|HOME | NEWS | COLUMNISTS | MAJOR GENERAL ASHOK K MEHTA|
|June 11, 2001||
Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta
The Maoists now smell blood
Maoist rebels in Nepal have good reason to celebrate the slaughter of royalty in the Narayanahity palace. They have called the massacre a conspiracy of reactionary forces. Whoever pulled the trigger of the Uzi nearly fulfilled one of their 43 demands: abolition of the monarchy. Except that he did it literally.
Knowing how much the monarchy is revered by the people, these romantic visionaries have never publicly criticized the king. Some of their leaders have been in touch with Ramesh Pandey, a royal nominee in parliament. The Communist Party of Nepal had, in fact, supported King Mahendra's dismantling of democracy in 1960.
Not since the early 18th century, when ancestors of the reigning monarchy ousted the Malla rulers of Kathmandu, has the Hindu kingdom of Nepal faced a similar internal challenge. In seven days in April, Maoist rebels inspired by Peru's now defunct Shining Path guerillas wiped out four police posts across the country in their most daring and devastating attacks of the six-year-long 'people's war', killing 80 policemen and infiltrating Kathmandu. With a doddering monarchy and extreme political instability, these rebels can smell blood.
Maobadis, as they are popularly called in Nepal, have terrorised police, government officials and anyone opposed to their call for a republican government and sweeping reforms. Their writ runs across more than one-third of the country and they can call a countrywide bandh at the drop of a hat.
Intrigue-ridden Kathmandu, numbed by the palace massacre, looks helpless against the Maoists in the absence of any politico-military response to deal with them. This is puzzling. One of the last acts of King Birendra was to grudgingly authorize deployment -- as distinct from employment -- of the Royal Nepal Army in the five Maoist-afflicted districts in the far west.
The palace is clear -- the army is meant not to combat the Maoists but to win back the hearts and minds of the people through an integrated social and infrastructure development plan. The difference in approach is obvious -- while the Koirala government considers the Maoist problem one of law and order, the palace tends to look at it rather more sympathetically. There is also a subtle reminder here: democracy has not really worked.
The RNA has been nurtured by the palace and patronised by the monarchy. His Majesty the King is the supreme commander and, according to the new constitution, shall "perform the operation and deployment of the RNA on the recommendations of the National Defence Council", which is chaired by the prime minister.
It is widely believed in Kathmandu that Koirala has at least twice recommended using the army to meet the Maoist challenge, but the king has advised against it. Clearly, this constitutional impasse has serious repercussions for the short- and long-term security concerns of Nepal and India and fuels speculation about the hidden agenda of internal and external players.
Never visualising any internal threat, Nepal has traditionally maintained only a national police force (for law and order and petty crime). The need for an interim paramilitary force has been articulated only now. The armed police ordinance, which the government had sought to introduce, was stuck first in the palace and later in parliament. It has now been given the royal assent that will empower the raising of a 35,000 armed police equipped with 7.62mm rifles transferred from the RNA.
The armed police faces at least two problems: funding and manpower. There are reports that money allotted for it has already been used by the police. And volunteers to fight the Maobadis are few and far between. Given a choice, the young Gurkhas would rather go to the Gulf or join the British Army in Brunei or London. Assuming that money and men start pouring in, an armed police could still take up to 18 to 24 months to become deployable.
How can the government contain the Maoists in the interim period? If the RNA is not to be employed in counterinsurgency operations, the police will feel abandoned. In the past they have complained that they received no assistance from the RNA when they were attacked at Dolpa.
Retired army officers in Kathmandu will explain why the army should not be used against the Maoists. It is not the done thing to use the army against its own people, they say. Even Nepal's most cerebral general, the former army chief, General Dharam Pal Thapa, was loath to confront the Maoists. His plan was to confront the cause of the insurgency -- lack of economic development. That is what is being implemented now.
Some have claimed the Maoists can be defeated in six months. The question of why the army was held back for so long, remains.
Nepal has undergone two revolutions -- one against the Ranas in 1950 and the other against Panchayat Raj in 1990. The Maoist revolt is being heralded as the third revolution (some are even saying it is the best thing that could happen to Nepal), designed to change the basic character of the state and alter the balance of political power and economic development strategy.
Mixing (Che) Guevara and (Abimael) Guzman, revolutionary legends of Latin America, Nepal's idols of violent change are Baburam Bhattarai and Pushpakamal Dahal (Prachanda), the signator of Prachanda Path (literally, Shining Path).
Ever met a Maoist in Nepal? You could, in Kathmandu. You might also be able, if you try hard, to see a two-year-old, 20-minute-long film, the only one of its kind on Maoists, by Australian TV journalist Mark Cochran, shot in their western strongholds of Dang and Salyan.
The government had good reason to ban the Maoist-biased film. It has police brutalities, disappearances, anti-terrorist police in civilian clothes whisking away the now legendary but still missing Kishan Sen, editor of Janadesh, and an awkward interview with then home minister Govind Raj Joshi. Maoist excesses and a typical ambush are also shown.
Clearly there is need for a proactive strategy to bring the rebels to heel and to the negotiating table by persuasion and force. Within the present constitution, their demands will be impossible to meet. The Maoists perceive the present power vacuum in Nepal as an opportunity to seize power.
King Gyanendra, the new supreme commander, should therefore allow the elected government to decide between deployment and employment of force, while he also tries to bring them around for talks.
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