In the late 1980s, while working at a college in Kathmandu, I had gone to the then-Royal Nepal Army's Bhadrakali recruitment centre with an applicant from my village in the eastern Tarai.
This young man's dream was to be an officer in the army. A major had endorsed his application, a requirement for recruitment. I had heard that Madhesis were not taken, but I didn't quite believe that.
I walked into the office and placed the application before an amiable young officer in charge of handling recruitment. He looked at me, looked down at the application and said: "Where is he from?" I told him. He smiled and said that although he would give the documents to his boss, as far as he knew nobody from the Tarai had ever been given commission in the army.
I still don't know if it was written policy not to recruit Tarai people in the officer rank or an unstated but understood code to disallow Madhesis. The army is still struggling to march with the cultural and political heterogeneity of a 'new' Nepal.
Army Chief Rukmangat Katuwal wants to keep the Nepal Army politics-free and professional during this confusing transition, and this deserves support. But eyebrows were raised when he told the National Interest Preservation Committee recently that army recruitment was like mountaineering expeditions hiring only Sherpas.
This was an unfortunate statement and showed that many in the Nepal Army still harbour the colonial myth of genetically-determined bravery, that courage is intrinsic to specific ethnic groups. The army needs to seriously rethink its history and role if such myths are still held as given. The composition of armies in multicultural democracies shows that bravery is not genetic but depends on the creation of historical circumstances and needs.
In the United States, the Blacks were not considered battle worthy until they took part by necessity and demonstrated their courage while fighting for their liberation during the Civil War. It took two World Wars, Vietnam and Korea to make the US military inclusive and change the idea of bravery associated with ethnicity.
The Mahars and Bengalis in India were thought to be 'not man enough' and 'unwarlike' by the British in comparison to the mythical valour of the Marathas, the Sikhs and the Rajputs. But there are Bihari, Mahar and Bengali regiments in the Indian Army. Nehru and Ambedkar made sure that the Indian Army represented all castes and ethnicities to make it truly inclusive of Indian diversity. Has the Punjabi domination of the Pakistan Army been the reason for Pakistan's recurrent military rule? Has the Sinhalese domination of the Sri Lankan Army been the cause of Sri Lanka's long civil war? A budding democracy like ours must ponder these questions.
There was a time when only Ranas could be high ranking officers. In the Panchayat period, the scope was widened to include Thakuris. Then on, a mix of hill ethnicities were inducted into the officer corps. And even the Bahuns, whom the British expressly barred from its Gurkha regiments, went into combat roles. But there have been few visible efforts to open its doors for Tarai people in its officer corps despite changes in the political system since 1990.
Change, however, doesn't mean that anything goes in the name of inclusivity. However, what defines capability in a colonial or authoritarian political culture may not work in a pluralist democracy. It may not produce the kind of bravery and courage needed to defend a heterogeneous state and its complex sovereignty. A multicultural army that represents all groups and classes is the best safeguard for democracy.
The Nepal Army has so far shown professionalism during the transition from monarchy to republicanism. It has had to overcome naysayers to respond to the changing times as it adapts to help in the birth of a new, inclusive Nepal and a new, vibrant army that reflects the nation it defends. It needs to continue its flexibility and dynamic history while maintaining its core values to meet the needs of a diverse democracy.