April 5, 2002


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War or Peace

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

Beware the Maoists of Nepal

The precision attack last month by the Royal Nepal Army Chief General Prajwalla Rana against his country's politicians came as no surprise. It was unprecedented, but expected on two counts. First, Nepalese generals, mainly from the elite Shah and Rana clans, are close to royalty (or what is left of it) and generally scoff at the political class. Second, they are frustrated by the way the war against the Maoists has been going.

Rana blamed the politicians for the rise of the Maoists and had earlier, while briefing ruling Nepali Congress and opposition Communist Party of Nepal, United Marxist-Leninist, leaders on the insurgency situation, also reportedly cautioned them not to seek to limit the role of the king in any future constitutional amendment.

The army chief was less than fair in not naming 104 years of Rana misrule and 40 years of palace autocracy as the true culprits for Nepal's present ills. Equally, he should have taken some responsibility for the RNA's hands-off-the-Maoists policy till they were mobilised under emergency provisions. In fact, the charge that politicians are not helping the army is true in the reverse as well.

It is widely known that the RNA refused to help the police on more than one occasion, culminating in the resignation of former prime minister G P Koirala. Indian generals criticise their politicians in private. In public they merely say that the military cannot solve political problems. Rana's predecessor, General Thapa, had advocated launching integrated social and infrastructure development schemes to tackle the Maoists.

The crippling attack in February by the Maoists against the RNA garrison in Mangalsain in Achham district followed by a series of bomb and landmine attacks in and around Kathmandu (not to mention the sting and sway of the countrywide strikes called by them) reflect both the helplessness of the security forces and the striking reach and homegrown capacity of the Maoists.

The RNA has had a few successes in the west. But with an active strength of 45,000 soldiers, it is overstretched. Allowing for the protection of the palace, VIPs, Kathmandu valley and other vulnerable points countrywide, it is doubtful if it can muster a bayonet strength of more than 10,000 combatants for operations. Crash recruitment and creative adjustments within the authorised establishment are likely to yield two additional brigades by the end of the year.

The 25,000 Special Armed Police sanctioned last year has just reached the 10,000 mark, but is only partially operational, though the police have been placed under the operational command of the RNA. While the Maoists have taken substantial casualties, their top political and military leadership is intact. Intelligence assessments warn of an imminent attack on a district headquarters in the east.

Since the early 1990s, India has been committed to a 500 crore-rupee package for the phased modernisation of the RNA. Though there have been some problems implementing it, with the onslaught of the Maoists, the generals are now less stuck on Western equipment. A revised plan is on the anvil. After the emergency aid worth Rs 25 crore and two helicopters, the follow-up consignment includes thousands of rifles, machine-guns, defence stores and more helicopters to enhance mobility vital in any mountain military campaign.

The Indian Army has given a carte blanche for training RNA and police personnel in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, especially anti-landmine and anti-improvised explosive device action.

Nepal and India share a unique military relationship. There are more Nepali Gurkhas in the Indian Army today than in the RNA itself. In a custom dating back to the 1970s, the chiefs of the two armies are made honorary generals of each other's army. General S Padmanabhan is due to travel to Kathmandu shortly to receive his title and sword from King Gyanendra as well as size up the state of the insurgency and scale of the Maoist threat to Nepal -- and through it, to India.

A prescient 1920 British Foreign Office document had noted: "Nepal is in a position to exercise powerful influence on India's internal stability and if it were disaffected the anarchy would spill over. Nepal is also a very valuable counterpoise to Afghan and Muslim movements to the West and North of Afghanistan."

Eighty-two years on, the threat forecast has turned into reality both for its fulfilment and breach. Pakistan's ISI has turned Nepal, the historical sanctuary for fugitives and criminals, into a haven of terrorism directed at India and is networking the activities of the Maoists with like-minded groups in India.

The nub of the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty was India's security concern from the north: from "a neighbouring state" -- later changed to "any foreign aggressor". To deal with such a threat, both countries had to consult each other to devise effective counter-measures. No one but the British (and my friend Subedar Top Bahadur Thapa) had feared anarchy from within. The provision for the 1923 treaty between Nepal and Britain, the forerunner of the 1950 version, for the prevention of the territory of one being used for purposes inimical to the security of the other was done away with (though in the aftermath of the Chinese threat and ISI later, it has frequently found mention in Nepalese policy statements).

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's recent visit to Delhi has therefore to be seen in the totality of implied security threats and treaty arrangements on the one hand and the growing Maoist menace as well as the sharply negative activities of the ISI in Nepal on the other. The visit was hugely successful. Facing a challenge from within, his own ruling Nepali Congress, Deuba, who required Indian reaffirmation of his leadership, received Delhi's unequivocal blessings.

India's support for multi-party democracy and constitutional monarchy, never in doubt, was also re-articulated -- though the right balance between the two has yet not been found.

Deuba was given royal treatment. He met all the top leaders in and outside the government. The joint statement dealt with practically every item of concern for Nepal positively, from Kalapani to inundation, and belied the rather desultory reporting in the media.

The all-party Deuba delegation was conspicuous by the absence of any representative from the main opposition UML. That peace is a must for development has become Deuba's theme song. He is under the illusion he can force the Maoists to surrender their weapons. Till then he is unlikely to engage the Maoists in another round of negotiations -- unless of course, King Gyanendra and General Rana think it is wise to do so.

In the meantime he has urged Delhi for more military assistance and cooperation to fight the Maoists, their suppliers, sympathisers and supporters both inside Nepal and India.

Deuba wants India to curb the activities of the Akhil Bharatiya Nepal Ekta Samaj consisting of the nearly eight million Nepalese diaspora spread all across India, which is believed to be supportive of the Maoist cause. Border surveillance and management and intelligence-sharing are key issues in monitoring Maoist cross-border activities especially in the hill areas of Kumaun, Garhwal, Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kalimpong, all once part of the Gurkha empire from the river Sutlej to the Teesta.

The growing nexus between the People's War Group and the Maoist Coordination Committee in India, including contacts with the LTTE and Nepalese Maoists, is another vital concern. Home Minister L K Advani is expected to go to Nepal shortly to initiate a joint mechanism on the promotion of mutual confidence and prevention of the abuse of each other's territories.

The Nepalese crackdown against the ISI was needlessly delayed. Trade in drugs, small arms, RDX, fake currency -- the tools of terrorism -- directed against India has benefitted the Maoists also. The threat to the psyche and sentiment of nearly 45,000 Gurkhas serving in the Indian Army and their families in Nepal can never be discounted.

Deuba's immediate priority is creating a semblance of peace: controlling levels of violence, containing the Maoists and restoring confidence in the government amongst the people so that he can launch the package of socio-economic development and political reforms. At the same time, the government is committed to holding a constitutional review on which there is rare unanimity among all political parties and the palace.

The proposed review conforms only partially to the basic Maoist demand for a new constitution. The conflict in any revision of the constitution is likely to be between locating and limiting the powers of the king or expanding his authority even further.

King Gyanendra's veiled criticism of the government on the 52nd Democracy Day and General Rana's condemnation of the politicians a few days later indicate the conjugation of political forces.

For the time being, the Maoists are calling the shots, having disconnected the Royalists from the so-called loyalists and democratic forces. The Achham attack has induced in the RNA the psyche of perimeter defence. This will further reduce its ability and incentive to reach out to seek and destroy the Maoists.

Given the constraints of terrain and lack of operational experience, the balance of local support being in favour of the Maoists, and the reluctance to wage an all-out war against its own people, for the RNA the people's war is one long haul.

Whether India likes it or not, Nepal's internal conflict will soon spill over and become Delhi's baby. At stake is not only the stability of Nepal, but also the peace and tranquillity of the strategic Indo-Gangetic plains and the Siliguri corridor. It is time to invoke the spirit if not the letter of the 1950 treaty by providing Nepal military assistance that will enable it to marginalise the Maoists and bring them back to the negotiating table. The lengthening shadow of Nepal's Sankat Kaal (emergency) can only fall on India.

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

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