There is a standoff in Nepal between civilian supremacy over the army versus the primacy of the army over the elected civilian government. This struggle will lead to the consummation of the unfinished business of the Nepali Revolution, or in an attempt at a partial coup d’etat. The latter will necessitate the revolution girding up its loins and renewing a fresh phase of struggle, mass mobilisation and possibly renewed armed struggles, to bring to heel the reactionary remnants that are conspiring to reverse their defeats in the last two years. Unless the Maoists make grievous mistakes their victory seems pretty well assured because they have previously won half the battle – dismantled the monarchy, won an election emerging as the largest single party, neutralised Indian sub-imperialism for the time being, and won international recognition as the legitimate elected government.
The title and subtitle of this article are borrowed from Bishnu Pathak’s blog piece on the website "United We Blog! for a Democratic Nepal":
The Party must command the gun
The great, the fundamental, the definitive, and eventually the decisive difference between the LTTE on the one hand, and Lenin (and his latter day, admittedly stunted followers Mao, Ho Chi Min, and after the mid 1960s Castro) on the other is this: Does the party command the gun or the gun control the party? (In the LTTE’s case there was in fact no party, as distinct from gun). This is the defining moment between Marxism (and stunted Marxism) on one side, and petty bourgeois rebellions on the other – irrespective whether the latter’s cause is just or unjust. These remarks, however, are an aside to my main story today. Nepal, where, to give it its formal name, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), CPN(M), has demonstrated that the party holds complete authority over the gun, in the first instance the gun of its own Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA).
Dr. S. Chandrasekharan, a retired senior officer of Indian intelligence posted a paper in February entitled "Alternative Conflict Resolution – The Case of Nepal" on the website South Asia Analysis Group (Paper 3035); a few abbreviated extracts follow.
"How does one explain the remarkable success of the Maoists in capturing power within a space of ten years? First and foremost the leadership had political skill. It understood that the military campaign had its limits and cannot go it alone without taking political initiatives at every stage. They were in touch with political leaders of all hues including those who were opposed to their campaigns and methods. Leaders at every level - village, district and centre - were in touch with political leaders, bureaucrats and ministers; they had a channel of communication with the Palace. The civilian leadership was in command. The PLA chief was fourth or fifth in the hierarchy and he was accountable to the party politburo. In short the party commanded the gun".
"Though militarily strong and capable of prolonging the war, they realised the futility of a military solution and instead supported the democratic movement. They encouraged civic bodies to take the lead. Thus they were able to make the people’s movement a success in getting rid of the monarchy".
Disputed civilian control of the military
Now, as the leading party of government and holding 220 of the 601 seats in the Constituent Assembly elected in April 2008, the CPN(M) stands as the repository of the electoral will of the people. In the current crisis it is engaged in a struggle to ensure that the democratically elected civilian government shall assert its authority, its unquestioned authority, over the armed forces of the state. Anything less would amount to capitulation before a silent coup d’etat. This is why even communist hating Delhi, Washington, the European capitals, and the capitalist and liberal media have been careful not to endorse mutinous insubordination of army chief of staff General Rookmangud Katawal or breach of correct practices of constitutional governance by the Nepali president Ram Baran Yadav.
The struggle between the mutinous General Katawal, a hangover from the monarchist period that ended last year, and the elected government led by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda, did not begin last month though it came to a head at the end of April and in early May. I will return to this recent phase after outlining the prior build up to the immediate confrontation – I am indebted to Bishnu Pathak’s article for the material in this subsection.
The origins obviously lie in the Maoist’s defeat of the army, a pillar of the old order, followed by the name change from Royal Nepal Army to Nepal Army (NA) which drove home the humiliation. The defeat of the Nepal Congress Party (NPC) and the traditional Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) or CPN(U-ML) and the abolition of that other second pillar of the old order, the monarchy, in 2008, left the army isolated and abandoned. The generals responded by taking openly to politics. Pathak has this to say:
"Their traumatized psyche aligned them towards politics. They knocked on doors of their near and dear ones, forgetting their structured and disciplined duties and responsibilities. The NA generals, particularly the incumbent Chief of Army Staff, (CoAS) Rookmangud Katawal, started to deliver political lectures as if they were political leaders, against the Interim Constitution, elected government, peace process (integration or formation of a new national army), and so forth. The vested interests of a few generals fomented distrust with the civilian government."
Then came a stand off regarding new recruitment of nearly 2,900 to the army. The army went ahead with the recruitment process despite the fact that it had been instructed by the line ministry not to proceed. The technicalities are of the usual type – the previous government authorised it, an advertisement was placed in November 2008 but the stop order was received only in December, so too late to call it off now, and so on – and need not detain us. Whatever the technicalities for the army to unilaterally proceed with military recruitment notwithstanding explicit instructions for the cabinet and the line ministry not to do so, is open mutiny. On April 20th an enraged government demanded an explanation from the army chief who sent in what was a highhanded document that smacked of outright insubordination.
A second issue was the case of eight brigadier generals whose 3-year tenure the government decided not to extend. Again army headquarters issued letters of extension in defiance of government instructions and went to the Supreme Court to obtain an interim injunction while they appeal the non-extension. Again to quote Pathak:
"On March 16, 2009, the CoAS ordered eight retired generals to continue their duties and responsibilities in uniform, challenging the rule of law, army act, and ministerial legitimacy. The Supreme Court gave a verdict to reinstate the eight generals the following day while they file a petition on March 24, 2009 but the same court has had a pending case on the age-limit of CoAS Katawal for the last three years. It is clear that the court practices politics no less than the parties".
Defeating the counter-revolution
The issue leading to the final breakdown was integration of the PLA into the NA. According to the UN brokered agreement under which the war ended, the 19,000 strong PLA was to be integrated into the 95,000 strong NA to create a unified force. But the PLA still remains barracked under UN supervision and the integration which not only modify the structure of state power put also end the frustrating quarantine of the revolutionary army remains stymied. Katawal and some, but not all generals have repeatedly refused to implement the agreement. Opponents of integration argue that the PLA includes ideologically "tainted" cadres who must be screened out, but the purpose of winning the war was precisely to include, not exclude, ideologically "tainted" elements within the machinery of state power.
Exasperated with all this the Maoist majority in government made an entirely correct, indeed more than correct, and urgent and necessary decision. The cabinet led by Prachanda decided to fire Katawal on May 3. It is true that he is due to retire anyway in four months but to countenance this kind of insubordination from the army for another four months would amount to playing dead and remaining silent in the face of a de facto military coup. The other partners in the coalition government opposed the decision – the NCP obviously smarting under electoral defeat and hankering after the old order, the CPN(U-ML) also smarting under electoral defeat and cringing in fear of counter-revolution.
The next act in the coup was the intervention of Nepal’s president; Yadev used his titular and what should be entirely ceremonial powers as commander in chief of the armed forces to countermand the cabinet’s decision to remove Katawal. The president of Nepal is not an executive head of state like Obama or Rajapaksa, he is a ceremonial figure as with Queen Elizabeth or the governor general of Canada and defiance of an elected and duly constituted government is no less than a palace coup. The matter has now gone to the Supreme Court, one more pillar of the old establishment, which may hold in favour of Katawal and Yadev.
What then? Next day Prachanda resigned the premiership on and threw down the gauntlet preparing to take the fight forward. The Maoists would be making a great mistake if they climbed down in such circumstances. They must not sacrifice what the people won in the streets, trenches and countryside when faced with political conspiracy and subterfuge. They have to accept the challenge, accept it on behalf of the people, give leadership and mobilise on a mass scale in the cities and in the countryside. Very wisely, they have stated that they are not withdrawing from the constitutional process and have renewed their commitment and participation in the drafting of a new peoples’ constitution. They are astutely combining different modes of struggle.
If the standoff is not resolved quickly in its favour, the Maoists must pull the PLA out of UN sequestration, break the locks on the armament-dumps and prepare for a possible more naked military coup. The army and rump reactionary forces cannot be trusted in unstable conditions like the present, and what Delhi may be up to is also suspect. Hundreds of examples throughout history remind us that reaction strikes ruthlessly if ever the fighting ability of the liberation forces is undermined or vigilance slackened. In Nepal the people have, over the last decade, won several rounds in the battle to turn from a corrupt and reactionary monarchy to democracy, albeit partial. Now is the time to finish the job.