JALESWOR-As long as soldiers remain in the barracks, they are usually a benign force. But unleash them into civil roles and we have seen the military turn into a law onto itself the world over. This has become a frightening reality in Nepal, as the incident of beatings of devotees by soldiers in this tarai border town last week showed.
Compared to unresolved disappearances and deaths elsewhere, misdemeanours of a few inebriated soldiers in Mahottari may seem minor. It got a mention in the media, and was promptly forgotten. No follow-up, no commission to investigate it, no human rights activists. As if an incident in which no one died during Chhat in a small tarai town was somehow less important.
But wounds when covered fester. Gashes in the public psyche do not heal. Grievances when ignored pile up until they reach the boiling point. The military hooliganism in Mahottari needs to be aired so such incidents are not repeated, and also to prevent the anguish of the injured community turning into open anger.
In countries with civilian regimes, be they democratic or authoritarian, there are at least three requisites that legitimise the use of violence:
. the use of force has to be rational
. force is to be used for public purpose, not to settle private scores
. the consent of the people expressed through lawful civilian authority is a necessary condition for soldiers to resort to violence
If even one of these conditions is not met, violence becomes illegitimate and can be classified as 'state terror'. And terror, as we have heard, is terror.
Due to its ethnic composition, the Royal Nepali Army is not exactly seen as a friendly force around here. But that didn't matter as long as the soldiers remained in the barracks. Since 4 October, 2002, however, the RNA is practically running the show along the tarai highways. When soldiers interact with locals on daily basis people get to know first-hand what it means. Especially if it is a force that doesn't speak the language, doesn't respect the customs, doesn't relate to the people, has little or no concern for their beliefs, and bears little resemblance to their society.
The long-term implications of such behaviour is frightening. If the RNA is to improve its image, influence, and prestige, it must take immediate corrective measures to get its foot soldiers to behave. But the current situation makes it difficult for a rigid force to change.
Contrary to the claims made by top brass in Kathmandu, frustrations run deep among officers in the field. The soldiers are trained to put up a brave face, but probe a little and they admit frankly that this is a war they can't win but can't afford to lose. An army, any army, requires clarity of mission and certainty of conditions to give its best. But all this one is being asked to do is to degrade the insurgents and stand by an authority with questionable constitutionality.
The deployment of the current force bears little resemblance to ground reality. The countryside has been left free for the insurgents to roam. Concentrated in safe urban pockets, soldiers keep themselves busy with perfunctory duties, manning checkpoints, moving around in mufti. For newly recruited soldiers with low motivation, little education, and inadequate training, this kind of deployment is an open invitation to indulge in excesses. Actually, the fact that the record is not more reprehensible is a tribute to the values cherished by their families in rural Nepal.
The RNA has been fighting a shadowy enemy for over three years now and there is no end in sight. Everyone says that there is no military solution. If that's true what is the alternative? It's this haziness and hypocrisy that infuriates soldiers who put their lives on the line. Since there is nothing they can do to clear the confusion, they take it out on passers-by. That in turn alienates the civilian population even more and multiplies the rage.
For no fault of theirs, the soldiers are caught in a vicious circle, and fatigue has set in on the rank and file from fighting an enemy they can't see, defending targets they can't identify, and harassing the very people they are supposed to protect.
The rapprochement between Maoists and mainstream parties can release these hapless soldiers from the trap and pave the way for an urgent peace. Otherwise grievances in the south triggered by incidents like Jaleswor will sooner or later reach a boiling point.