After Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala evidently played political brinkmanship with His Majesty at Nagarjun just before Dasain, the Royal Nepal Army seems to have finally been persuaded to lend a hand in countering the Maoist insurgency. Koirala sacrificed his Home Minister, Home Secretary and Chief of Police-evidently a small price to pay to have the army partially deployed at 16 district headquarters. The reluctant generals and lay folk of whatever ideological bent need to understand that the democratically elected government of the day has the right to decide what to do with the army. If we are a democracy, this point is non-negotiable.
The army brass was out of line when it let it be known that the soldiers could be deployed only on the basis of an all-party consensus, a clear attempt at political meddling and a challenge to the authority and legitimacy of a duly constituted democratic government. As is clear from the limited mobilisation of army personnel on the ground, the release of semi-automatic weapons to the police as promised, and from the statements of Defence Minister Mahesh Acharya, the military seems to have come around.
The issue of who the army should be answerable to is now a matter of public debate thanks to vibrant media coverage of the issue before Dasain. The army (even if reluctantly) submitting to the government's command has averted a near-constitutional crisis. It is now time to look at the problem that lies at the root of this power play: the Maoist insurgency. Just the threat of bringing the sipahis out of the barracks had a dramatic effect. Everyone is now racing to talk to the Maoists. Sher Bahadur Deuba says he beat everyone to it by talking with some mysterious Maoist at an undisclosed location. Comrade Madhav Kumar Nepal of the UML has offered his good offices, and the maverick leftist Padma Ratna Tuladhar seems willing to work to get the Maoists to the table. There is, suddenly, a whiff of reconciliation in the autumn air. Let the possibilities not be dashed this time-the country is teetering on the edge.
While the threat of using the Men in Green was a legitimate tool for Singha Durbar, it is the Men in Blue who have the long-term responsibility of keeping the peace. It is now clear that it was state terrorism unleashed by the police in 1997-98 in Rukum, Rolpa and Jajarkot that lit the spark for an expanding insurgency. But a disciplined, motivated police force will be a requirement of any government, even one run by Maoists. For all their initial excesses, the policemen have in the last couple of years been at the receiving end of the gun, grenade and pipe bomb. They have been no match for motivated militants using guerrilla warfare. The rest of the country looked askance as they were massacred inside their chaukis.
Unlike the Royal Nepal Army, the Nepal Police (which is not prefixed with a 'Royal') is relatively more heterogeneous-even a Madhesi once reached the rank of Deputy Inspector General. A look at the surnames of the 12 policemen killed in Dunai proves the point: hills and plains were tragically well-represented. With chronic corruption, brazen indiscipline, ad hocism among senior officers, and political interference from a succession of parties, the Nepal Police has a long way to go to reform itself. It is fashionable in the Valley's chattering classes to deride the police, but the fact is that it has only been the Boys in Blue who have been at the frontline. The political class deserted the Maoist-affected districts long ago, the Valley's academia and intellectuals have so far refused to come down from their privileged perches, and the army has remained preoccupied with Lebanon and Fulpati. It was the lowest rungs of the police that have died by the hundred.
As Nepali society surges ahead (as it must), the challenges faced by the police will become more complex. White-collar crimes, armed rebellion from dissatisfied groups, the question of honouring human rights at all times, all of these will require a very high degree of professional ability. A vigilant public, alert media and active judiciary will be needed to make the Nepal Police fulfil its motto of "Truth, Service, Security." Sure, we can get the army to restore peace, but in future it is the police which will have the responsibility of keeping that peace secure. For that, our men in blue uniform need to be made more capable, committed and motivated. There is no harm in waving a khukuri when circumstances so demand. The real challenge lies in sheathing it at the right time.