State, army and the aam admi in Nepal

S.D. MUNI

back to issue

THE state-army relationship is passing through a critical transition in Nepal. It precipitated a crisis in May 2009 when the Maoist Prime Minister Dahal failed to sack the then army chief, Gen. Katawal, for his alleged defiance of the elected civilian government. There has always existed simmering tension between the Nepal Army (NA) on the one hand, and the Nepali people and their elected representatives on the other. Nurtured by the feudal rulers of Nepal for more than 250 years, the army has seldom been sensitive to popular aspirations or authority.

The Nepal Army emerged as a strong and powerful instrument of the feudal state in the process of King Prithvi Narayan Shah’s expansion of his small Gorkha principality into a large kingdom of Nepal in 1769. This process was carried out through ruthless military campaigns inflicting suffering on common people as well. Since then, NA has perceived itself to be a bastion of the Nepali nation and remained loyal to the feudal rulers. This loyalty, however, has been more tied to power in control of the state than to a given ruling clan or an individual ruler.

When the Ranas subdued the Shah monarchy in 1846 in a palace coup (Kot massacre) and established their prime ministerial oligarchy, the NA switched its de facto loyalty to them. Again, the NA smoothly subordinated itself to the Shah kings in 1951 when the Rana system was thrown out. The army also had no hesitation in switching loyalty to the new King Gyanendra after the palace massacre in June 2001.

It may be interesting to note that at the weakest moment of the monarchy on 21 April 2006, the NA did not hesitate in distancing itself from the king, even in resisting the popular movement. The then army chief, Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa, refused to obey the king blindly. On the advice of the then Indian foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, Gen. Thapa told the king that there was no military option in dealing with the popular movement. This left no choice before King Gyanendra but to retreat from his obstinate anti-people position.

The NA’s refusal to stand by the king in distress did not mean that it was ready to proclaim its loyalty to the popular forces, as we shall see later. Overall, even as the NA won no laurels in facing external challenges to Nepal’s security, it served its masters well in ruthlessly crushing ethnic and peasant revolts between 1770 and 1950.

During the decade of Nepal’s ‘experiments with democracy’ from 1951 to 1960 and the emergence of a strong monarchy thereafter until 2006, the NA firmly remained under the royal grip as a dependable force to deal with popular protests and democratic movements. In December 1960 and in February 2005, it did not hesitate to imprison, harass and torture elected representatives and popular leaders at the behest of the king. B.P. Koirala, Nepal’s first democratically elected prime minister, when jailed by King Mahendra in 1960, wondered if ‘the democratic system in Nepal (was) compatible with the preponderance of the Nepalese Army.’

 

Since 1960, the kings have made a conscious effort to consolidate their hold over the NA. In 1965, as a token of reward for its loyalty, the prefix of ‘Royal’ was added to the NA (i.e. Royal Nepal Army), and dropped only in April 2006 when the victory of Nepal’s second peoples’ movement, Jan Andolan-II, had radically transformed the character of the Nepali state. After the success of the first peoples’ movement (Jan Andolan-I) in 1990, the king and senior army generals lobbied to ensure that the king’s hold over the army was not weakened under the new constitution that removed the panchayat system and ushered in a multiparty democracy.

The new constitution provided for a National Defence Council (NDC), comprising of the prime minister, defence minister and army chief to advise the king on ‘administration and deployment’ of armed forces. But in effect the king continued to use his discretion in the affairs of the army by arbitrating between the prime minister and the army chief, as the former was often his own defence minister.

 

The conflict between the NA and the Maoists emerged only after 2001. Until then, the king had refused to deploy the army against the Maoist insurgency that broke out in 1996, fearing that such deployment would give political party leaders an access to the army’s chain of command, which might gradually erode his influence. The king also preferred to play the Maoists against the political party leaders whom he detested, going so far as to establish a clandestine channel of communication with the Maoists through his youngest brother Dhirendra. The Maoists openly hailed King Birendra as a nationalist leader when he was assassinated in the palace massacre in June 2001.

King Birendra’s hesitation in deploying RNA against the Maoists also arose from the fact that he felt that the NA was not capable of dealing with the challenge of insurgency. Its total strength was 45,000 men, more than one third of which was devoted to the security of the royalty and deployment in lucrative UN peace keeping operations. The remaining force was neither equipped nor trained to handle a highly motivated and well-organized insurgency. If deployed against the Maoists, the army would have fared badly, and made the king unpopular among its many innocent victims as well as the Maoists, who had not attacked the army till date.

 

These considerations were set aside by the new King Gyanendra in 2001. The Maoists had already blamed him for the palace massacre and they also attacked the army in November 2001. In the context of post 9/11 anti-terrorist atmosphere at the global and the regional levels, King Gyanendra decided to confront both the Maoists and political parties together to reinforce his own power and legitimacy that were under serious social scrutiny in Nepal.

While the Maoists were confronted with the NA deployment, the mainstream political parties were brushed aside, first through the dissolution of Parliament in 2002 and then, by imposition of the king’s direct rule after the coup of February 2005. In this adventure, the army remained his only ally and to keep its loyalty intact, Gyanendra contributed significantly to the enhancement of the army’s corporate interests.

Under his direction, in 2004 Prime Minister Deuba allowed NA to use the ‘army welfare fund’ in profitable investment and business ventures. A request on similar lines by NA in 2001 had been turned down by then Prime Minister G.P. Koirala. No wonder, the NA grew in size and resources after the Gyanendra’s coming to power in 2001. Its numbers increased from 45,000 to 100,000, and the budget allocations for defence were regularly enhanced annually. Foreign training and equipment, specially from the US and UK, were also mobilized for the NA.1 

To facilitate the NA’s operations against the Maoists, emergency was periodically imposed, resulting in greater impunity for the army. The army had never committed so serious and so many violations of human rights in its history as it did in the five years from 2001 to 2006. A Nepali NGO, Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC) working in the area of human rights reported in 2004: ‘The security forces (have) disobeyed, cheated, lied (to) the Supreme Court on the information sought by it regarding whereabouts of many people. This sort of contempt of court must immediately stop. The security agencies have downplayed the spirit of rule of law, human rights and democratic system… it looks as if the army is trying to bring the judiciary under its control.’ The army’s ruthlessness, human rights violations and impunity have been widely commented upon, including by the US and the United Nations.2 

 

The counter-insurgency war turned the NA and the Maoists into bitter enemies. In the guerrilla operations, the Maoists often had an upper hand and the army, despite its improved training, equipment and numbers, failed to make a serious dent in the insurgency. While the army had hardly ever faced a serious external challenge, its performance in dealing with internal revolts did not cover it with much glory either. It miserably failed to deal with internal chaos and revolts like those of K.I. Singh during 1951-55. Similarly, though the army enabled King Mahendra to stage an anti-democratic coup in 1960, it failed to decisively control the Nepali Congress (NC) rebellion in the following years.

The transformation of the NC’s armed struggle against the king should be traced to the changes in India’s stance towards democratic struggles in Nepal, first in the context of the 1962 conflict with China and then due to Indira Gandhi’s emergency regime that in 1976 forced B.P. Koirala and his NC to cooperate with the king. The army failed to protect the king’s panchayat system against Jan Andolan-I in 1989-90, and the Jan Andolan-II resulted in the victory of popular forces, that included the Maoists, leading to the eventual abolition of monarchy.

 

The Maoists and the NA fought bitterly against each other for nearly five years resulting in nearly 13,000 deaths during the insurgency period, many of whom were of innocent people. According to Nepali human rights group INSEC, two thirds of these deaths are credited to state security forces, including the army and one third to the Maoists.3 Both fought against each other with impunity, which has a long history in Nepal and has not yet ended.4 Since the Maoist insurgency was unlawful, their excesses are a big political issue in contemporary Nepal. Equally, the army’s human rights violations, involving rape, disappearances and fake encounters, have been widely discussed and taken up in the Nepali courts. The US Senate Committee on Appropriations in July 2009 flagged the need for the Nepal Army’s ‘full cooperation into civilian judicial process for investigations into human rights violations.’5 Again in December 2009, US, UK, some EU members and the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) demanded suspension of Major General Toran Bahadur Singh for his alleged role in the disappearance of 49 detainees from the army’s notorious Bhairavnath battalion in 2003-04.6 A Nepal Army officer, promoted recently and deployed in the UN peace keeping mission in Africa, Major Niranjan Basnet, was repatriated by the UN in December 2009, after revelations of his involvement in a highly publicized case of Maina Sunuwar’s rape and disappearance.7 

 

The hostility and animosity experienced by the Maoists and the RNA in the course of insurgency operations were at the root of the crisis precipitated in state-army relations in May 2009. The experience of treating each other as the ‘enemy’ in the pre-2006 period was consolidated by the manner in which the insurgency ended in April 2006.

Since there was no clear victor in the counter-insurgency war, the end of the Jan Andolan-II inflicted a sense of serious disadvantage, if not humiliation, on the NA. The insurgents win if they are not defeated and the state security forces lose if they do not establish a decisive victory. The Maoists had already shifted their goal of ‘peoples war’ from revolution to a ‘Republican Nepal’ by forging a united front with the other mainstream parties, thereby becoming a front runner in the peaceful resistance by Jan Andolan-II.

The king, with whom the army had stood firm, was forced to retreat from his position. The NA was, at least notionally, put at par with the Maoists Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of November 2006 between the Maoists and other political parties, and the United Nations was called in to manage the arms and armies both of the state and the Maoists on equal footing – locking up their arms, confining them to cantonments and restraining them from any operational activity, including further recruitment. Under Nepal’s peace agreement, the PLA combatants, numbering more than 19000, have to be integrated into Nepal’s security forces including the NA and the 95,000 strong NA has to undergo extensive restructuring to be ‘democratized’ and ‘humanized’.

 

All this has expectedly been hard for the NA to swallow. Despite its resilience in switching loyalty from one power to another during major political transitions, as has been noted earlier, the change of 2006 has proven much too radical for NA to cope with. It is important to remember that while the Maoists were the NA’s enemies, the political leaders too never commanded any real respect from the NA. Thus, the transfer of power from the king to the political parties was accepted by the NA for largely tactical reasons, as there was no alternative left. However, the NA has made no secret that it will stoutly resist the ethos and agenda of a ‘New Nepal’ unleashed by the Jan Andolan-II, specially in the areas where its traditional corporate interests are affected.

The lead in this respect was taken by Gen. Rookmangad Katawal who first manoeuvred himself to be appointed as army chief in 2006 and then started challenging and/or subverting all such decisions of the republican regime that did not suit the army’s interests. He even went public in deriding the ideals of secularism, inclusive republican democracy and federalism, though it is a moot point if he was consciously working for the return of the discarded monarchy. It may not be out of place to mention here that General Katawal was a protégé of the royals since the times of King Mahendra. In the year 2000 when he faced disciplinary action within the army for forging his date of birth, the late King Birendra intervened to protect him.

 

Analysing the manoeuvres behind Gen. Katawal’s appointment as the Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) by Prime Minister G.P. Koirala, an army insider later wrote: ‘Ultimately, Katawal outmanoeuvred them all. The prime minister and defence minister ordered the outgoing CoAS to hand over command to Katawal at the last hour. During this crucial one month period, the concerned believed that dirty political manoeuvrings took place that definitely involved many bargains and promises at the expense of national and institutional interests. Some politicians heavily invested in the NA chief and some of the generals politically.’8 

The NA has banked upon two factors in its resistance to the idea of New Nepal. One is support from those prominent political leaders, specially in the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party-United Marxist Leninist (UML), who had always been pliant to the king and never really endorsed either the Jan Andolan-II or the agenda of building a New Nepal. Second, the consensus and the united front between the Maoists and mainstream political parties that led the Jan Andolan-II started weakening soon after the formation of an interim government and an interim parliament in 2006 on issues of share in power and details of the structuring of the new Nepali state.

 

The Jan Andolan-II was in reality a mass movement for change with the united front between the Maoists and other parties serving as its political instrument. But in forging this instrument, the nitty-gritty of New Nepal had not been precisely debated, worked out and firmed up. While the basic consensus did result in eliminating the monarchy, and establishing an elected Constituent Assembly to prepare a constitution for New Nepal, there remained unresolved sharply held ideological positions and power stakes between the Maoists and the political parties on specific issues of state restructuring.

In particular, though broad principles were flagged on questions of security sector reforms, that included democratization of the army and integration of the Maoist combatants, differences on substantive details and mechanisms involved were left unresolved. In a struggle to protect its corporate traditional interests, the NA started exploiting these ambiguities and the widening schism between the Maoists and political parties.

The political consensus that held the Maoists and political parties together got seriously eroded on the question of power sharing as a result of the elections to the Constituent Assembly in April 2008. In these elections the Maoists emerged as the single largest party, securing more seats than the NC and the UML put together. The power sharing pact between the Maoists and the NC got seriously vitiated by the former’s refusal to either concede the presidency of the republic to G.P. Koirala or the defence ministry to his party. The Maoists feared that by doing so, Koirala or the NC may emerge as the ‘parallel centre of power.’ Clearly, the Maoists were naïve in handling the dynamics of power in an evolving and fragmented polity. No wonder, the transfer of power from the interim government of G.P. Koirala to a newly elected coalition government to be headed by the Maoists was delayed by nearly three months, an unprecedented development in a democratic transition of power, and the NC decided to sit in the opposition at the cost of national consensus.

 

The NA, and its new chief Gen. Katawal, took advantage of the growing polarization between the Maoists and political parties, specially the NC, and succeeded in inserting their corporate stakes as an issue in this political divide. The differences between the NA and the Maoist-led government, particularly the defence ministry (headed by the erstwhile Commander of PLA, Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’) started building up on issues of new recruitment to the army, promotion of army officers, integration of PLA combatants into the army, and participation of the PLA in the army’s national games.9 On all these issues, the NA defied the directions of the defence ministry.

It is possible to argue that these issues would not have reached a crisis level, had there been a NC defence minister. Gen. Katawal and some of his senior officers, however, lobbied with selected political party leaders and members of the diplomatic community in Nepal to mobilize support for their position on these issues. India and the US particularly looked towards the army sympathetically as, in their perception, a Nepal dominated by unrestrained and assertive Maoists could become a strategic liability in view of a rising China in the neighbourhood. For India, the NA was seen as a ‘friendly force’, given its deep fraternal ties with the Indian Army. India reportedly even cautioned Prime Minister Prachanda against ‘disturbing’ the army.10

 

The government asked the CoAS to explain his defiance, but the clarifications submitted by Gen. Katawal on 20 April 2009 only reiterated his position in a tone of defiance.11 The media also reported about a possible coup that the NA was planning against the government.12 Disapproving the clarifications submitted by the CoAS, the government dismissed Gen. Katawal. However, the cabinet was politically divided on the sacking decision, with the UML and the Madhes Janadhikar Forum (MJF) abstaining or dissenting on it. President Ram Baran Yadav, in the face of this divisive decision and representations from mainstream parties, annulled the decision and wrote directly to the CoAS to continue in office. The Maoist prime minister resigned on 4 May 2009 against the president’s move, claiming that ‘the respected president, under provocation and pressure from various political parties and forces, made a blatantly unconstitutional and undemocratic move.’

 

The army succeeded in protecting its turf and throwing out the Maoist-led elected government, primarily because of the political division bet-ween the Maoists and other political parties. While General Katawal has since retired, the NA’s resistance to the integration of Maoist combatants remains. Its upper caste leadership is hostile to the idea of their former enemies holding respectable ranks equal to them. It is also fearful that the PLA cadres who belong to similar ethnic groups and socio-economic strata as those of the rank and file of the NA, could easily become a source of disaffection against them if allowed in the army in large numbers. That is why even the new CoAS has expressed dissatisfaction at the leaders of the ruling parties (NC and UML) mentioning specific numbers of combatants to be integrated in the army.13 The NA generals’ contention on professionalism is, however, spurious as arrangements for special training of the integrated PLA cadres can always be arranged even after they are integrated and before they are assigned to active operational duties.

The question of integration of Maoist combatants, which is a key to the peace process, is also linked to the power struggle between Maoists and political parties. The latter feel that the militarized structure of the Maoists gives them a political advantage, which in all objectivity is a debatable proposition. The real weakness of the parties lies in their dismal performance over the past decade, weak organization and gullible leadership. The Maoists too have yet to completely liberate themselves from the idea that use of force in democratic politics is illegitimate.

Overall thus, the army has acquired a political clout which is not in sync with a democratic New Nepal. It will continue to encash this clout as long as the power struggle between the Maoists and political parties is not decisively resolved, either through a clear electoral dominance of either side or the emergence of a constructive consensus between the two for a New Nepal. Though the Maoists and political parties are engaged in resolving the issue of integration, doing this without any agreement on the democratization of the army will only reinforce the army’s traditional corporate interests, character and stakes.

This will not be a healthy development for the evolution of New Nepal, as it will leave the army inclined and capable of intervening in state affairs, particularly in a situation of heightened polarization of contending political forces. The international community too should not be complacent about the political ambitions of the NA, specially within the context of past South Asian experiences in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and to an extent even Sri Lanka. Both within and outside Nepal, all those who have a stake in the evolution of a resurgent democratic Nepal must carefully monitor the fluid interplay between the army and aspiring political forces.

 

Footnotes:

1. Dhruva Kumar and Hari Sharma, Security Sector Reform in Nepal: Challenges and Opportunities. Friends for Peace Publication, Kathmandu, Nepal, June 2005.

2. Asia Report No. 184, ‘Nepal: Peace and Justice’. International Crisis Group, Kathmandu/Brussels, January 2010.

3. Situation Update VIII: Ratification of International Criminal Court to Just Peace. Conflict Study Centre, Kathmandu, 15 September 2006. http://www.nepalresearch.org/coup_ 2005/paper/csc_060915.pdf.

4. The Asia Foundation, ‘Impunity in Nepal: An Exploratory Study’, September 1999. David Gellner (ed.), Resistance and the State: Nepalese Experiences. Social Sciences Press, New Delhi, 2003, and ICG Report, op cit.

5. Prakash Bom, ‘Nepal Army, Justice and Peace Process of Nepal’, American Chronicle, 28 July 2009.

6. Kamal Raj Sigdal and Phanindra Dahal, ‘Controversial Promotion of the Year: Toran Singh is No. 2 of Nepal Army’, United We Blog! for a Democratic Nepal, 24 December 2009, http://blog.com.np/tag/nepali-army/.

7. ‘Nepal Army Continues to Protect Accused Murderer in Maina Sunuwar Case’, News Blaze, 13 December 2009. http://newsblaze. com/story/20091213085745 nnnn.nb/top story.html

8. Randhoj Limbu-Angbuhang, ‘Apolitical My Foot’, http://www.kantipuronline.com/kolnews.php?&nid=207898.

9. Details of these issues and the positions taken by the army and government were extensively debated in the Nepali media. See for instance, Bishnu Pathak, ‘Army in Nepali Politics, Politics in Nepali Army’, United We Blog! for a Democratic Nepal, 6 May 2009. Keshar BDR Bhandari, ‘The Katawal Issue’, Kathmandu Post, 5 May 2009. Prakash Bom, ‘People’s Elected Nepal Government and Nepal Army Establishment’, http://www. global politician.com/print.asp?id=5434. Khgendra Sangroula, ‘Katuwal Mahtmaya’ (Katawal Episode), eKantipur, 23 April 2009, http://www.kantipuronline.com/kolnepa linews. php?&nid=190785. Also S.D. Muni, ‘The Civil-Military Crisis in Nepal’, The Hindu, New Delhi, 6 May 2009. Prashant Jha, ‘Deepening Distrust’, South Asia Intelligence Review, 9 March 2009. Dhruba Adhikari, ‘Military Shadow over Nepal’, Asia Times Online, 7 May 2008.

10. Yubaraj Ghimire, ‘India Warns Nepal PM Against Provoking Army’, The Indian Express, New Delhi, 22 April 2009.

11. ‘Excerpts From Army Chief’s Clarifications: I Have Played by the Rules’, Kathmandu Post, 23 April 2009.

12. Sudhir Sharma, ‘Ke-Ke Bhayo Senabhitra’ (What all happened inside the army), eKantipur, 23 April 2009, http://kantipur online.com/kolnepalinews.php?&nid= 190776.

13. Kantipur (Kathmandu) of 11 June 2010, as reported in http://www.nepalnews.com/main/index.php/news-archive/19-general/6731-na-miffed-with....

top