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Nepal PM fails to sell his civilian supremacy argument

May 04, 2009

The removal of Chief of Army Staff in Nepal comes with the pressing necessity of integrating Maoist combatants into the national army, argues veteran journalist Kanak Mani Dixit. He further points out that the breaching of the ‘due process’ has led to a constitutional crisis in the country.

For two weeks, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal had sought to oust the Chief of Army Staff Rookmangud Katawal. On Sunday morning, the Maoists Chairman moved to unilaterally show him the door, at a cabinet meeting boycotted by all his coalition partners.

The prime minister's action ignited exhilaration among the Maoist cadre while inviting a constitutional crisis that embroils him in a confrontation not only with all the other major parties, but also President Ram Baran Yadav.

On 20 April, the Prime Minister had sought an explanation from Katawal for alleged insubordination on several counts, clearly with the intent of sacking him regardless of the answers furnished. Even as his own party leadership clamoured for Katawal's sacking, President Yadav advised that the prime minister only act in accordance with the interim constitution, with decisions to be taken by consensus of all political players in the context of the ongoing peace process.

Mixed opinion

Even as the Maoists sought to steamroll the issue, the two main coalition partners - the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum - came to the conclusion that there was not enough reason to sack the CoAS. They felt that the action would break with the tradition of succession in the Nepal Army and affect morale of an important institution of state that had remained out of the complete grasp of the Maoists.

Apparently concerned about the political instability that the sacking would invite in the neighbouring country, the Indian Foreign Office went into overdrive to get the Maoists to pull back. Ambassador Rakesh Sood met Prime Minister Dahal half a dozen times over the last two weeks, warning of New Delhi's displeasure with the threatened move. In between, Sood made a dash for Delhi for consultations in South Block.

CoAS Katawal is a haughty soldier who had deep links to the royal regime of the past. He wrote articles under a nom de plume that supported the royal adventurism after February 2005. Yet General Katawal is also credited by some for having played a role in convincing King Gyanendra to bow before the force of the People's Movement of April 2006.

Under his watch, the army did remain true to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2007, and watched the peaceful declaration of republic from the sidelines.

Since General Katawal had only four months to go before retirement, what was the hurry for the Maoists to see his departure through an ouster?

"The rush had to do with the integration of Maoist combatants into the national army"

As best as one can make out, the rush had to do with the 'integration' of Maoist combatants into the national army. The earlier gentleman's understanding with the other parties was of individual entry of combatants into the army according to the regular recruitment standards.

Civilian supremacy

Energised by their electoral win in April 2008, the Maoists moved the goalpost, demanding a full merger of the two forces to make up a true national army. They see CoAS Katawal as implacably opposed to the move, and seem to have bargained with some of his associates to be more flexible.

As the crisis grew over the last two weeks, the Maoist leadership sought to label this as a battle for 'civilian supremacy' over the army. It is of course true that the lack of civilian control over the military has invited many accidents for Nepali democracy since as far back as 1959. However, civilian supremacy in the current context does not mean submitting to the Maoist definition of the term and principle.

Under the interim constitution during a time of transition to peace, civilian supremacy refers not merely to the elected government but also the other political forces with whom it is duty-bound to seek consensus. This means not only the UML and MJF, but also the Nepali Congress in opposition. The argument for civilian supremacy as proposed fails the credibility test also because the peace process is still not ended, and the political party which leads the government and invokes the principle has its own combatant force of 19,000 plus, in cantonments around the country.

Unilateral decision

The procedures used on Sunday by Prime Minister Dahal was to take a unilateral decision that has been disavowed by his partners in government, and sending a note 'for information' to President Yadav. The constitutional President is also the supreme commander of the Nepal Army, who clearly has to be taken into confidence, as it is his constitutional duty to formally appoint the CoAS.

"The Maoist move has created a constitutional crisis in Nepal"

After insisting many times over the last week that the Prime Minister move on the Army chief only through consensus, the President on Sunday responded to the government's decision by suggesting that it was against due process. This is where matters stood on Sunday evening. The Maoist move has created a constitutional crisis in Nepal, their cadres are in a triumphant mood, while the rest of the polity wonders what is the way out of the danger zone.

Source : Nepal Times
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