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Return to Himalayan mess

world Updated: May 05, 2009 01:41 IST

General Rookmangud Katawal was an alumnus of the 35th course of the National Defence Academy at Khadakwasla. We knew him as a spirited boxer, a trait that underlined his warrior temperament right from those early cadet days. In 2006, I led a National Defence College delegation to Nepal and had the privilege of meeting him. Gen Katawal had just taken over as the chief of the Nepal army. Nepal was passing through momentous times. He exuded confidence and came across as a professional. He had imbibed the democratic ethos in his years of training in India.

Like a true professional, Gen Katawal has stood up for norms and values — the army of a democratic state must be absolutely apolitical. At the core of the latest controversy is the process of the integration of 32,250 Maoist cadres now confined to 28 cantonments. Of them, 19,692 of them are eligible to be treated as combatants. They are increasingly getting restive. Their stipend was just increased to Rs 2,000 per month.

India has an overwhelming stake in the successful conclusion of the peace process in Nepal and has expressed its anguish at Maoist efforts to humiliate the Nepalese army and tamper with its internal processes. There are four broad options for absorbing the Maoist cadres :

Mass integration

Partial integration

Absorption in existing paramilitary forces.

Absorption in new paramilitary force.

Thus though Nagas are recruited directly into the Indian Army (Naga Regt), the Hostiles who surrendered under the Shillong accord were absorbed in two newly raised BSF battalions(111and112BSF). This solution would have been optimal for Nepal.

The China angle

China has increased its aid to Nepal by 50% after the Maoist regime took over. It recently enhanced its aid package by $ 7.3 million to an overall figure of $ 21.9 million. There has been a spate of Chinese delegations to Nepal in recent months — 28 official delegations and several unofficial ones. It has been speculated that Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal was to sign a treaty of peace and friendship with China during his just-postponed visit. However, what is far more sinister is the support China is providing for the Maoisation of the Nepal army.

As per media reports, the outgoing Defence Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa was being assiduously courted by the Chinese. A professional army must maintain a uniformity of standards for recruitment and promotion. The Maoist defence minister had been pitching for the senior commanders of the Maoist PLA of Nepal to be absorbed directly in the higher ranks of the Nepal army.

The Nepal army rightly pointed out to their lack of formal military education and qualifications. The Chinese stepped in to help.

Dispute over Brig Gens

The dispute between the Maoist leadership and Gen Katawal was triggered by his proposal to extend the services of eight Brigadier Generals. Thapa refused to consider this and didn’t even forward it to the cabinet. The Maoist game plan possibly was to qualify their own PLA commanders in China and force them into senior positions in the army. In one stroke, the army would have been taken over from within.

It was for this reason that Gen Katawal resisted the move strongly. The brigadiers moved the supreme court. On March 25, Justice Kalyan Shreshta stayed the order to retire the officers. Gen Katawal promoted them. The Maoists went ballistic. Apparently Prachanda asked Gen Katawal to resign and held out the inducement that he would be made security advisor to the PM or an ambassador. Gen Katawal refused to budge. The Maoists issued him a show-cause notice. On April 22, mass protests were engineered in Kathmandu against the army chief.

Gen Katawal was to retire in August. By trying to remove him, the Maoists wanted to remove the slender buffer between a Maoist-dominated democracy and a Maoist “dictatorship of the proletariat”. China’s trying behind the scenes to recreate Nepal in its own image. The attempted Maoist putsch against the Nepal army has ominous security portents for India.

(The author is the former GOC of the counter-insurgency Romeo Force in J&K.)