The federal government has in recent months cited “national security” as one of its major justifications for various policy decisions and law bills. Indeed, governments of any country would sometimes mention concerns about national security. But when it happens frequently, as it currently does in Nepal, perhaps there is reason to flag it.
It’s not clear who is a threat to national security, but the government has made clear that the threat is a potentially serious one. It’s so serious that already in December, Home Ministry officials justified a government law bill that retains control of police and security at district level on federal hands, saying that “national security” is at stake.
Specifically, the Home Ministry officials argued that at a time when “secessionist elements” are “burning the flag” and trying to “destabilise the country”, federal control of police in the districts is a must to uphold law and order. This bill provoked protests from the provinces who argued that the constitution entitles them to maintain law and order.
In January, the Home Minister announced a federal decision to even set up an “area police office” in each of the country’s 753 local units. The reason? Well, such local police offices under federal control are needed, the Home Minister said, in order to “beef up security” against certain “forces” that are determined to undermine the federal system.
Or in Home Minister, Ram Bahadur Thapa’s, own words: “The federal government will formulate a plan to tighten the security in the country as some forces are hell-bent on reviving the old political system. Some forces are working to disturb peace… So, the central government will come out with a security plan to maintain law and order.”
Meanwhile, the government has also instructed all rural municipalities to create “community security committees” – that is, committees that would bring together police and community leaders as well as ordinary citizens – in order to mobilise locals for the purpose of helping the police in tracking “criminal elements” and reporting on them, among other things.
Just last week during a visit, the Home Minister urged all staff at the CDO’s office in Jhapa to stay alert of “anti-State forces” that are “active in the country”. He asked the local CDO to take “special measures” to curb certain “seperatist” and “disgruntled” forces in and outside the country who aim to create instability and topple the federal government.
Most recently, the federal government tabled a law bill that prohibits citizens from publishing posts on social media that are an attack on individuals, including members of government and political leaders, and on “national sovereignty”. Writing posts that speak badly of others, including the government, could send a citizen to prison for 5 years.
On February 11 the federal government submitted another law bill to parliament which basically prohibits government staff from criticising not only the government and the federal system but also political parties and party leaders. Should staffers – even as citizens outside working hours – share critical views like that on social media, they could get fired.
Why all these tough policy decisions and law bills at a time when the country’s government seems to rest on a solid base of support with a two-thirds majority in parliament? Well, it’s not easy to tell for sure. Perhaps the government is using its majority to put laws in place that it perceives as helpful for it to remain in power?
Or perhaps there are in fact forces threatening the government and the federal system to such a degree that tigthened security is the need of the hour. Could it be Nepali Congress who has indeed staged protests against the government, or might it be the provincial government in province 2 who pledges to hire their own CDO and police?
Well, it could also be popular folk artist, Pashupathi Sharma, who recently uploaded a satirical song on Youtube, criticising corruption in the government. In any case, two days after publishing the satirical song, Sharma was attacked and threatened on social media by sections of the government party and its youth wing, Youth Federation Nepal.
The government party and its youth wing accused Sharma of defaming the government and the ruling party, Nepal Communist Party, and of siding with the main opposition party, Nepali Congress. Youth Federation Nepal even warned him that unless he took down the video from Youtube they would ruin his career. Shortly after this, Sharma withdrew his video.
In light of all this, is free speech and the right to express one’s political opinion under threat in Nepal? Perhaps not, on the whole. But something is going on when a government is frequently citing abstract concepts like “national security” to justify measures that tighten security and limit civil and political liberties. This is hereby flagged as a trend to keep an eye on.
PS: Several law bills have just been registered in parliament countering the government bills, including the bill retaining control of CDOs and district police on federal hands, and the bills restricting freedom of expression of staffers and citizens a.o. on social media. It will likely matter a great deal to the future course of policy in Nepal which bills legislators pass into law!