December 8, 2010
Recommended reading: Today’s article in Republica written by Trailokya Raj Aryal
Earlier last week, former chief of army staff, Gen Rookmangud Katawal was heard saying at a function in Birgunj that security forces need not be democratized as they have always followed the orders of the government of the day. He further stated that democratization of the security forces, especially the Nepal Army (NA) is a ploy to weaken and politicize it. And I personally think Gen Katawal is right.
First of all, we have to understand that democracy is a political system, a form of governance. In some institutions it can be copied, whereas in others, a clear and strict line of hierarchy, or, in other words, chain of command has to be maintained, if they are to run smoothly. As the most important organ of the state that´s responsible to guard it from outsiders and to help the government in achieving its foreign policy objectives when needed, the army is not something that can be politicized and made democratic. What can be done though is make it more transparent and accountable by enacting laws to regulate its movements to bring it under civilian government. There is no army in the world that can claim itself to be a democratic army and any army that allows its men and women to discuss, debate and question the orders coming from their superiors is not a professional army.
To understand NA, it is necessary to look at its history and present objectively and without any political bias clouding one´s judgment. In Nepal ´s case, NA has always been under the government/legitimate ruler of the day and has refrained from acting on its own. Even during the Rana regime, it was not politicized and as such it did not take sides in the internal power struggles that led to change in prime ministers then.
According to historian Dinesh Raj Pant, during the Rana regime, there was a special unit of NA called Bijuli Garad, which can be translated as the Rapid Action Unit and it wielded enormous powers, but even then it followed the government’s orders and was loyal to whoever became the prime minister by legal means then. Once the king´s official approval of the appointment of prime minister was shown to the head of the unit, it immediately accepted the new Rana prime minister and stayed loyal to him. The only time it somehow got involved in the power struggle indirectly was when Bir Shumsher usurped Ranoddip, but after that despite its powers to do what it liked, it remained aloof from politics.
Similarly, throughout various political upheavals in Nepal, NA has not taken anybody´s or any party´s side as evident by it accepting the political change in 1950 when the Rana regime was ousted, despite the fact that then many of its high-ranking officers were either Ranas or those close to them. In 2006, when the country became a republic from monarchy, NA once again showed its professionalism by accepting the new political system without any hesitation whatsoever. And the smooth transition could happen because the past rulers did not politicize it and developed it as a professional army. Imagine the scale of bloodbath and instability in the aftermath of the transition if the past rulers had politicized it.
If the questions are to be raised on how King Mahendra used it in 1960 against the civilian government and how King Gyanendra used it in 2005, then we find that at times, leaders reserve the rights to mobilize it to impose the state of emergency depending on the political and domestic situations then. Sometimes, if there are no constitutional ways to deal with the problems, then other means have to be explored. And it’s the leader´s responsibility, not the army´s to find a favorable outcome at the earliest.
Democracy is a political system, a form of governance. In some institutions it can be copied, whereas in others, a clear and strict line of hierarchy, or, in other words, chain of command has to be maintained. The army is not something that can be politicized and made democratic.
Also, if we are to look at its recent history objectively, we find ample examples of it waiting for the constitutional and legal orders from the government for its mobilization. As one retired army general told me, when the Maoists attacked a barrack in Dang in 2001, there was an emergency meeting held at the Army Headquarters in Kathmandu. Some generals wanted to retaliate then and send air support from Kathmandu right away, whereas others were adamant on first receiving the government´s orders to mobilize.
NA, then showed maximum restraint and decided to wait for the government´s orders. It only mobilized its troops when the orders were received after three days following all legal and constitutional provisions. Similarly, if the order to sack Gen Katawal had come after following constitutional norms, chances are he would have accepted it, but when an army chief is called to the prime minister´s bedroom and handed a decision, that too, not taken by the council of ministers, but five Maoist leaders, then he was right not to accept it. If he had accepted it then, it would have set a wrong precedent and that would have proved disastrous for the only institution in the country that has so far resisted politicization.
Furthermore, democratization has come to mean different things for different political parties. For the Maoists, it means politicizing it (please see the Shaktikhor video in which the Maoist Supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal has equated democratization with politicization clearly) and for others it means keeping it under the civilian government. From my conversations with the army generals to write this piece, I could infer that they are not opposed to the second option at all. However, they want the civilian control of the army clearly defined both constitutionally and legally, so when any unconstitutional order, such as sacking the army chief by calling him to the prime minister´s bedroom, need not be followed. It too wants to operate under the democratic civilian control and not be subject to leaders’ whims. (Please note the key operative word here is democratic.) Or to borrow Samuel Huntington´s phrase, they are opposed to subjective control of the army based on the whims of political leaders, instead they want the democratic civilian control to be objective with clearly defined roles, rules and regulations so both the civilian authority and NA operate under the set boundaries. Despite operating under the civilian authority, it wants its institutional freedom and would not want the bureaucrats and political leaders micro-managing it to save it from politicization. Therefore, the generals are not wrong in saying that the lawmakers should first come up with clear provisions on managing the army, rather than blaming it for not accepting the civilian authority.
Following the political change in 2006, NA seems to be changing its ways by accepting the political reality. Of course, all desired changes cannot happen overnight and NA has a lot to do to clear the suspicions that exist among the general public regarding its funds and other issues related to rations and promotions, but the process to make it more in tune with the current system and more transparent has already started, which should be commended and encouraged. It has already sent a draft of new sainik niyamabali (military regulations) in line with the new political system some two-and-a-half years ago, but the government is yet to respond to it. The government neither responds to the draft sent by the army nor has it come with its own draft on managing the army. A national army definitely cannot function this way. Political leaders and lawmakers should not view it simply as x number of men and women in uniform wielding weapons. They should instead view of it as a vital national institution that symbolizes national power both domestically and internationally.
Lastly, besides an extremist force that wants to impose its outdated mode of government on us, could there be other forces that are fueling the democratization hype? When all our traditions are under attack from all sides to weaken the very fabric that binds us together as Nepalis, I personally feel that it is absolutely necessary to ask: If NA did not come out as a Hindu army with many of its battalions named after Hindu gods, would the Maoist voices to democratize it (in order to politicize and weaken it) get backing from certain foreign agencies?