NRNs Can Be a Force for Change, for the Better: Kul Chandra Gautam

Former Deputy Executive Director of the UNICEF and Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, KUL CHANDRA GAUTAM, 60, is now back taking active participation in civil society activities and trying to support the country’s fragile peace process in whatever way possible. Gautam, who was the highest-ranking Nepali in the UN system, spoke to KASHISH DAS SHRESTHA in Kathmandu on contemporary issues. Excerpts:

After the army chief row resulted into the downfall of the Maoist-led government, the Maoists are alleging that the President violated constitutional norms. How are you looking at this controversy?
The Supreme Court will soon decide if the president’s actions were constitutional. The case could also be taken to the sovereign Constituent Assembly which after all symbolizes the supremacy of the people, and has the power to even impeach the president.

It is ironic that the one political party that has not renounced violence, that keeps a private army of its own, and that still subscribes to an ideology of “power comes from the barrel of the gun”, claims to stand for “civilian supremacy”. All other political parties with a much longer and consistent record of following democratic norms are castigated as supporting militarization, and being feudal, reactionary, anti-people, lackeys of foreigners – as certified by self-proclaimed defenders of the people. The Maoists and their sympathizers being the only supporters of “civilian supremacy” sounds curiously like the old Nepali saying “the cat is the watchdog of the milk” – doodhko saakshi biraalo!

You have been watching Nepal’s peace process from close quarters and have publicly expressed very strong ideas on the scope and the role of the army in Nepal. Would you like to share your views with us?

I have a long-term dream scenario and a short term immediate practical one. I’m a pacifist, so my long term dream scenario would be that a country like Nepal, like Costa Rica, can dream to be a country without an army altogether. Costa Rica has justified it by saying they neither expect to attack anybody nor do they expect to be attacked. That they want to be a peaceful demilitarized country and they have not had a military for the last four decades and the country has not collapsed. On the contrary, it is the most progressive the most prosperous an the most egalitarian country in all of South America. Here we are between India and China. If anybody could attack us it would be either of them. But one, we don’t expect them to attack us. Two, if they did attack us Nepal’s defense is not going to be based on the army, so our defense is diplomacy. So for the normal national security purposes, a country like Nepal in the long run should not need an army so long as we are able to maintain good diplomacy. That’s the long-term dream, that will maybe happen in my grandchildren’s lifetime.

In the short term, now, we do need a small army in Nepal but we need to be clear about their function. Securing the border of the nations, protecting the sovereign integrity, is going to be one of the functions. There are other functions that I think are uniquely suited for Nepal; one is international peacekeeping. Nepal has a very good image in the UN Peacekeeping operations and we are the fifth largest contributor to this force. Bravo! Let’s do more of that. Why couldn’t we be the number one contributor in the world? Right now we are contribution about five thousand peacekeepers. Why not 10,000, or 15,000? Let’s be the world’s number provider of peacekeepers. Second thing is Disaster Relief. The Army, if well trained, can do a beautiful job. Let’s mobilize the army in protecting the people from earthquakes, floods, landslides, and fires. I would be happy to see well-trained army professionals of several thousand who can provide this kind of service. The third is, a specialized group in the army such as the Army Corp of Engineers, Doctors, which could be utilized for those kinds of development purposes. In fact, during times when the Nepal army is not otherwise too occupied, instead of sitting idle in their barracks let them be involved in development activities with the specialized units provide technical knowledge. Finally, there are a few miscellaneous things the army can do such as making sure they are providing security to vital national institutions and infrastructures, VIPs. That’s what I would like to see.

So how do you think the integration of the Maoist PLA into the Nepali Army could be materialized in the current context?

Looking at what is in the best interest of the nation, I think a limited number of integration can be very useful and here is how. So far I’ve talked about the numbers. We need to look beyond the number and talk about the composition of the army. Our army, we all acknowledge, is not reflect the diversity of Nepal. It looks like it belongs to a certain group of people. What we don’t have in Nepal Army is proper representation. We have very few women, for example. I would like to see in this revamped army while overall number goes down the number of women must go up. While overall number goes down the number of madhesis, dalits should go up. Even as we decrease the size, we have to increase the number of the under represented groups so it will be an inclusive army. To do that, actually, some of the Maoists in the cantonments will be a good pool to draw from. After all, they have got 4-5,000 women. Let’s bring them on a preferential basis and provide them with good training particularly in international peace keeping. The UN is looking for more women soldiers and professional in peacekeeping operations. The army could also bring other marginalized members of the PLA on a preferential basis. But they must all meet the army’s normal recruitment criteria. I know some people will say how can you integrate these politically indoctrinated members of a political party? And yes, we need to be careful about that. But my own conviction is that many of these women and other Maoist combatants, most of them did not do so out of ideological fervor or conviction. They did it out of social circumstances. Bring them in and I think some of the ideological excessiveness will rub off after a while. Give them some good assignment, let them earn money, I would not worry that much about the ideological things. On the positive side of the ideology many of them are likely to have a progressive view of society, on caste system etc. so let us also take advantage of some of the positives that are there. But also we need to be careful that when and if they are integrated, there should not be any separate Maoist unit. After a little bit of basic training, mix them with the rest of the Nepal army. So there is a sense of camaraderie, a sense that they are part of a larger professional Nepal Army, not the agents of one political party.

While you lived in New York and other places, you were one of the most high profile Non-Resident Nepalis. You are now based in Nepal. What role do you see the NRNs having in not just the writing of the constitution but in the on-going peace process and the transitional phase Nepal is in? What contributions do you think will be key?

There are two things the NRNs can do. There is now a special committee the NRNs have organized to make suggestions for the constitution. And I know that the committee is about to finalize the recommendations. They have consulted with the National Coordination of over 24 countries and have had lots of participation with a flood of suggestions. A small team headed by Surya Subedi, a competent lawyer based in the UK, is putting together some recommendations and those will be presented shortly to appropriate officials. I hope that the NRN suggestions will be taken very seriously by the government because the NRNs come with a particular perspective. When you are right here in Nepal, you are subjected to a lot of today’s problems, temporary and local problems and concerts. With a little bit of distance, you are able to look at things with a perspective that questions what is good for all of Nepal. There is a little bit of a distance between the NRNs and Nepal that is very helpful.

Second, NRNs are still sustaining the country’s economy to a considerable degree. The remittance funds of the NRNs continue to be the backbone of Nepal’s economy and they will continue to be so. We hope that NRNs will continue to make this contribution. Then I think several NRNs are coming with special projects. Learning from lessons of other countries, quite a few of them have been able to rise above petty local ethnic concerns in the larger interest of the nation. I think just by doing that, investing in the development of this country, they can be a force for the change for the better. We should not expect much more that that from the NRNs. Remember among the NRNs, the vast majority are poor ordinary villagers who have gone to do menial jobs in Malaysia, Middle East and so on. They themselves are struggling to feed their families against great odds. They are simple folks, working hard far away from home. But thank goodness the small amount of remittance that individuals send are of huge difference to many rural communities in this country. That in it self is a major contribution.

The NRNs have also lobbied to maintain dual citizenship. How is that proceeding going on?

Very slowly! I think many political parties and their leaders, when they go abroad and meet NRN leaders or address NRN conferences, they enthusiastically say they will support dual citizenship. But in practice, not much progress has been made on that.

I hope in the case of dual citizenship we will learn from the experience of some of our neighboring countries and developing countries who have a longer experience than Nepal in dealing with their non-resident nationals. And they have come to the conclusion that providing dual citizenship is good for their country.

ON the other hand, short on dual citizenship, another NRN act has come into being, which I think is quite helpful.

But short of dual citizenship there are still many more things that can be done. For example, I find that many people of Nepali origin who have taken citizenship abroad to come back to Nepal for them, the Visa regime is terrible. They get these short-term visas. Why not a 10 year visa? India does that. Nepalis who are American citizens can get a 10-year multiple entry visa to India, but not to Nepal. Ridiculous! Please be more generous, why are we so conjus? This is nonsense. If it’s a question of money, charge them the money. Many of them will be happy to pay. I think there is some narrow-minded mentality that we need to overcome. But in the long run dual nationality with certain limitations, as is the case everywhere, is something worth considering. It will be in Nepal’s interest. Don’t do it as a favor to NRNs. Do it if it is in Nepal’s interest and I think the experience is enough from our neighboring countries that it can be structured in a way that it is in the best interest of Nepal.

Are you an NRN or just an NN (Nepali National)?

I am an NNN- Nepali Nepalis in Nepal, no longer an NRN. The larger NRN movement has a group of special advisors for them and I (am) in their advisory board and the advisors don’t have to be NRNs. After all I have lived abroad for so many years. I am happy to help NNN or Nepali Nepalis anywhere. To me, as I said, we are no 26 million Nepalis, I think we are 36 million in the world and I think we’re proud of all of them.

(Courtesy: Global Nepali magazine)