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Book Excerpt : Intrigue in the Himalayas

Battles of the New Republic by Prashant Jha looks at Nepal’s transition from monarchy to democracy. It also examines India’s role in the fall of Prachanda’s government. An excerpt

books Updated: May 31, 2014 14:41 IST
Hindustan Times
Intrigue in the Himalayas

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After eight-and-a-half months at the helm, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ resigned his prime ministership on 4 May 2009. The previous morning, he had dismissed the chief of the Nepal Army (NA), General Rukmangad Katawal, and appointed General Kul Bahadur Khadka in his place as acting head. The decision had been preceded by a three-week stand-off, ever since the Maoist government asked General Katawal for a ‘clarification’ about his repeated defiance of civilian orders.

The decision was not sudden, for all had not been well between the government and its army. ~ The Maoists had done exceedingly well, beating their own expectations, in the April 2008 elections. Four months later, they formed a majority-government with the support of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) [UML] and the new Madhesi forces of the plains. The politics of consensus, however, had broken down… At the end of 2008, the new defence minister, Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’ — a senior Maoist leader… — had ordered the NA not to hire new recruits as it violated the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which had stipulated that neither side would draft ‘additional military forces’. A defiant chief, Katawal said that he would go ahead... A month later, the NA recommended the extension of tenure of eight brigadier generals... This time, Minister Badal had his revenge by refusing to give all eight officers an extension. In a sign of the distrust that marked the polity, critics of the Maoists interpreted this as a ploy to subvert the chain of command, create a vacuum at senior levels, and eventually fill the positions with soldiers drawn from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Both cases went to the Supreme Court...

The incidents were merely a reflection of what many termed the ‘war hangover’. The then Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) and the PLA had engaged in a bitter and dirty military conflict for more than five years. The war had ended in a stalemate. But, as the Maoists were fond of emphasizing, the RNA’s supreme commander — King Gyanendra — had to demit his throne, even as the PLA’s supreme commander — Chairman Prachanda — became the new prime minister. Past memories embittered the present relationship...

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There was also a core divergence in interests and outlook. The Maoists were used to viewing the army as a ‘private army of the king, and a feudal force’. In his first appearance over ground in June 2006, at a crowded press conference in the prime minister’s residence, Prachanda had even called the army rapists, in a dark reference to its brutalities during the war… Indoctrinated in the royalist worldview, Katawal was a staunch champion of the state’s offensive against the rebels during the war... The Maoists insisted that for the peace process to reach a logical conclusion, Katawal had to be pushed out... ~ …The Maoists’ actions over the past nine months — their attempt to appoint their loyalists in state institutions, the use of their paramilitary structure to coerce rivals, their effort to obliterate the line between the party and the state — strengthened these apprehensions. The fact that they had their own private army and retained a politico-military organizational structure made their case for civilian supremacy sound hollow to many…

There was another power centre — sometimes visible, sometimes invisible — that was exercising real influence and shaping events… The Indian state had put its foot down. ~ The Indian ambassador to Nepal, Rakesh Sood, met Prime Minister Prachanda close to half a dozen times over a span of two weeks, advising and warning him not to dismiss General Katawal… Sood’s reservations about the Maoists’ intent had deepened when, at the end of 2008, Prachanda veered towards the party’s dogmatic wing at a party conclave and declared that the next stage of the revolt would be against ‘expansionists and its brokers’— in the ultra-Left’s dictionary, this translated into India and the democratic parties… ~ …So what made the Indians bat for the NA?... India also viewed the NA as the final bulwark which would resist any attempt by the Maoists to grab power… India was also deeply uncomfortable with the idea of former Maoist fighters being integrated into the national army...
For Delhi, the NA was an extension of its own security architecture. The NA and the Indian Army share deep fraternal ties... Nepali citizens serve in the Gorkha regiments in the Indian Army, and over 100,000 retired personnel are paid pension by the government of India in Nepal... The institutional ties often find reflection in the close personal bonds between officers of the two countries. In 2009, this assumed political significance as General Katawal had a firm supporter in the chief of the Indian Army, Deepak Kapoor — the two had attended the IMA in Dehradun together. General Kapoor is reported to have put his foot down when reports of the Maoists’ attempt to dismiss Katawal emerged… In April and May of 2009, all agencies handing Nepal policy in India — the MEA, the Ministry of Defence and the Indian Army, RAW, and the political leadership — decided that they had to ‘save the institution, the Nepal Army’...

By the evening of 3 May, the day Prime Minister Prachanda dismissed General Katawal, his key coalition partners had withdrawn support. At night, the first President of the republic, Ram Baran Yadav, took the unprecedented step of writing directly to the army chief, asking him to stick on to his position and defy the prime minister’s orders…

India had played a major behind-thescenes role in persuading supporting parties to pull out and reduce the Maoists to a minority...

The next afternoon, after a meeting of the Maoist secretariat, Prachanda resigned on national television. The prime minister blamed the President’s unconstitutional action, the repeated defiance of civilian orders by Katawal, and foreign interventionist forces as the triggers for the crisis. ‘The days when Nepali governments bowed to foreign lords to stay in power are over,’ he announced.

‘This is a fight for our national sovereignty.’

For those who missed the signal, the Maoists organized a huge protest rally immediately afterwards. The defining slogan was, ‘End Indian interference’. The defining image was stark — a charred effigy of Ambassador Sood.