Nepali Times
PM, C-in-C and HM


Do we really need this explosion of criticism of the army chief's apparent insubordination when Nepalis in general are asserting this particular feature of personal liberty on all fronts? (#40) I think we are wasting time trying to discover the obvious. Look at all the needless effort we have put in to find out who controls the army. For months, the pradhan mantri found himself sparring with the pradhan senapati in the National Security Council (NSC) and they still couldn't figure out who was supposed to take orders from whom. So the prime minister ordered his finance minister to stop worrying about the budget deficit and handed him the defence portfolio in an effort to dilute the chief saab's dominance in the NSC. The government has had a two-to-one majority in the NSC ever since, but the general is sticking to his guns.

For the first time since sovereignty was vested in the people a decade ago, the prime minister, accompanied by key cabinet colleagues, the army and police chiefs, and top bureaucrats held an emergency meeting at Narayanhity Darbar. We were notified that the meeting amicably agreed to implement an Integrated Security and Development Plan (ISDP) to calm things on the Maoist front. A few days later, the army chief renewed his call for a national consensus before mobilising the army as part of the ISDP. Doesn't this sequence of events clearly explain who the boss is? If you still have doubts, repeat the words "supreme commander" three times and visualise the personality who enters your mind in full military regalia. If the generals blame the prime minister for trying to break their chain of command, you can't blame them. Technically speaking.

For a prime minister who has developed a special relationship with Royal Nepal Airlines during each of his four stints in office and who is ex-officio chancellor of the Royal Nepal Academy, this apparent inability to tame the third RNA must have come as nothing short of a personal failure. But times like these are not propitious for letting your personal feelings guide your politics. At a certain level, the political and the martial classes operate the same strategy: plotting the best way to rout your rival and charging full-speed ahead. But that's just about as far as the ballot and the bullet can hope to work together.

To be honest, our men in uniform are taking the rap. They are slammed for salivating to go on United Nations peacekeeping operations abroad and on customs checkpoint patrols but shying away from the rebel-held forests. The comparison is unfair. Our soldiers go to local border posts and foreign buffer zones only after they have done their risk analyses and calculating what the input-output ratio would be. Standing between the Hezbollah and the Israeli Army wearing a blue beret, carrying light arms for largely decorative purposes and getting paid in dollars is quite different from having to deploy in the danger zones of Dunai or Dailekh on perpetual red alert. At the customs checkpoints, the army's presence is enough to scare the wits out of the unauthorised traders. Such low-risk missions can't be compared to high-risk operations that would almost certainly require trading fire with an adversary whose arsenal consists of as many surprises as socket bombs.

The Maoist countryside is a craggy battlefield. You can't expect soldiers to fight the shadowy irregulars on ambiguous orders given by civilian leaders to whom firearms are just tools for winning elections. (I wonder how many leaders elected from Maoist-affected districts are willing to go back to the people they represent and talk peace.) The generals know that the Maoist insurgency has bloomed beyond that phase where an army flag march would be enough to keep the flowering lads and lasses out of sight. You can't expect flustered foot soldiers to fight ideologically focused clusters of warriors on promises of integrated security and development that half our members of parliament either oppose or don't understand.

All the generals want are some specifics. Are the soldiers just supposed to protect the police, build roads and bridges and provide a sense of security to the villagers? Are they expected to conduct joint operations to be followed by their own search-and-destroy missions? If the Maoist problem demands such a drastic solution as calling out the army on combat duty, what is holding back the government from declaring a constitutionally mandated state of emergency in districts affected by the insurgency? Can't the army-which is institutionally more sensitive than civil society about who gives the orders-expect basic candour from the people's representatives?

To be sure, there are complex issues involved on both sides. Allowing the army greater legroom within the current constitutional framework could pose a risk to our democratic evolution. Look at Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif. He fired an army chief for giving a speech that contained political overtones and replaced him with an officially vetted loyalist. Sharif then called out the troops to manage the state water and power company and gave them a free hand in collecting long overdue bills. He ended up losing his party's loyalty and his freedom to live in the country.
That said, our obsession with the country's democratic future must not be allowed to obscure the genuine concerns of our soldiers. They, too, keep up with current affairs. When serving and retired generals continue their Maoists-are-Nepalis-too chants, what they also mean is that they don't want the force to become a football the ruling and opposition parties can kick around at their convenience.

More importantly, our soldiers want to be sure they don't find themselves fighting extradition proceedings to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.
How much more civil can the commander-in-chief be on such a grave matter than seeking an all-party consensus in an address to an almost all-military audience at Shivapuri? It's not as if he expressed his feelings at a face-the-nation programme organised by the Nepali Society of Newspaper Editors where the defence minister was his co-panelist. Under the free-speech provisions of the constitution, even the army chief is entitled to some man-to-man talk on home turf with the boys he is being asked to put in harm's way. So let's not jump the gun here in our ardour to preserve the achievements of the historic people's movement.

This brings us back to the original question. Is the army under the government's control? Certainly not. Shouldn't it be? We're asking that question a decade too late. The architects of the constitution had their chance to settle the matter and blew it big time through their don't-ask-don't-tell compromise. The question does, however, retain its historical validity. After all, wouldn't putting the military back under the control of Singha Darbar undo the main achievement of the 1951 revolution-the restraining of an imperial prime minister-one of the very few national events we have been celebrating with equal fervour across party-and partyless-lines?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)