Special ties with a special army
On Wednesday, the chief of the Nepal army (NA), General Prabhu Ram Sharma, was accorded the rank of an honorary general of the Indian Army — a reciprocal tradition between the two countries — on his visit to India. The move reaffirms the importance of the relationship between the two militaries and the countries. To get a sense of why this relationship matters politically, it is useful to go back to four incidents.
In 2006, when the then Nepali monarch, Gyanendra Shah, sought to use the army to quell a mass movement for democracy, the then Indian foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, had a quiet chat with the NA chief — and suggested to him that deploying force would be unwise and it was time for the monarch to accept democratic aspirations. NA agreed, the movement succeeded, and monarchy collapsed. In 2009, when the newly-elected Maoist Prime Minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”, sought to sack the then army chief, NA reached out to India — warning that if Mr Prachanda succeeded, democracy would be in peril and the army would be politicised. India backed the army, the Maoist-led government fell, the army chief stayed, and Delhi ensured that the process of integration of Maoist combatants into NA (an element of the peace process after the civil war) did not change its fundamental character. In 2015, when protests over the newly-promulgated Constitution in Nepal saw India being accused of imposing a “blockade”, NA quietly conveyed to Delhi that “anti-Indianism” was rising, and it was in India’s interests to persuade the protesters to pull back. And finally, in 2018-2020, when KP Oli adopted a belligerent nationalist stance against India, and sought to cosy up to China, NA made it clear to Mr Oli that its relationship with India could not be replicated with any other country.
This history is important because of three factors. One, India and Nepal now have an active territorial dispute — and while Kathmandu’s political class has sensibly toned down its rhetoric for now, the politics of ultra nationalism could again lead to an escalation. NA will have a key role in moderating its irresponsible political establishment. Two, as the India-China military confrontation deepens, it is important that NA is sensitive to India’s security imperatives. And finally, irrespective of the ebbs and flows in the political relationship, it is important to have an old channel that is relatively free of the pressures of democratic politics.