Nepali Times
Red, Green and Blue


The aim of every revolution is to re-establish a new order with the force of arms. To this end, the guerrillas have to ultimately take on the establishment's praetorian wings: the police and the army. The aftermath of a revolution is the implementation of a new ideology, and the time it takes to implement that ideology depends on the effectiveness of the revolutionary leadership. No political system is perfect, its ideology and working order have to be modified according to the demands of the people and the state of the country. Otherwise, breakaway groups soon launch a revolution within a revolution: it all depends on the state's capacity to accommodate or eliminate dissatisfied groups.

The lessons from insurgencies in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and India are that revolutions find fertile ground in poor countries with unstable and corrupt governments. As the euphoria of democracy wears off in Nepal, and the majority of people find no tangible improvement in their lives after 11 years, some are willing to stake all for change. The response of successive governments in Kathmandu has been to reject this notion of democratic decay because it means admitting failure. So they have always looked at the "Maoist activities" as an irritating problem. But as the insurgency grows, and the influence of the Maoists spreads, it has also become a vote-capturing slogan for some, while others see it as an opportunity to fight factions within their own parties. Five years and nearly 2,000 deaths later, and after untold economic and social cost to Nepalis, it is time to analyse the government's response and why it has failed.

That the police force has been unable to control the insurgency is an accepted fact. A movement that started in four remote districts of central-west Nepal now has a presence in just about every part of the country. It is important to understand that the police is under the direct control of the home ministry and the prime minister. But there are frequent changes in government, and overt political interference in police appointments and its running, not only because of its security role but also because the police looks after lucrative sectors like the airport, customs and narcotics control. The professionalism of the police force has been severely tested by such interference. Their public relations has been poor, and morale is low in the ranks, not least because a Maoist area posting means you are either very unlucky, or without the proper connections.

Even when they had to take on the beginnings of the Maoists insurgency five years ago, the police was woefully unprepared. Police officers from lower ranks who joined up just so that they could earn a salary to support their families are the ones who have mostly been slaughtered in Maoist attacks. With their complete ignorance of guerrilla warfare tactics, antiquated bolt-action weaponry, lack of prompt helicopter support, meagre salaries and compensation to families and consequent morale problem the police have failed to do much about the Maoist threat.

The plans to set up separate units of a paramilitary police force armed with semi-automatic self-loading rifles (SLR) will simply shift the burden of this heavy rifle from the army to the police. SLRs weigh 15 pounds and are not at all suitable to be lugged around in mountain warfare. Even the army may find this weapon to be a problem if it has to engage in a future guerrilla war with the Maoists. Besides, at the rate that the Enfield 303s are being captured by the Maoists at present, it is only a question of time before the Maoists are likely to have more of the SLRs than the paramilitary. Besides, a 25,000-strong paramilitary force will be spread too thin on the ground and will not be effective in covering a district, let alone the whole country. As the army saying goes: "Mountains eat soldiers." The logical conclusion is that under the present scenario, the police force cannot effectively fight this insurgency.

The next option for the state is to deploy the army. Some units have been used for patrolling duties in 16 district headquarters after the Dunai attack in August. But we must ask ourselves, how prepared is the army? Or, even, how wise is it to involve the army? Deployment of the military cannot be done on the sly, it can only be ordered after the National Security Council has decided that it is the best course and the decision approved by the King.

History is replete with instances where armies have been mauled by insurgents: the defeat of the Americans in Vietnam, the Russians in Afghanistan and the Indians in Sri Lanka. There are a few exceptions where armies have been successful: the Malaya peninsula was one where the British used superior firepower, jungle terrain, and a strong army administration to crush the communists. But our Army may have to fight a protracted war against motivated and battle-hardened Maoists in difficult terrain. The consequences could be disastrous. The Royal Nepal Army has not really seen action since its blitzkrieg to wipe out Khampas in west Nepal in 1973, and to crush a poorly armed revolt in Okhaldhunga a few years before that, when about 20 rebels were killed. An army can only be the last resort, if it fails to win a decisive victory in a guerrilla war a negotiated solution has to be found.

The RNA at the moment is not battle-tested, morale in the junior ranks is not that high either because of low pay, the hardship of barrack life, irregular promotions and infrequent home leave. The mismanagement, inefficiencies, waste and corruption problems that plague the civil service have parallels in the military as well. The only difference is that in the army, it all gets hushed up.

Aside from these structural problems, the army also needs a higher budget, lighter weapons, and better morale if it is to take on the Maoists. The issue of chain of command also has to be cleared up. Who is giving the orders? The present deployment in 16 districts may be useful to familiarise the soldiers with local terrain, to gather information and to win the hearts and minds of the local people with road-building, medical care and other services. But it is a messy situation, and it could turn either way when the bullets start flying.

If it is to be deployed the army brass may demand some things more than a big budget. It would want total army control of the districts involved, acceptance of collateral damage by the government, and army action against civilians who don't cooperate. Added up, this could have an ominous meaning for Nepalis. It will be like declaring an emergency in those districts. Civilians will be caught in the crossfire, there could be a backlash against the military and the insurgents will use it cleverly to hit back. The country will be sucked into a vicious cycle of ever-intensifying violence. And if it looks like the insurgents have the upper hand, there could be massive desertions from both the police and the army. As the country plunges into civil war, there is the ever-present danger of external interference under one pretext or another.

It is clear from this scenario that there can be no military solution to this widening crisis. The roots of the Maoist insurgency lie in the failure of successive rulers to deliver basic health care, education, rampant graft and corruption, the widening gap between rich and poor, the politicisation of the civil service, inflation, shortages, unemployment, lack of security and the public perception that no one is in charge. The Maoist leaders have capitalised on this public frustration with a populist rallying cry. They have taken the short-cut to political recognition and governance by deliberately choosing a path of armed insurrection. With so much going for them, it is doubtful whether the Maoists are even interested in a compromise. The brief prospect of peace talks have now all but faded. At the level of rhetoric, their demands range from scrapping the constitutional monarchy, declaring Nepal a people's republic and curbing "Indian expansionism". But if a compromise is in the cards, they could settle for a change in the constitution, and punishment for corrupt leaders.

However, if the apathy of our rulers to the plight of Nepalis, their misery and daily struggle for survival continues, and lawlessness prevails the Maoists are sure to become a force to be reckoned with. There is no doubt that the business-as-usual approach can only lead to ruin. There is no military solution to this crisis. Pursuing that option will destroy the country, and may ultimately cost us our sovereignty.

(Dr Kanak Bahadur KC used to be with the Royal Nepal Army and is now running a private medical practice.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)