Nepal: Back to the Brink of Political Anarchy
Nepal continued its unfortunate tryst with political instability with the latest incident of removal of Chief of the Army Staff, General Rukmangad Katawal by the government termed as unconstitutional by those opposing the same. Clashes have reportedly broken out in the streets of Kathmandu between Maoist supporters and the Nepal Congress. The decision has also not received support from key parties in the coalition, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), Sadbhavana Party and Communist Party of Nepal (United).
Chief of Army Staff General Katawal, as per some reports has refused to accept the decision as unconstitutional. President Dr. Ram Baran Yadav will now have to either hold the hands of the government or send it for endorsement by the Parliament, in which case the Maoists are likely to lose with only 229 members in a 600 plus Assembly. This in turn may lead to serious derailment of the peace process.
The genesis of the decision to sack the Army Chief is the conflict between the Defence Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa aka Badal and the Army Chief Katawal. The first stage in the controversy was recruitment in Nepal Army in November 2008. This was ordered to be halted by the Defence Minister stating that it was in violation of the comprehensive peace accord. Since the Nepal Army was filling up existing vacancies, the Army Chief clarified that this had a precedence and went ahead to complete the recruiting process. The Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA) in turn also started recruitment. The Supreme Court ruled that the PLA should halt recruitment and the Nepal Army not to do so in the future. This irked the Ministry of Defence extending the strained relations between the Chief of Army Staff and the Defence Minister.
The second crisis came up over extension of the terms of eight brigadier generals which was rejected by the Ministry of Defence though recommended by the Chief of Army Staff. The matter is now with the Supreme Court with the generals reinstated for the time being on court orders. The Army Chief explained the reinstatement to avoid violation of a court decree. It is suspected that the Ministry of Defence did not give extension to the Brigadier Generals to facilitate promotion of PLA commanders directly to these ranks.
The third incident of confrontation was over participation in the national games. With the PLA entering the fray, the Nepal Army reportedly withdrew from the games making the political hierarchy livid with rage as per reports in Nepali media. A build up of these incidents infuriated the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister while Maoist cadres built up pressure within the Party calling for a decisive action to remove the Chief of the Army Staff who was then put on notice. The Army Chief responded to the notice explaining his case.
Underlying the conflict as per Prashat Jha, Contributing Editor, Himal Southasian Magazine and Columnist, Nepali Times, Kathmandu is the power struggle within the Army. Writing in the SAIR edition of 27 April 2009 he says that General Kul Bahadur Khadka will take over as the Chief if Katawal is removed now while if he retires as per normal schedule in September, General Chhatraman Singh Gurung will be the Army Chief. Reports indicate that General Khadka has promised Maoists full integration of PLA cadres including those who are ineligible.
The plan submitted by General Kul Bahadur is reported to have included integration of the 19,000 Maoist combatants in the Army with a number of PLA commander's as Nanda Kishor Pun 'Pasang' promoted to the rank of Major General and others as Brigadiers. On 29 April however the Army issued a statement denying a rift in its senior most officers and indicated that all three generals were together in the crisis affecting its relationship with the Maoist hierarchy.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal assured President Ram Baran Yadav that the Army integration process will be completed by July 15. Dahal called on Yadav at the latter's office in Shital Niwas to brief him on political developments and his recent visit to Norway and Finland. 'I told him the Army integration process will be completed by mid-July as the Army Integration Special Technical Committee (AISTC) has started work,' Dahal told the media after the meeting. The eight-member AISTC formed on March 27, started work from the Maoist Cantonment Site in Nawalparasi where they held discussions with combatants on integration and their preferences in accordance with the he Army Integration Special Committee's (AISC) terms of reference. Given the present relationship and state of affairs between the Maoists and the Nepal Army, this appears highly unlikely.
The Nepal government's differences against its adversaries are also causing a serious concern about its ability to deliver governance. While the Maoists have succeeded in winning three more seats in the bye elections, the support by the people whether it is coercive or obtained democratically remains to be seen. There is thus a concern that the level of stability that is require to draft a constitution in time and hold elections may not be there at present.
Given the precarious state of polity, it is not expected that any consensus will emerge in the near future, but Nepal has the tradition of surviving only from the brinks of a political catastrophe. Hopefully this will be the case this time around as well though the preliminary indications are that saner counsel is unlikely to prevail unless the international community intervenes.
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Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle
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