By Nishchal M.S. Basnyat
The safety and security of the nation should never again be a family run business. Yet, in the midst of diversifying the army’s upper-hierarchy and “de-royalizing” this inherently royal institution, it is also imperative to keep the army out of political hands. As the country’s most powerful entity, it is also the most perilous and potent.
As the backbone institution that predates the country itself, Nepal’s army is irrefutably the most polarizing entity in the country. People either fervently love or passionately loath the organisation. An element of heated debate, the army has been regarded as a personal force of the King and his bourgeoisie sycophants. Marred by reticent corruption and apparent nepotism, today it has lost the trust of the very people it claimed to proudly protect.
Yet, the story of Nepal’s army is much more convoluted. An organisation as secretive as the Royal family itself, political opposition has been quick to label this army an oppressive force whose sole existence is geared towards the subjugation of its own people. A myriad of such accusations must be clarified before the final history for Nepal’s most powerful and most “royal” institution is written. As the country heads towards a new direction, so does its military. It is imperative, therefore, the country look back at its “royal” army impartially. More importantly, it is time to silence both the short-sighted royalists and the over-zealous “republicans”. It is time to give the Army credit where it is deserved, but it is also time to assertively expose its dirty laundry.
We begin with the royalist fantasy that the army, unlike other ministries or the police, was never influenced by politics. The truth, however, is that the army always remained the most political institution in the country. It was ready to get down on its knees for the King and put royal interest above national interest. Very few generals, even during Nepal’s recent twelve-year civil war, deserved their brick of medals across their chests as they failed to stand up against a stubbornly myopic and megalomaniac King. Since its inception, the army always remained a ceremonial one, meant to salute the King and walk behind the royals. Yet, royalists failed to see why the army was a political wing, because to them the King was a supreme demy-God, one who stood above all politics. Thus, there survived the pathetic illusion that the army was only a patriotic, non-political organisation that stood to protect the people.
The very intimate relationship between the Monarchy and the Royal Army ultimately ended both institutions. All Kings in Nepal, past and present, loved to surround themselves with barefaced colonels and generals who would never second-guess them. The army soon evolved into a group of militant yes-men who would indulge themselves in the age-old game of the ‘competition of obsequiousness’. In their struggle to display their loyalty to the King and befriend royals, the upper hierarchy of the army became oblivious to the fact that the real battle was being lost. Although the army never garnered the honest respect of political parties, soon their admiration from the ordinary sons and daughters of Nepal was also lost.
Reciprocally, the royal army played a key role in ending Nepal’s monarchy. From a young age all Princes were exposed to a militant lifestyle. They collected weapons, went hunting and surrounded themselves with uniform-padded ADCs. Consequently, most young royals developed a militant psyche from a young age. Even the Royal massacre, regardless of who orchestrated it, can be accredited to this militant attitude adopted by royals due to the extreme exposure to the Army and their isolation from civil life in Nepal. Opening up the Palace doors and familiarising young royals with the ordinary Nepalis would have helped save Monarchy from collapse.
Secondly, the Achilles’ heel of the Royal Army was that it had always been an ethnically homogenous institution. Since its inception, Nepal’s army was a uniformed country club for the elite ‘chettry-thakuri’ clique. Although there are a few Gurungs, Newars and Brahmins littered here-and-there in the upper hierarchy, it remained an insignificant amount and is in no way a demographic representation of Nepali society. The influential core of the royal army remained the upper-class chettri-thakuri clan that has always taken great pride in being shameless servants of royals. Even post-1951, the only Commander-in-Chiefs to come to power, with the exception of the current one, had the following last names: Rana, Shah, Thapa and Basnyat. It is true that the fabric of Nepali society and Hinduism itself dictates that Brahmins be priests, Newars be merchants and that the Chettris be warriors. But at the turn of the 21st century, this was far beyond coincidence. In addition, it is evident that the Rana regime did not end after 1951 and that this sultanistic family that had deprived the country of so much for more than a century, still had both the army and the royal family at its disposal. There are countless incidents where caste played a major role in promotions and appointments within the Royal Army. Without being the right caste, a son of a formal general, or a drinking-buddy of royals, it was hard to ascend the Royal Army hierarchy.
More importantly, a caste-based army made it an extremist force. As the political philosopher Gellner once claimed; “politics alone will not influence action or violence, it must incite an inherent characteristic”. These inherent characteristics are ethnicity, religion and nationality. Being a caste-based army, the RNA definitely incited an ethnic reason for fighting. It gave birth to an “us and them“ mob-mentality and caused a frenzy of “otherism” within the army. It became “us the chettris in the army” versus “them the Brahmin politicians and Maoists”. Although hidden behind the fake façade of political correctness in Nepal, this insularity in the Army did more to divide than unite the country.
Third, corruption was, and is, rampant within the Army. In fact, Nepali politicians have never gotten a chance to taste the type of money engulfed by many of the top-brass colonels and generals. However, this corruption was hidden due to two reasons: the inability of other anti-corruption agencies to access army accounts and the excuse of chettri-thakuri inherited wealth. The army has always chosen its own corruption inspectors. So what happens when the army itself chooses friends and subordinates to check through monetary records? The army has often turned a blind eye when top-ranking army officers were found indulging themselves in this most “profitable” Nepali military strategy. Corruption in this army, just to throw a few examples, was based on arms deals, commissions on uniforms and the commissions from sending officers for UN peacekeeping.
Then there is the age old excuse of inherited wealth. The chetti-thakuri clans have always had an uncanny ability to justify corruption with inherited wealth. Unfortunately, the Nepali people, including the sons and daughters of army officers, have always accepted this explanation. Rather than honest investigation, the multitude of agencies responsible for filtering corruption always granted the benefit of the doubt to army leaders with the “correct” last names. In addition, politicians were more interested in befriending these charlatan aristocrats in the army rather than inspecting them.
The fourth plague within the army explains the reason why many royalists today are still unable to gauge reality. From Nazi Germany to today’s American forces, the Nepali Army also went through an unavoidable and omnipresent phase of indoctrination. It is this that impeded the Army’s thought process in many incidents throughout history. Just as there was extremism within other political parties in Nepal, indoctrination caused right-wing extremism within the army. Furthermore, Nepal’s army went through “family-based” indoctrination. Children in army families were only told of the army’s great sacrifices and awesome heroics for the country. They were told that all politicians are corrupt and all Maoists are killers. Children from aristocratic army families were told how their great grandfathers lived in opulent palaces, yet they were never told how many sons and daughters of ordinary Nepalis died making those palaces. It is this skewed form of life-long indoctrination and the failure to expose both strengths and weaknesses of the army that took Nepali army families into a whirlwind of ignorance.
Fifth, and probably the most unfortunate, is the servility enforced upon subordinates within Nepal’s Royal Army. There was always an immense dichotomy between the upper and lower hierarchies in Nepal’s army. However, the foot soldiers, drivers and “peepas” in the army have always faced bleak servile conditions. From carrying bricks for the new mansions of colonels and generals to picking up their children from school, the lower hierarchy of the army was always used as a local servant service. Today, army-men might justify it as security in times of dire need, but this practice of coercing subordinates to embarrassing house-hold work was prevalent before any insurgency in Nepal. Even on the battle ground, the lower hierarchy suffered more than any other stratum in the military. Colonels and Generals, although vocal about how they have been sent to remote regions, would simply remain inside the heavily guarded army barracks during the twelve-year war and would only occasionally join patrols. Although higher level fatalities in the army were highly publicised, almost all of the impact, both fatalities and injuries, was endured by the lower hierarchy. If Nepal’s army would have had to continue such a war, the army would have ruptured and a minor revolution from within the lower branches of the army would have been inevitable.
Finally, there is the absolute military failure of the RNA during the Maoist war. First, we must acknowledge that it was an uphill battle for this army. The army received responsibility for handling the situation much later than it would have preferred. They were also fighting a deep-rooted guerilla war in unfamiliar rural territory. There was little chance that a heavily armed, gun totting and uniform covered army would have defeated the amorphous Maoist party. However, throughout the war, the RNA remained incompetent. The RNA had no intelligence, and even the little they claimed to have, proved to be a complete failure. Yet, the army never tried to develop their intelligence in the years they were in charge. Rather they stubbornly went about trying to fight the battle with conventional and almost mindless military tactics.
Army officials today love talking about how it was an insurmountable war. Yet, in the early 90s, the Peruvian government, through brilliant military strategy ended the “Shining Path” communist movement; a movement that was alarmingly similar and much more powerful to the Maoist movement in Nepal. Our army, however, was oblivious. They were unable to answer some of the most salient questions during a time of war. Where were all the Maoist arms being smuggled in from? Where are the Maoist leaders located? Was India actively helping with the war on Maoism? No answers. The army never won a single significant battle throughout the war; rather it glorified small victories on state-run NTV. All of the high-ranked Maoist polit-bureau members that were arrested, from Yadav to Kiran Vaidya, were detained by the Indians, not the RNA. So, what did this army of eighty thousand troops do? The royal army which had always self-propagandised its strength proved to be an embarrassment to all the great former generals that had once worn the same national uniform.
Nevertheless, it is grave injustice for us to mercilessly condemn and disparage the army at its time of grief. Although the army lost the war against its political opposition, it is yet to receive due respect for its sacrifice to the nation. The army was an organisation controlled by the King and it was irrefutably used for political ends. However, the young men in the army that picked up their guns, wore their uniforms, traveled to remote corners of their country and gave their lives for their nation were not royals. The young men that patrolled the streets and jungles of Nepal during the harshest conditions for nominal salaries were not relatives of the King. The men that shed blood and tears for their country were at the bottom of the “food-chain” in the army. They were also the sons of ordinary poor Nepalis. They were no different from the Maoist foot-soldiers on the other side of the fence. They came from impoverished areas around Nepal and without education or political strings to pull they enlisted themselves into the army as the only means to join hand-to-mouth. When these men died they were labeled as mere pawns of the “royal” force.
In April, as the eighteen men and women died protesting and pelting stones in front of the Royal Palace, they were proclaimed martyrs and their faces were posthumously plastered in every newspaper and every street corner. Yet, when these poor young men in the “royal” army fell to their death, not a single politician raised his voice. The media houses in the country, none of which are neutral and most of which are anti-King, quickly over-dramatised the human rights violations of the army, and downplayed the fact that these ordinary poor men were also dying in the “royal” army. An analogical contradiction with the United States, where although most Americans today despise the American administration and its war in Iraq, every American, however, passionately supports the men and women in its armed forces. This, of course, did not happen in Nepal. Every soldier in the army was pigeonholed as fighter for the “King’s war”. The sheer respect for the ordinary Nepalis in the army who gave their lives on call for their nation is much overdue. The overwhelming irony remains that the politicians who were most vocal against the royal army also sought its protection the most during the Maoist war.
It is not difficult to write off an army that has fallen to its knees in defeat. Nonetheless, a greater mistake would be for us to be vengeful or take this institution for granted. The history of Nepal’s army far overrides any other in the country and the blood it has shed for its citizens out-floods the rhetoric of any revolutionary, politician or King. The army today is faced with the tremendous task of deserting its tradition and suddenly redressing its loyalty away from the King. Despite the existence of fascist-royalist forces, the army also has enough democratic and optimistic officers within it to stage national interest above royal interest in the future. The safety and security of the nation should never again be a family run business. Yet, in the midst of diversifying the army’s upper-hierarchy and “de-royalizing” this inherently royal institution, it is also imperative to keep the army out of political hands. As the country’s most powerful entity, it is also the most perilous and potent. Which leads to the greatest unsung future challenge for this already beleaguered nation: Regardless of sanguine democratic rhetoric, unless this volatile army is kept liable to the people and insulated from the palace, politicians and Maoists, democracy in Nepal will remain, at best, a hoax.
(Basnyat is a student at Harvard University. He is the co-author of ‘India Doctrine’, a book written with eminent author MBI Munshi and is also the senior editor for the Harvard South Asian Journal. He has written prolifically on institutionalism in the developing world, including extensive work with Nobel Prize laureate Grameen Bank. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
Source: NepalNews.com, December 05, 2007