Politics and military leadership: A case in republican Nepal

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Brig Gen (Retd) Dr. Umesh K. Bhattarai

There has been a long debate among the intelligentsia for and against the civil supremacy over the military in Nepal. Advocates of civilian oversight say that this system is perfect as Nepal Army has no history of military coup. It is another matter that it has been misused by autocratic rulers to prolong their regime. Based on this shortcoming, some argue that as an institution Nepal Army is mismanaged by its top leaders at times to fulfill the vested interest of political leaderships including the royalties in the past.

In such a context, in Republican Nepal- General Rookmangad Katawal was the first Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) who is credited to amend the Military Act of 1959 in 2006, after 46 years of its existence enabling royalty to exercise its dictatorship. The new Military Act was approved by the parliament under then head of the state and the Prime Minister Late Girija Prasad Koirala who was desperate to become first President of Republican Nepal in the transitional setting with the help of Maoist party and traditional power like Nepal Army under General Katawal’s leadership.

Other than the removal of death penalty provision, the new Military Act is harsher and more rigid compared to the previous one. It empowered the COAS with mandatory recommendation to promote, transfer and impose capital punishment on senior officers by the Council of Ministers which looks somehow or other a genuine arrangement in the system which is embroiled with massive polarisation. But on the other side it has encouraged COAS to become more autocratic as there is no mechanism of control in the army system as it used to be during royal regime. There was a need of mandatory approval from the monarch in major decisions that might have long term impact in national security including senior officers’ promotion, transfer and so on.

If we jog our memory lanes, the tumbling of Maoist’s first government is a matter of research for many social scientists in a country which is not only geopolitically sensitive but also a victim of divergent ideology that cripple the entire fabric of national integration into peril. In this infant republic, General Katawal’s date of birth case was much provoked and due to this brouhaha, his relation with Second-in-Command Lieutenant General Kul Bahadur Khadka could not remain cordial. As being next in the hierarchy to become the COAS, his desire to replace his senior cannot be taken as an ‘unnatural’ step. The much provoked dismissal case of General Katawal from the COAS post by the first Maoist-led government was stopped due to the prerogative order of then President Ram Baran Yadav which was later approved by the SC.

As per General Katawal’s ‘Autobiography’, he mentions that after the dismissal, he contacted few important personalities over the phone while he was returning from the prime minister’s residence in Baluwatar. But he declined to reveal who those personalities were. He keeps this information secret citing “state secret”. Grapevine had it that he was talking to his counterpart in India and pleading to do something as the Maoist Government in Nepal had dismissed him to topple the entire regime and the army as well.

If such rumours are true the question arises, is it fair to invite foreign intervention in internal matters? Being first man of the army he was responsible to set an example in the organisation but he was inviting foreign power to play with our internal matters. As an evidence, it was later accepted by India’s Ex-Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Nepal Shyam Sharan of India through his statement that India had interfered in Nepal’s internal affairs in then COAS General Katawal’s dismissal episode by then government in 2009 (Kantipur Daily, July 28, 2012). He further revealed that it was India’s wish not to let Maoist erode Nepal Army’s professional image at any cost.

In a desperate mood, General Katawal decided to carry out many activities as he has mentioned in his Autobiography but why he did not knock the door of the court in Nepal? He rather opted for foreign support. As it has been revealed by Madhav Basnet in Nepal Magazine in its December 11, 2011 issue, his date of birth case filed in the SC took almost three years to have the final verdict and even months were taken to get the ‘sheet-role’ file from the army headquarters which is not even one mile of distance from the Court. In this connection, then Senior Advocate Bishwa Kanta Mainali accepted the fact that the SC was quite liberal in the cases of politically motivated corruption compared to other cases. The SC dismissed the case later when General Katawal retired. This is the clear evidence of his ‘use and throw’ policy-at times he used the SC and its machinery for his own advantage and used the Indian Establishment when he felt the existing law could not protect him through the SC. In this ‘tug of war’, the ultimate victim was the infant republic in Nepal whose peace process was not only prolonged but the conflict embroiled into another bout of conflict between the army and the Maoists.General Chhatraman Gururng replaced General Katawal in a very controversial manner after sidelining Lieutenant General Kul Bahadur Khadka whose image was fully tarnished as a traitor by General Katawal. He was made a ‘scapegoat’ for his dismissal episode by the Maoist government. It was not unfair on the part of General Khadka to seek timely verdict by the SC in the date of birth case of General Katawal which would have opened his way to become next COAS. It was General Katawal’s responsibility to wait for timely verdict by the SC and facilitate smooth transition to his successor. But he influenced his rank and file to prolong the case till the time he desired to remain in the post. General Gurung reveals some of the facts in his newly published book Janatako Chhoro (Son of a Commoner) as General Katawal was trying to extend his tenure unethically but Madhav Kumar Nepal-led government rejected his proposal.

COAS-General Gurung commanded Nepal Army in a very low profile in the beginning. He was a bit introvert in nature but remained professional throughout his tenure. His communal feeling- which he could control at the initial stage surfaced in the spontaneous way when his community insisted him to abuse power. During his tenure, he could integrate Maoist combatants into the army and stopped much hyped political confrontation with the Maoist. The role he played in ‘Katwal Dismissal Episode’ cannot be said neutral as he was against the government decision, the legality of which could only be interpreted by the court in democratic setup. As per his newly published book, his intention has been clearly revealed as if he could sideline General Khadka, he would have been the next COAS.

General Gaurab SJB Rana was the third in the line to become COAS in republican Nepal. He was much seen and expected by most Nepalis as he was trained and exposed to international arena more than his predecessors. His ‘Fast Track Promotion’ system and bidding adieu of incompetent officers with golden handshake were controversial due to his failure to remain impartial in his decisions.

Present COASGeneral Rajendra Chhetri has started to manage Madhes agitation and the five month long economic embargo by the Indian Establishment. When the diplomatic mechanism failed to convince Indian counterparts to lift the blockade Chhetri managed to convince them to look into the hardship of Nepali people. Like most professionals, he was wise enough to use soft-power first to manage the crisis. However, his success will depend how he manages security matters and deals with political players.

The writer is presently working as Visiting Faculty for Tribhuvan as well as Lumbini Buddhist University of Nepal

ukbhattarai@gmail.com

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