Mounting security challenges for Nepal amidst pandemic

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Nepal’s struggles with political instability is well documented and common knowledge. The Prime Minister’s move to dissolve the House of Representatives on December 20 threw the country into a whirlwind of uncertainty. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic fuelling more challenges for the country, the implications for security have continued to intensify. The limbo Nepal is in has triggered various security threats including growing activities of extremist groups that view the crisis as an opportunity for expansion.

Politicization of religion:

Ever since Prime Minister Oli moved to dissolve the parliament, a decision which was overturned by the Supreme Court on February 23, he has been putting on show of sorts. He visited the Pashupatinath temple on January 25 and facilitated a special puja (worship) that lasted over an hour. Two weeks later, his faction of the NCP organized a mass gathering in front of the former royal palace where the Prime Minister’s supporters rallied around him and cheered him on during his speech. The optics of such events are difficult to ignore and appear to be Oli’s attempts to appease and garner sympathy from the pro-monarchy and pro-Hindu constituency. Pro-Hindu agenda has been gaining traction in Nepal, with some believing that a Hindu Nepal would also be a stepping stone for reinstating the monarchy. However, Nepal does not have to look far to see that the use of religion as political fodder can have dire consequences.

The Hindutva push in Nepal is quite reminiscent of the Hindu extremism in India. Hindutva politics in Nepal’s southern neighbor India has promoted a form of intolerant majority rule that encourages discrimination and violence against the minorities. The mob violence unleashed upon the Muslims in February of last year was a result of government representatives using violent rhetoric in the name of nationalism and majoritarianism. Recent comments made by Tripura’s Chief Minister Biplav Dev on Indian Home Minister Amit Shah’s alleged plans to ‘expand the party’s government in Nepal’ has also raised concerns. However, Hindu nationalist ideas and organizations such as RSS, imported from across the border have already found legitimacy in Nepal, further strengthened by the support of leaders like Kamal Thapa of the pro-Hindu and pro-monarchy Rashritya Prajatantra Party. As inappropriate as it is, the politicization of religion has been legitimized due to its potential to garner voters. However, the state embracing a particular religion sanctions the politics of hatred and violates the principle of democratic republicanism. Hindutva politics is emerging as a security threat as it is anti-minority, violent, undemocratic, and does not support Nepal’s secular identity.

Potential for peace with Biplav a farce?

A greater focus on mitigating the crisis created by the pandemic has inhibited the capacity of the government and security agencies, playing into the hands of the banned communist outfit led by Netra Bikram Chand (Biplav). Although the aim of the group is ambiguous, Biplav is leading trained former Maoist rebels with unknown quantity of arms, ammunition, and weapons. Recently, they have been scaling up their activities, from brutally murdering a local school teacher in Morang to planting bombs in various locations across Nepal, emerging as a security challenge for a country reeling under a global health crisis and political turmoil. However, meetings between the National Security Council and the cabinet have been frequent after Netra Bikram Chand (Biplav), the leader of the outlawed fringe of the Nepal Communist Party, issued a statement expressing willingness to hold talks with the government, asking for the ban against the group and its activities be lifted.

Authorities have suggested for the past few years that the government is willing to facilitate the journey of the group into mainstream politics. However, there had been no progress on that front until now. According to reports, the meeting discussed lifting the ban on the group and it is estimated that the Council of Ministers may declare the removal of the ban at the recommendation of the NSC. Even Prime Minister Oli has expressed readiness to reach an agreement with the outlawed group through dialogue. However, cadres of the group continue to be arrested from various locations across the country which make the efforts of holding dialogues with Biplav’s party seem insincere and politically motivated. Experts have said that “the government failed to make a proper assessment of the political and security dimensions of the group”. It appears that pursuing constructive dialogue with the group in an effort to create consensus and control activities is the pragmatic choice to make in the interest of national security.

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