Meeting the Challenges of Extremism by Advancing Human Security Centered Policies: Perspective from Nepal by Jan Sharma
The following paper was presented at the Strategic Forum on "Meeting the Challenges of Extremism by Advancing Human Security Centred Policies" organised by the NESA Centre for Strategic Studies and the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) held from 6th - 7th September 2017 in Colombo.
Nepal remains relatively peaceful, compared to its South Asian neighbors, but has the potential for extremism because of a number of factors. Such factors include; the open border with India, the growing presence of Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf countries, including in conflict zones, highly politicized and ineffective security forces as well as a corrupt and weak political leadership. Political stability has remained elusive, notwithstanding the promulgation of a new constitution in September 2015 that was expected to end the political transition. The productivity levels of agricultural and industrial production have declined, worsening the trade deficit. Job opportunities are shrinking for an estimated number of 400,000 new entrants into the labor market annually. The fundamentals of the economy are sound so far, thanks to the remittance inflow, but poor governance and worsening service delivery create an ideal breeding ground for extremism to flourish. It is a testing time for the resilience of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious Nepali society.
Nepal is a landlocked country strategically located between China, which is a global economic and military power, and India, a regional power. Nepal has been struggling to survive as an independent country. Any conflict or extremism in Nepal would pose a severe risk toward its very existence as it would have security implications for both the neighbors. This paper looks into political and religious extremism in Nepal in relation to human security, how the Nepali state has been responding to these challenges and will conclude by looking at the future prospects.
Nepal has a history of political violence. The Kot Massacre in 1846 left at least 30 leading nobles dead and around 6,000 people were expelled from the country before Jung Bahadur Rana took over. Another revolution in 1951 restored the monarchy. The most devastating acts of political violence were the Maoist rebellion and the June 2001 Royal Palace Massacre, after which political stability has become elusive. Ironically, the world's only Hindu monarchy was abolished without even a shot being fired. The perpetrators of gross human rights violations are enjoying impunity from the state. Several groups have emerged to engage in purely criminal or terror activities under the political cover. Many of these groups are reportedly collaborating with criminal gangs operating across the border in India, taking advantage of the open, porous border.
Violent clashes in Tikapur, in August 2015, left 17 security personnel, including a Senior Superintendent of Police and three protesters, dead. At least 11 personnel of the Armed Police Force, six Nepal Police personnel and three protesters were killed. Clashes erupted after Tharuhat activists defied the curfew and prohibitory order issued by the district administration in the Tikapur and Durgauli areas of the Kailali District. Around 10,000 people carrying axes, bows and batons marched towards the prohibited area. Two important facts emerged from the riot. The first highlights that politics remains highly radicalized, as they challenge the authority of the state. The second fact is that highly politicized security agencies failed to coordinate a security response to the situation. As a result, the military had to be deployed to restore law and order. The masterminds of the attack are still at large.
The second example of violence is the Maleth riot in 2017. The riot raised a fundamental question: can one political group prevent the other from campaigning for elections and should they be allowed to? The main opposition, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist [UML], attempted to hold a campaign meeting, but a regional political group prevented the meeting from taking place. On 6 March, police opened fire, killing four people in Maleth, which is in the Saptari district. Police say protesters threw stones and explosive objects at the security forces, forcing them to open fire in order to “stop the situation from getting out of control.” The riot proved two things. First, that the right to peacefully express one's political view, a fundamental component of an inclusive democracy, is becoming difficult to exercise, given the intolerance. Secondly, that violence and extremism are becoming part of the political discourse in the country. It reflects on how extremism is being accepted in the political process.
Nepal is predominantly a Hindu society with Hindus representing 81.3 percent of the population. However, since the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, particularly following Yogi Adityanath's rise to power in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, several Hindu fundamentalist groups have emerged in Nepal. Buddhists make up 9 percent of the population but have been expanding their activities. Muslims constitute 4.4 percent of the population, making them the third largest religious group. A number of Wahhabi mosques and madrasas have sprung up in the Terai region, indicating a steady flow of funds from outside the country. Christians are the fifth largest religious group in the country. These groups have previously been living in harmony, but due to the recent rise in religious extremism, tensions have been growing between them.
According to Banerjee, Muslims in Nepal have established cross border activity with Bangladeshi insurgents in India's Siliguri Corridor. The extent of Muslim extremist and terrorist groups in Bangladesh provides the ideal conditions for Lashkar-e-Taiba’s (LeT) expansion. Yasin Bhatkal, an alleged co-founder of the Indian Mujahideen militant group and blamed for killing hundreds in a string of attacks in India, was arrested near the border of Nepal in August 2013. Top militant Abdul Karim Tunda, who is thought to be a senior member of the LeT, was also arrested near the border. However, there is little indication of Islamic fundamentalism or extremism among Nepal's Muslim population. They have been honestly abiding by the law of the country and have been well integrated into the society. This has been possible because of their adaptation; the madrasahs in Nepal have the same curriculum as in other schools. But given the growing international exposure in the Gulf countries, it is possible that some extremist groups could use Nepalis, at least 655,000 of which have been migrating annually to the Gulf countries and Malaysia, to spread their influence. Remittance inflow makes up a quarter of the country's GDP. Most remittance income is spent on consumption but they have also contributed to poverty reduction and human security. Children are going to better schools, the sick are getting medical care and the people are fed and clothed better. Human security of migrant workers, particularly of female workers, remains an issue as they are exposed to dangerous jobs. Cases of sexual harassment and exploitation have also been reported.
In August 2004, Islamic militants killed 12 Nepalis because they "came from their country to fight the Muslims and to serve the Jews and the Christians." The group, Army of Ansar al-Sunna, said the men were being punished for helping the United States, and that it had "carried out the sentence of God" against them. The Nepalis were in the Gulf region to make a living as cooks and cleaners. Nepal's Cabinet met in an emergency session and condemned the murders as a "barbarian act of terrorism", urging the international community to hunt down the killers. The government of Nepal did little to get its nationals released. Nepal was not part of the US-led coalition in Iraq. The government accused recruitment agencies of putting impoverished Nepali workers at risk in Iraq. It vowed "to take action against those persons who are found involved in illegal methods of recruitment of helpless Nepalis into Iraq, resulting in this devastating tragedy". Nepal has banned its citizens from going to Iraq but Nepalis have not stopped migrating.
Tension has been reported between the Hindu fundamentalist elements and Christian groups as they expand their activities. In September 2015, Hindu activists warned all foreign Christian missionaries to leave Nepal, blaming them for "corrupting the country." International Christian Concern reported that Morcha Nepal, a Hindu group, distributed leaflets warning Christian missionaries to leave the country. The leaflets read: "Foreign influence has manipulated government decisions" and "Christians have corrupted the country.” Following the warning, four bombs exploded at three Protestant churches in the Jhapa district, injuring three people. The Government of Nepal asked the Vatican to cancel Cardinal Filoni’s visit because of the tense situation in the area.
In September 2014 India’s Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, expressed concern over the growing religious fundamentalism along the India-Nepal border which was allegedly being fueled by jihadi elements. Singh underlined the need for more focused efforts to control the activities of criminal elements, terrorists and other Indian insurgent groups along the border. Bara District Police, in February 2017, revealed to the public that five Nepali nationals living in Pakistan, Malaysia and Dubai have been charged for "criminal activities", under the instruction of the Pakistan intelligence agency Inter Services ISI. Nepal and India are negotiating a new extradition treaty to replace the one signed in 1953 and a mutual legal assistance agreement. India's insistence that third country nationals should also be allowed to be extradited has delayed the signing of the treaty since negotiations began in 2001. While India has been complaining that Nepal had done little in controlling religious fundamentalism along the border, New Delhi has also courted not just Nepali extremist groups but also secessionists. Days before the Nepali Prime Minister's visit, India in January 2016 courted a Madheshi delegation and secessionist group in New Delhi. The Ministry of External Affairs called the ongoing outreach a part of the normal exchange. “We believe in maintaining contacts across the political spectrum of Nepal and our current interaction is part of that process," said an Indian government spokesman.
Responding to Human Security
The debate on human security is new in Nepal. The Constitution of Nepal 2015, the basic law of the land, for example, ignores human security dimensions. However, it does provide a long list of fundamental rights and duties, including the right to social security for indigent, incapacitated and helpless citizens, single women, children, citizens with disabilities and others who cannot take care of themselves as well as citizens belonging to tribes on the verge of extinction. Undoubtedly, it is a populist statement.
The Fourteenth Plan (2016-2019), the country's policy document, mainly focuses on human development with a social security and inclusion component. It provides for a Social Security Fund. Senior citizens aged 70 years qualify for a monthly senior citizen allowance. More than a million senior citizens are beneficiaries. Five model senior citizen villages are being constructed. Health insurance has also been launched in three districts to be expanded gradually to other districts. There is also a greater focus on inclusion of women at the decision making level. Women's representation has increased to 29.9 percent in Parliament, 17.5 percent in civil service and 3 percent in the judiciary.
The Cabinet in May 2016 adopted the National Security Policy. It refers to six security challenges, including "radicalism", with the other challenges being political, legal, social and economic, natural disasters, damages to natural resources and external threats. There is no doubt that the document needs further revision and improvements. Its biggest drawback is that security continues to be defined around the management of the military with a very limited role for the Nepal Army, which should, in fact, be playing a lead role in national security. The military is the only agency that has not yet been politicized, although attempts have been made in the name of "restructuring." The second biggest drawback is the way it envisages the National Defense Council, limiting its role in security affairs. If it were to manage security affairs, then why is it merely just the National Defense Council, and not a National Security Council? The Council has a "situation center" and provides a monthly intelligence report to the government, assessing political and contemporary developments. There have been criticisms that this report is based mostly on newspaper articles. The Council needs to be upgraded to a National Security Council with an effective role in strategic planning and decision making.
There is thus no coherent approach in addressing the challenges posed by extremism through advancing human security. Even the intergovernmental coordination is lacking. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not take into account strategic and security dimensions in the conduct of diplomacy. The Nepal Army has been pursuing "military diplomacy" on its own, which has no coordination with other government agencies. Security agencies under the Ministry of Home Affairs are highly politicized. The Nepal Police and Armed Police Force have become political tools for leaders while the National Investigation Department, the intelligence, is a recruiting agency for workers of political parties in power. It is a well-known that a number of countries have a much better intelligence network within Nepal than the Nepalese government. A proposal for the creation of a counterintelligence agency was proposed in 2000 to deal with the growing interferences from foreign agencies active in the country, but the proposal has been shot down for obvious reasons.
The Way Forward
In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of Nepal in 2005 banned the practice of Chhaupadi, which is a widespread practice in western Nepal when menstruating women and girls are banished to isolated places, including cattle sheds, for five to seven days. During this period, they are considered "impure" and are kept out of sight of the family. Many of these women are vulnerable to sexual abuses or snake bites. Nepal's Parliament went a step ahead and adopted legislation on 9 August 2017 in order to criminalize the Chhaupadi practice. It was a major step forward for human security in the country. However, such efforts would be meaningless unless there are efforts at creating greater awareness among young girls and women on the use of sanitary pads and hygiene.
Even if Nepal does not have the culture of strategic thinking in recent times, there is a broad consensus in Nepal on major policy interventions to promote human security. First is the regulation of the open border with India. The movement of people needs to be regulated because we do not know who is entering or leaving the country. Since Indians do not require visa or any identification to get into the country, it is being used not just by criminal elements but also by third country nationals, such as the Rohingya Muslims fleeing from Myanmar through India. The numbers of Rohingya arriving in Nepal are growing since the recent eruption of violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state. There are already 500 Rohingya living in Nepal. The government has no idea how they managed to get into the country, construct tents in private-owned land and are living without any problem. Following instruction to security forces to tighten border security, immigration officials on 17 September 2017 denied entry to seven Rohingya but many are feared to have crossed into Nepal from the open, porous border with India, especially after India’s decision not to take in any Rohingya and deport an estimated 40,000 that were living in India. The fear in Kathmandu is that they could easily manage to get into Nepal. Nepal already had terrible problems with the Bhutanese refugees, who also crossed into the country through India in the 1990s.
There are then issues relating to water security which is crucial for the country, not just for drinking water but also for irrigation and hydropower generation as well as water management techniques in the prevention of natural disasters such as floods, inundation and landslides. Failure to understand the science of water is the reason for much of the recent flood disasters, not just in Nepal but also in India and Bangladesh. The current emphasis on building embankments to control floods is wrong as they are temporary solutions that lead to disaster in the long-term. Floods in India’s Bihar region have worsened because of the embankments. On the other hand, many villages in Nepal's hills are reporting that sources of water are drying out, even in densely forested areas. The disappearance of water sources is triggering migration. There is a need for strategic thinking on a long-term integrated water management plan that lays out a clear priority toward water security.
Energy security is another issue meriting priority. Nepal has the potential for generating at least 42,000 megawatts of clean hydropower to meet the growing energy demand in Bangladesh and India but there is little cooperation among the countries sharing the river basins. There is a subdued debate in Nepal currently that it should harness its huge water resources to generate electricity for its own domestic benefit by promoting hydropower to displace importation of fuel and electricity. Unfortunately Nepal has failed to learn lessons from the Indian economic blockades in 1971, 1989 and 2015 which created unprecedented energy insecurity. Another area where urgent attention needs to be focused is in ensuring food security. Nepal was a net food exporter in the 1970s but today it is the net importer of food and agricultural products. The import of rice has increased by 13 times between 2008-09 and 2016-17. Nepal is importing virtually all food items such as wheat, maize, rice, buckwheat, millet, vegetables, meat, beans, cooking oil, fruits and vegetables. Many communities in the Himalayan region import food from across the border in Tibet because transportation is easier than the domestic food distribution networks which are costly and ineffective. Nepal is currently negotiating a transport deal with China to use its highways in Tibet to supply food and construction materials from China to Nepal’s Himalayan districts bordering Tibet.
There is a long list of issues affecting human security, from issues such as health security to matters of climate security. A good and positive start for Nepal will be in reviving its strategic thinking culture and reflecting on this when the National Security Policy is revised to incorporate elements of human security. Given the country’s current political and economic situation, it may look like a tall order. But when a new Parliament is elected by December, Nepal is expected to have a younger breed of legislators and a new Government is to be elected in January 2018, which could mark a better beginning for human security.