The general’s odyssey

  • Rookmangud Katawal’s autobiography is worth reading for its insights into the Army and Nepali politics
- Lok Raj Baral
The general’s odyssey

Aug 19, 2014-

Military politics is not uncommon in human history. In the past, rulers and soldiers worked in tandem as masters and servants trained to sacrifice their lives on the order of the former. The army, therefore, became a perennial backbone of the personified ruler. Without an army, no state-centric or ruler-centric politics was ever envisaged. Nepali history, in particular, is a military history that has a wide narrative of conquests, wars, formation of territories with force and coups. Additionally, during the Rana period, all family members were decorated with military honours, as if the army and the family oligarchy were one.

A recent autobiography by former Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) Rookmangud Katawal, Rookmangud Katawal: Atmakatha, has not only provided glimpses of the Nepali military as an institution but also the continuation of the old tradition of court politics where plots and counter-plots changed the course of political history, setting off a series of systemic and governmental instabilities in the country. Knowing that the army was the pillar of a regime lacking popular legitimacy, king Mahendra and his successors made the national army the mainstay of their power.

The Army and the regime

The use of the military in deposing the first-ever elected government of BP Koirala in 1960 was the culmination of the rise of royal absolutism. Although Article 55 of the Constitution was invoked to take such a precipitous step, cloaking it as a constitutional move, the spirit of the coup was to nip party politics in the bud, expecting to lay down a partyless regime tailored to the absolute monarchy. However, as with any other authoritarian dictatorship in the world, the royal regime demonstrated its dilemma from the very beginning. It oscillated between a fully controlled regime and limited pluralism. And the army was used to crush violent anti-regime hit-and-run activities by the then outlawed Nepali Congress.

Katawal’s defence of the then Royal Nepal Army (now Nepal Army) is not plausible if one looks at the pre-1990 period of Nepali politics. In the post-1990 period, ie, after the restoration of the multiparty system making the king (theoretically) the constitutional head, the palace continued to be feared more than respected. The palace, the Army and India were perceived to be the actual factors determining national and personal politics.

Katawal’s strong defence of the Army for its continued obedience to the established legal and popular authority becomes more convincing if one tries to see the role of the Army in the 1990 and 2006 movements and after.

In 1990, the Army seems to have played a positive role in ending the crisis, or king Birendra’s own conscience might have prompted the Army to not resort to extreme force in crushing the movement. In the 2006 movement, as General Katawal has described, the mass upsurge was taken as an indication of the fall of the regime. The palace cliques had never studied the mood of the people, nor did they and the king ever consider marginalised forces as being potent enough to heighten the anti-king movement. Katawal states that he made several desperate attempts to convince the king to concede to certain demands from the opposition.

Humiliated and suspected, Katawal admits that he had an inkling of the bad days of the monarchy if such arrogance and miscalculation continued. King Gyanendra’s own folly and obduracy contributed to precipitate the situation, allowing Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists to conclude a 12-point agreement with the hidden agenda of eventually abolishing the monarchy itself. Since national and international factors were fast changing against the regime, the maneuverability of the king was drastically reduced.  

Nevertheless, a diehard monarchist, Katawal, after the declaration of the stripping of all powers vested in the king by the restored Parliament and the later declaration of the abolition of the monarchy by the first Constituent Assembly, argues that such issues could have been settled through the instrument of a referendum. But this argument does not hold ground when the CA, as a sovereign body, took the final decision. Certain issues that cannot be settled by minimum consensus can be referred to the people for their opinion. In this case, such a step was not essential.

Reading his text, one finds many untold stories about the relationship between the Army and the palace. According to Katawal, the Palace Secretariat, especially the military wing and the king’s aide-de-camps (ADCs) had de facto control over the military organisation. Any policy or decision taken in the name of the Army was in fact decided by the palace. Ironically, for outsiders, the NA was responsible for the security of the country and the palace.

A struggle to stay

Another part of General Katawal’s story is his struggle for survival as Commander-in-Chief of the Nepal Army (NA). From the very beginning, his strained relations with the Maoist government made him a suspect for being antagonistic. Thus, the Katawal story begins, just as the unfolding of a cinema plot. Eventually, readers get the impression that his smartness, bold steps, calculation, ‘commitment to democracy’ and support of political parties and the international community paid him rich dividends. Although, it was not a wholly constitutionally correct position when Katawal was allowed to function, despite a dismissal order handed down to him by then prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal.

Yet, given the Nepali context and the attitudes of leaders, it must be understood that mere legalistic and constitutional aspects are inadequate in resolving political crises. The political environment is as important as legal provisions. Since all the coalition partners in Prachanda’s Cabinet had deserted him, reducing it to a minority government, his decision to dismiss General Katawal was nullified by the President by virtue of being the supreme Commander-in-Chief and the guardian of the constitution.  

A pragmatic C-in-C

Sparing no one, Katuwal also talks about all politicians, including former prime ministers and other influential leaders. Girija Prasad Koirala is singled out for his miscalculated decisions, which he had to retract from every now and then. One astonishing moment he has disclosed is the frustration of GP Koirala, who wanted him (the C-in-C) to take over power in order to stem the anarchical situation, but he declined to do so fearing that such an adventure was neither desirable nor manageable. Katawal’s understanding of the failures of military dictatorships across the world had prompted him to be pragmatic. Above all, as General Katawal admits, such a course could have been possible only with the backing of all the major political forces of the country. How far such a disclosure is tenable is beyond verification, as Koirala is no more.

The rise of Rookmangud Katuwal is no less interesting. Hailing from a remote hill district in Okhaldhunga and from a very humble family background, General Katawal does not hide his pride at being a commoner whose rise to the top post of the Army was his destiny, according to him. Although king Mahendra was his godfather, taking him out of his village and arranging his schooling in Kathmandu, his own capacity and fortunes, as he believes, seemed to have propelled him to the top post. Outspoken and bold, the general’s life story is worth reading for more insight and understanding into the NA and Nepal’s politics.

Baral is the author of a number of books, most recently ‘Nepal-Nation-State in the Wilderness: Managing State, Democracy and Geopolitics’ (2012, Sage Publications)

Published: 20-08-2014 09:21

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