells out the type of security that is needed for all these situations. It is the parent policy of a nation and encompasses all the sectors for the benefit of the country. In a country like ours, which is geographically small, the defence policy comprises only 20% of our security aspect. The remaining is for other things. Since people were not aware about this when we decided to frame one, we first conducted a study on it. We took inputs from other countries and worked with whatever we could lay our hands on to draft the NSP. This book explains the need for the policy.
The other major concern for a small country is its existence. Existential security is always a major concern to each and every small country. When we talk about existential security, we can take the example of Israel which is also a small country. If you look at their policies and laws, you will notice that all are in conjunction with existential security. That is their topmost priority.
When drafting the policy, it also helped us improve our knowledge on the subject because we got the opportunity to look into the policies of other nations. After my retirement, I started advocating for the policy. I held interactions in many places to make people aware about the policy and its significance. I am satisfied now, in the sense that at least some political leaders have started having conversations about the need for NSP. That I would say is quite an achievement for me. You must understand that NSP is a comprehensive security policy and encompasses the security of all sectors, whether it be foreign policy or environment or culture or heritage. Since I had done my doctorate on this subject and also because of my interest in it, I thought why not write something on the issue. However, I realised that I might not have the expert knowledge on the subject and thus referred to multiple articles available in the public library in New York and other resources too. I have written this book with a focus on how NSP should be for a geographically small country like ours because for a country like Nepal things that are required could differ from those required in bigger nations. It took me almost four years to finally publish it.

What are the areas we need to give priority to in the NSP?

Priority always differs according to individual countries. It is not necessary for the NSP of one country to match that of another. There are certain parameters which are common to nearly all nations like independence, sovereignty and integrity, among others. But the priority of each nation varies, some things are country specific for different reasons. There is no one template fits all. For example, we have two other geographically small nations, Bhutan and the Maldives. For Maldives, the biggest national security threat is the rising sea level but for Bhutan that is not an issue even though both are facing ecological issues. Similarly, we also are faced with many challenges and opportunities because we are in between two giant nations. We also have to deal with labour security, environment security and economic security, among others. For instance, diplomatic security is also a major concern. To manage all these concerns, we require political security and when I look at the ways things are going this is probably the most concerning security factor. Why? Because when there is political security then usually all other things fall into place. Whenever the political situation is adverse, it is a threat to national security. That is one thing we desperately need at the moment. Just having political parties and following democratic processes do not mean we have political security. People have aspirations, and public concerns. There are also certain established norms and values we have in our history and culture. To protect all these aspects, we have the constitution. So, protecting the constitution is important and for that we need political security. At the moment I would say political security is in a critical situation. The other major concern for a small country is its existence. Existential security is always a major concern to each and every small country. When we talk about existential security, we can take the example of Israel which is also a small country. If you look at their policies and laws, you will notice that all are in conjunction with existential security. That is their topmost priority. Whatever Israel does, it does in relation to guaranteeing its existential security. We are also a small country and due to that we are not in a very comfortable position. If you ask me, then all the other security challenges emanate from political security.

What are the destabilising factors that have impacted the development of the country and in what ways?

We could take the economy as an example for the moment. If we had properly utilised all the resources that are available in the country, then our economy wouldn’t be in the state it is at present. The problem is we sit in Kathmandu and look at the other parts of the country through this lens and make assumptions. For economic stability there should be proper management of all our resources. That is one destabilising factor for us. Then we have the foreign policy in which the general public are not so interested. However, if the foreign policy is not good then it becomes a destabilising factor which I guess everybody is aware of. Though it might not be blatantly visible to the public as the economy is, we have to be aware that the foreign policy has a massive effect on the people. Since our foreign policy is not apt that has become a diplomatic security challenge. The other destabilising factor which most people are not aware of is environment security. So many people have been displaced in the country due to floods or drought. All these are also destabilising factors and our major concerns. If we can manage some key destabilising factors, then other factors will not be able to destabilise us in any major way. But again, I would like to emphasise that for these we need political security which we are lacking.

You talk about religion being used as a political tool for destabilisation. Could you elaborate?

The reason why I have given religion prominence in national security is due to the fact that the existence of a country is not limited to just the geographical boundaries and the people living within those borders. If you want to kill the identity of a country, there are a couple of things one can destroy. You can destroy its history, language, religion or even its culture and tradition. When you destroy just these few things, you can kill the existence of a country. This, I believe, has started happening now and religion is a major factor. No matter who says what, no matter what is enshrined in the constitution, Nepal is not a country that had to be a secular state; by this I mean we should not have done away with our Hindu identity. In a country where over 80% of the population is Hindu, how can we think of getting rid of that identity. This was a Western agenda that was included when the country was in a turmoil. I don’t think the public demanded so. There are some agents who tried to destabilise the nation in the name of religion. Secularism was not needed in our country but having said that I would like to emphasise that every religion should be given due respect. There can be no debate about that. No matter who lives in the country, that person’s religion, culture and traditions must be respected, honoured and promoted. In fact, the state should protect, preserve and also promote any religion. We compromised with our established norms and values.
We should always have a neutral position when it comes to India and China. Both countries are our neighbours and we should have different ways in how we deal with our neighbours. The template by which we deal with India will not match with how we deal with China. The only thing that the template should fundamentally deal with is our national interest.
Like I talked about Israel earlier, it is a Jewish state. Similarly, there are many Christian, Buddhist and Muslim states. What difference would it have made if we remained a Hindu state? If other countries can have a religious identity why not us? We don’t have to adopt everything that some developed countries propagate. Whenever we try to introduce any new idea, we have to ask ourselves if it suits us. We need things that match our norms, values and culture. If we import things on the pressure or influence of others, then it will not only not suit us but could also hurt us in many ways. Ideas should not be imposed upon by others for whatever reason it may be. The reason I mentioned religion is because our country should be a Hindu nation but not by denouncing other religions. Being a Hindu nation was our strength, we were the only single Hindu nation. We did away with something we had. That’s why I say such people will ruin the country by bringing in ideas that are not compatible with our ways. Also, if we were a Hindu nation, we could have used it for tourism promotion too. In fact, we can promote Buddhism too across the world as we have Lumbini and other Buddhist sites that can be used to attract thousands of tourists but we have neglected that fact. We have to learn to capitalise on our strength but we compromised with our established national strength, we minimised our strength. That is where we are going wrong. Yes, we do have the mountains but to be honest mountain tourism is for a select few. If we promote religious tourism, we can attract millions of tourists. This is how we can develop mass tourism and subsequently the mass economy. We brought in a Western agenda and did away with our religious strength. That is why I mentioned the value of religion in the NSP.

Was Nepal ready for the federal structure of governance?

I think it will be difficult for our economy to sustain the system. This is where political security comes into play. Why do we need to import ideas that do not suit us due to the pressure of others? I would say the federal structure is a Western agenda. If you remember in those initial days, there was actually an office in New Baneshwor solely dedicated to that purpose. I feel we were being used as a testing ground. I believe it was done to somehow destabilise us so that those concerned could come and work as per their interest. They advocated so much about the federal structure that everybody from the politician right down to the common man started believing it is good for us. Political leaders should be able to understand their country properly. How can we compare Switzerland with Nepal? Look at their economy and ours. It does not make sense to blame the outsiders, however. It is a fact that some of our people are willing to listen and follow others for a few dollars in their pockets. I reiterate federalism is not feasible or viable for us. Gradually, people have begun to understand the economic cost of it. The sad part is those responsible cannot or do not want to own up to that fact because it is about their prestige. There should be someone among the political leadership who has the courage to say that federalism is not feasible for us. Those who believe in it should be able to justify it. Aren’t there countries without federalism? Decentralisation is the word we should have been focusing on. If we have well-functioning central and local governments then we will do fine and I think that is more suitable.

How best can we balance our relations with the two emerging giants, India and China?

There are a couple of issues I have identified to balance our relationship with India and China. The first priority is that we be clear about our policies. We should never be aligned to any one country. The problem here is when a certain party forms the government, they are aligned to one side and when another party comes to power they are aligned to another side. This has been compromising our national interest. Who can control this? The constitution has mentioned about it but the way people interpret it could differ. People need a valid guideline of what they can or cannot do and that is where the National Security Policy comes into play. The constitution cannot mention each and every detail, that is not practical but it does provide guidance for the nation and based on that we can have details in the NSP regarding every subject. Once guidelines have been given in the NSP, then all concerned ministries, line agencies and departments should frame policies in accordance with the security policy to implement it. And once that document has been approved, the country should function as per that. It should not be a free for all type of situation whereby any party who forms the government starts working as per their party policy. Any political party should be responsible for only properly implementing the established policies of the country. A government should function according to the constitution, NSP and the execution policies that have already been defined. How can a political ideology be fit for the country? That is what is happening in Nepal. It is in this phase that we are lagging behind, we are failing. The only way we can improve this situation is by the government following the NSP. Another policy has been drafted but it has not been made public. NSP has to be a white paper because security is always a public concern. Every citizen should be concerned and everybody should know about it. I don’t know why our people are not understanding this. I recently took a class for about 30 assistant secretaries and I have told them that the NSP should be made public as a white paper and not be kept under wraps. I believe that a political party’s only responsibility is to properly implement the NSP and not frame their own policies based on their respective ideologies. That is not happening in our country. Coming back to the main question, I would say we should always have a neutral position when it comes to India and China. Both countries are our neighbours and we should have different ways in how we deal with our neighbours. The template by which we deal with India will not match with how we deal with China. The only thing that the template should fundamentally deal with is our national interest. We should frame a national interest template and based on that we should deal with them in different ways. We have been linked with India for centuries and there is so much of people-to-people contact, be it religious, economic or cultural. We do not have that type of connect with China. The only issue here is, at times, we think of somebody as a good person because we don’t know much about them but if we know a lot about somebody then we will know their faults also and we assume they are not good. That is wrong actually. Whatever relationship we have with either country, we should use that relationship for the best of our national interest. We should have different policies for both the countries and these have to be mentioned in the NSP.
The best route for BRI to enter India is via Nepal. Once India and China start developing friendly relations they can spend the money they spend on arms in boosting their economies which will trickle down to Nepal. It might sound stupendous but it is possible. However, the question now remains as to who will take the initiative and how.
The other aspect I would like to mention is our policies should not allow our land to be used to affect both the countries negatively. In it will lie our own security. We have to make them feel comfortable that there will be no danger in any way whatsoever from our country. When we are able to assure both the nations about this, it in turn will guarantee our security. But most of us are biased against one or the other which should not be happening. No matter how independent we say our economy is if you look at it closely then India directly or indirectly controls our economy. If they pull the carpet from under our feet, then Nepal could economically collapse. So how can we protect ourselves? Being non-aligned does not mean keeping everyone in the same bracket. Non-aligned means we are not aligned with any country but we need to have separate policies for India and China. We are lacking in that. We have to have two separate policies for both countries. Just because we give the Indian army chief the position of honorary general does not necessarily mean we do the same for our Chinese counterpart. I see that people raise unnecessary issues. We should be dealing with issues that are needed for us and not introduce new things just for the sake of it. We should focus on strengthening what we have first. It may sound utopian but Nepal can play a big role when it comes to India and China that could benefit all three countries. And this will go a long way in maintaining regional as well as global security. There are possibilities and it only depends on how we can tap them. India and China do have border skirmishes at times but that does happen when you have two giants in proximity. However, they do settle those issues and they have various agreements to that effect. So, skirmishes take place but so do peace engagements. If you look at the trade between the two, then it is tremendous. There are some economic thinkers on both sides who think it would be great if both countries could partner economically. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), for instance, cannot be termed successful no matter what one says unless India adopts it because India is their biggest market. Everybody is talking about the 21st century being the Asian century but making that a reality is not possible unless India and China actually work together. There are other great economies in Asia but without the two collaborating we can’t envision an Asian century to be honest. It is here that Nepal can play the role of a lynchpin that helps run the bigger machines. China desperately wants to make BRI a success which is not possible without India and India has the national aspiration of becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council and subsequently a superpower which is not possible without China backing it. Since Nepal enjoys a cordial, I would say a healthy relation with both, if someone acceptable to both nations can take the initiative to bring them together we could be reaping huge benefits. The best route for BRI to enter India is via Nepal. Once India and China start developing friendly relations they can spend the money they spend on arms in boosting their economies which will trickle down to Nepal. It might sound stupendous but it is possible. However, the question now remains as to who will take the initiative and how.

Do you think it is apt for the army to be involved in commercial infrastructure projects like the Kathmandu-Tarai fast track road project?

I feel the army taking the responsibility of the Fast Track is a big mistake because it does not have the technical capacity for the project. The army does not have the capability for such national pride projects and should not be involved in them. The army neither has the required human resources nor other infrastructure support, it is not the job of the army. I feel there could be two reasons behind giving the army the responsibility of the Fast Track project. One could be to keep India quiet on that front because the government had cancelled the agreement with an Indian company to build the project. The other reason could be to tarnish the image of the army as the political leadership at that time had sour relations with the army and they knew the army will not be able to build it. I somehow feel it was imposed on the army. There are so many pride projects which have been stuck for years, so the army should not be involved in such projects and tarnish its reputation. It needs to pull out of it, I would say. As a career army man, I think the army should not be taking on such projects. What the army can do is provide assistance to build roads in remote places where it is difficult for a civilian to do so or where you need to detonate explosives to clear the way. READ ALSO:
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