The Royal Nepal Army doesn't seem to have anything better to do, so it wants to go into banking. This may be without precedence in Nepal, but armies in the neighbourhood have done it, and pretty successfully. Thai generals own banks and television stations, the Pakistani military runs its own airline. So why shouldn't we? Our army may ask. An ominous question, considering the political activities of both the Pakistani and Thai armed forces. It will be useful to recap Nepal's praetorian past. Our early generals rallied forth and unified the kingdom, but it was the prospect of material rewards that kept the forces of King Prithvi Narayan Shah on the march. Nepal's founder king himself explains it in his magnum opus, Divyopdesh: "If a king is generous, soldiers from far and wide are attracted to him out of greed." So this greedy band of desperadoes trudged all the way to Kangra and Almora, and was loyal as long as the army leadership remained with the battle-hardened officers corps from Gorkha's Pande and Basnyat families, and to a lesser extent, from the Magar and Gurung communities.
But it was when the army came to Kathmandu's mild climate, friendly topography, easy prosperity, and cosy security that it went soft. Soon, the brass was up to its neck in court intrigues. The Gorkhali army fell into the hands of Jang Bahadur Kunwar-a foxy general so ambitious he had no respect even for the doctrine of 'honour among thieves'. Jang Bahadur eliminated almost the entire Gorkha aristocracy based in Kathmandu in one fell swoop during the Kot Massacre on the night of 14 September 1846. The army then turned into a private militia that remained at the beck and call of successive Rana Prime Ministers. It was the Anglophile Ranas who sent them off first to counter the 1857 Mutiny in India, and then later to fight for the Allies in the two world wars. Back home, its main function was to keep the rulers safe and help organise elaborate hunting expeditions in honour of visiting dignitaries. The revolution of 1951 transferred control of the country, and the army, from the Ranas back to the Shahs. King Tribhuvan found that he had inherited a force that was a pale shadow of the glory days of the Gorkhali fauj. He acted swiftly to restore it back into shape with Indian help. A 100- member Indian military mission under a major general arrived in 1952 at the invitation of King Tribhuvan. Indians remained in some form or the other with the Nepali army for over a decade, and helped implement significant reforms in training, recruitment, promotion, and military discipline. The present Royal Nepal Army owes much of its structure to successive Indian advisers. Not so long after he was crowned, in 1960, King Mahendra used the troops to stage a royal coup, and end Nepal's first experiment with democracy. Thirty years later, when democracy was restored, questions were finally raised about the usefulness of a bloated army in an impoverished country. When the new Constitution was being drafted, there were rumours that the generals had pressed for a more active role for the king. It partly succeeded: an ambiguity over whether it is the elected government or the constitutional monarch who controls the armed forces was allowed to remain. This confusion continues to confound the polity to this day. Two prime ministers pledged publicly to mobilise the military to fight the Maoist insurgency, but both of them backed out following intransigence from the top brass. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala is less forthcoming, but according to Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, the king told him in no uncertain terms that his title of Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Nepal Army was not just ceremonial. Bhattarai believes that the king is under the impression that the army is still solely his, just as it has always been for all the rulers before him. If that is so, then the recommendation of the National Defence Council may be necessary, but not quite sufficient by itself, to put the troops at the disposal of the nation's chief executive. So it is natural that the army does what it likes, more or less independent of government. As Harka Gurung said at an informal gathering at Bhattarai's residence last week, the army is like "a state within the state, (with its) own schools, own hospitals, own commercial helicopter service". And now the generals want to become bankers as well. To be sure, the Army has a relatively unsullied image. This is perhaps because it has remained out of critical public gaze and hasn't been overtly involved in maintaining law and order like the Police. It has been effective in guarding Nepal's national parks, and preventing our rhinos and tigers from being decimated by poachers as they have been in India, and during natural disasters and mountain rescue has provided invaluable assistance. It can and should be more involved in the construction of development infrastructure in remote areas. While the Army needs to enhance such peripheral non-military roles, it should keep away from arenas best left to civilians. Still this is a far-from-transparent institution, and there may be only one way to make it more responsible-to gradually bring it within the ambit of political institutions so that it can operate according to the laws of the land. We cannot afford to have a state within a state anymore, this is not 1960, or for that matter 1846. As they say, when history takes a leap, it is often backwards.