Saturday, August 23, 2014

In Whose Book, Fellas?

Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal seems most aggrieved from the recently published memoirs of General Rukmangad Katawal.
The former supreme commander of the “People’s Liberation Army” has used at least two occasions in public to demolish the credibility of the former Nepal Army chief. Like most people on the defensive, though, Dahal has focused less on the substance of the general’s revelations.
At an institutional level, the bad blood between the two can easily be surmised. The army could not defeat the Maoists, nor could the rebels vanquish the state. Yet Dahal emerged stepped into the public spotlight in 2006 as if he had won the world. The hatred he spewed against generations of soldiers, in the presence of the prime minister and all senior democratic leaders, could not have been easily forgotten by anyone familiar with the force.
At a political level, Dahal lost the premiership because of his failure to see through his decision to sack Gen. Katawal for insubordination. The general, who opens with a gripping narrative of that episode, portrays his complicated relationship with Dahal.
But that is a side story to the vigorous defense of the military Gen. Katawal mounts. To those who sought to establish a philosophical and practical equivalency between the state and rebel armies, Katawal makes a key point: the military was intent on pressuring the Maoists to join the political process, whereas the rebels were going for the kill. The guerillas inflicted massive losses on the soldiers and state, but the conventional army always held the ground.
Amid this stalemate, the political process took center stage, laced with the unsentimental rigors of geopolitics. Thus, a movement that began with objective of ending ‘autocratic monarchy’ ended up ushering in a republic.
Katawal’s reminiscences on the disparate personalities involved in that process are revealing. For instance, it’s hard to believe that Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, miffed by the Maoists, would urge Gen. Katawal to take over. But that goes with the genre.
On Katawal’s pages, Dahal emerges in the same way he has been seen in public. At times, daring, flexible, blustery, obsequious and adamant – in no particular order. Clearly, his self-described ‘chemistry’ with Katawal was a compulsion of the times. Since it’s Katawal’s book, the general gets the last word on Dahal’s moves and motivations. And Dahal has every right to resent Katawal’s characterization. Case closed.
But Dahal took a curious route to press his case. He castigated the general as despicable and unreliable for having ditched the monarchy.
On that score, Katawal makes fascinating revelations beginning from his first contact with King Mahendra in his home district and subsequent arrival in Kathmandu for studies under royal sponsorship.
Over the years, his admirers and detractors stretched that instance of royal sponsorship into something akin to enduring royal guardianship. But Katawal, who by chance had ended up in King Mahendra’s office on the eve of the 1960 royal takeover with barely an inkling of what was about to happen, never met Queen and later Queen Mother Ratna. He was hardly a palace boy, by that reckoning.
The country didn’t know that when Katawal rose to the top and the monarchy was in its last gasps. The national focus was on how the army – traditionally loyal to the palace – would react to the push for republicanism under a general the public deemed was all but a brother to the suspended king.
In an effort to save the monarchy, Katawal, among other things, pushed the idea of enthroning a ‘baby king’. King Gyanendra rejected that outright. (“Over my dead body,” the general quotes the monarch as saying.)
Katawal doesn’t say so explicitly, but he seemed hurt by the royal snub. Maila Baje always felt King Gyanendra had a point: You can choose between a king and a president. But you can’t choose who you want as king.
Although he emerges as a strong monarchist still – at least within the demands of Nepal’s geo-strategic precariousness – Katawal quotes Nepali politicians as well as foreign diplomats casting aspersions on the ex-monarch’s personality and predilections. His general characterization of King Gyanendra’s rule is not flattering.
Did the king drag the army along kicking and screaming on February 1, 2005? Or did the generals advise the king of their ability to take control of the situation sufficiently to put the political process on track? Katawal maintains there were two armies – the palace guard and regular force. If the national army headquarters could not prevent that infringement on its jurisdiction and scope, then all his talk about professionalism becomes moot.
Those who wonder why the palace would want to keep GHQ at arm’s length might want to go a little back in history. Our army takes pride in its roots in the national unification campaign of Prithvi Narayan Shah. Yet, decades later, when a junior officer seized power and managed to monopolize it within his immediate family for over a century, keeping successive kings virtual prisoners in the palace, the army continued to back the usurpers. Surely, Dahal knows that the army-monarchy debate transcends the Katawal-Mahendra dimension. There were other ways he could have rebutted Katawal’s version of current history – including announcing that he would write his own book.
And even if the general did betray the palace and side with the republicans, shouldn’t Dahal be hailing Katawal?