Nepali Times
State Of The State
Janatas and juntas


It is now nearly certain that Basudeb Thapa, the soldier who snuffed out 12 innocent lives in Nagarkot, didn't commit suicide. The length of an SLR's barrel rules it out. Another gun 'discovered' by the army from a buffalo wallow nearby was probably wielded by a fellow-soldier.

Reports of two parallel investigation commissions set up by the Royal Nepali Army (RNA) and the Home Ministry are unlikely to resolve the mystery. Whatever really happened, freak cases are easier to explain than deviant behaviour triggered by inherent weaknesses of a group. So if the socio-political reasons for soldiers running amok aren't properly understood and addressed, tragedies like this will keep happening.

The RNA has always remained outside the ambit of public inquiry. The myth that it is not just an instrument of the state but an independent institution has been carefully nurtured by successive rulers. Despite changes in 1990 popularly elected governments also continued to treat the RNA as a holy cow.

Structurally, the army is still rooted in 18th century monarchical traditions and run like an extension of the royal household. Loyalty to the king and royal family rather than commitment to the constitution has been its mission statement all along.

Its recruitment procedures still predominantly follow the historical practice of selection through familial links. In influential families it is customary to bring lads from the hills to work as domestics with the promise that they will join the force when they grow up. A patron-prot?g? relationship therefore dominates. Even from the so-called martial races, what the RNA gets are rejects of the British and Indian recruitments.

Despite its proud origins during the nation's unification, the RNA is yet to emerge as a rule-bound modern fighting force. The value system of soldiery in Nepal is the traditional loyalty of a royalist army.

Nepali sipahis have excelled whenever there was no ambiguity about their role. During the sack of Lucknow in 1857, in various theatres of the two world wars or in the course of peacekeeping missions all over the world Nepali soldiers have conducted themselves with exemplary professionalism and valour because their beliefs didn't clash with the duties assigned.

But the army's inherent weaknesses surfaced after its mobilisation to fight insurgency in November 2001. Despite reports of 'breaking the backbone' of Maoists, the sad reality is that the army has just not conducted any major counterinsurgency offensives. That cases like Nagarkot aren't more common is a tribute to the spiritual strength that binds the fabric of Nepali society. To emerge as a competent force capable of handling the complexities of a modern state, the RNA must urgently re-define itself as a Rastriya Nepali Army-a national army which is an instrument of the state and functions under the control of a legitimate civilian authority.

Since there seems to be an emerging consensus that the insurgency needs a political solution a future civilian leadership must be prepared to cut military flab, knock off some top-heavy brass, restructure command and control and turn the RNA into a professional fighting force.

No two countries are exactly alike but lessons from Burma, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand and Philippines show this is the only way to go. A militarised polity fails to deliver and prevents countries from realising their full potential. Janatas and juntas never did get along.

It would be a mistake to ignore the Nagarkot tragedy as an isolated incident. It was a timely reminder of the risks involved in maintaining an insular royalist force at this point in our history.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)