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Nepal is at war with itself

May 04, 2009 18:54 IST

It looks that Nepal is at war with itself. How else can one explain the peace process that has been nurtured over the last two years with give and take from both sides is getting to go up in flames with the political parties determined to destroy the stability of the country?

The whole drama started on Sunday morning with the denuded cabinet of Prime Minister Prachanda deciding to issue a letter of dismissal to the Chief of Army Staff General Rukmangud Katawal. The latter initially did not accept it, but relented finally. The President Dr Ram Baran Yadav then came to his rescue by faxing an order to him not to hand over charge. In this case the President has over reached himself.

Initially there was panic in Kathmandu with office goers and business people returning home prematurely in the afternoon. But by late evening, the city returned to normalcy though there were demonstrations both by pro-Nepali Congress and Maoist student's wings in the city. There was a talk of curfew being imposed in the city but it did not happen.

However, the army after an informal meeting of the generals decided to keep all its divisions on high alert following the government decision to oust their chief. The home ministry asked the Nepal Police and the armed police force to stay on 'high alert'. Not to be outdone, the People Liberation Army of the Maoists is also on high alert. The potential for clashes therefore exists.

There were rumours of the army going for a coup, but for now it does not appear to be so. But the conditions for a civil war exist. If the Maoists decide to take to the streets to counter the rallies and demonstrations of the opposition parties there will be violence. If violence escalates, the army could intervene. But then who is to invite them? They may not listen if the government asks them to or they may suo motu intervene. Such likely scenarios cannot be brushed off easily.

One question that needs to be asked now is -- why should the army go for a coup when most of the major political parties are with them and the President's sympathy and support are also with them?

When the opposition parties met the President and pleaded with him not to approve the government's decision to sack the chief, he is said to have replied that he will follow 'constitutional norms and values'.

So far as legality is concerned, the appointment of the army chief is said to be governed by the Military Act of 2006, which has lost its relevance after the Jana Andolan II and the introduction of the interim constitution. Article 144 (2) says that the Council of Ministers shall appoint the commander in chief of Nepal. Article 144 (3) states that the Council of Ministers shall control, mobilise and manage the Nepali Army in accordance with the law.

The government is therefore well within its rights to dismiss when it has the powers to appoint. The question whether the prime minister should take prior approval of the President who happens to be the Supreme Commander of the armed forces does not arise as that is a procedural matter. The President was informed, but his approval was not taken.

But the issue is no longer a legal one. It is a political one and a solution has to be reached through political means.

There is no doubt that today in Nepal, the army is the only stable institution in the country. Until the monarchy, the army was fully under the command and control of the King. But after the Jana Andolan II, the army was left to itself with no meaningful control of the civilian authorities. It is too late and what is needed now is to ensure that the army does not have divided loyalties and at the same time, it has to be told in clear terms that disobedience is not acceptable.

Prachanda also appeared to be under tremendous pressure from his colleagues in the party to sack the army chief. Unable to take a decision quickly, he missed the May Day parade and went to a resort nearby to do some thinking.

The idea of joining the mainstream was his and he cannot afford to give up the gains he and his party have made in the last two years.

On the morning of April 30, the central secretariat of his party stressed the need to sack the army chief. It said that the issue was a national one and labelled both the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-United-Maoist-Lininist as brokers of Indian expansionism. On May 1, Bhattarai at the May Day rally insisted on punishing the army chief for defying civilian supremacy. On May 2, the Maoist leaders declared that the move against the CoAS was taken to uphold civilian supremacy and if the government was prevented from taking disciplinary action through unconstitutional means and foreign powers, it will set a wrong precedent for the future.

Thus India has been dragged in full measure in spite of well-intentioned meetings of the Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood with everyone connected with the problem

But Prachanda has isolated himself and his party by issuing the 'sack order' unilaterally. The CPN-UML has predictably withdrawn from the coalition. The fourth biggest party, the Terai-based Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum though still in the government has disapproved the move. In all, the Maoists, besides 238 members in the Constituent Assembly have only 15 members of other fringe parties with them. Thus, it is reduced to a minority government.

The Annexure gives a blow by blow account of the high drama and the events leading to the sacking and late night intervention of the President calling on the army chief to stay on.

Annexure:

May 3

9:30 am: High-level meeting of five coalition partners at PM's residence. The UML and Sadbhavana walked out of the meeting

10:15 am: Lt General Kul Bahadur Khadka met the prime minister.

11:00 am: CoAS Katawal met the PM.

12:00 noon: The denuded Cabinet decides to sack Katawal

12:15 pm: Nepali Congress leaders Sher Bahadur Deuba, Sushil Koirala meet President Dr Ram Baran Yadav

12:30 pm: Government spokesperson Krishna Bahadur Mahara breaks the news to media; a formal letter sent to army headquarters as well

1:00 pm: MJF leaders meets President. The President is said to have informed them that he will go by the constitutional norms and values.

2:00 pm: The Cabinet conveys decision to the President.

3:00 pm: The President is said to have expressed his serious disapproval over the decision as it was taken without due procedure. Maoists hold talks with smaller parties

3:00 pm: Nepal Congress-affiliated Nepal Students Union activists take to streets, disrupt traffic in front of campuses, burn tyres at major intersections in the valley, protesting the Maoists' unilateral decision

4:00 pm: 17 parties meet at NC parliamentary party office

4:15 pm: MJF parliamentary party holds meeting

4:55 pm: President sends a formal letter to the Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda'

5:00 pm: UML decides to pull out of the coalition government. Representatives of 18 parties meet at UML party headquarters in Balkhu

5:30 pm: Maoist supporters celebrate at Ratna Park in the capital

10: 00 pm: 18 parties urge President to intervene

10:30 pm: President Yadav sends an order by facsimile to General Katawal, urging him to continue.

Dr S Chandrasekharan