Allowing the military chief to prevail today will condemn the country to a fate similar to Pakistan, says Nepal’s Prime Minister, Prachanda.
In an interview on the circumstances leading to the dismissal of his country’s army chief and his own subsequent resignation, Prime Minister Prachanda of Nepal tells The Hindu the Maoists will prefer to sit in the opposition rather than see the authority of a democratically elected government undermined.
Controversy has surrounded your decision to sack General Rookmangad Katawal as army chief. He had defied civilian authority since December on the recruitment issue but was going to retire soon. Why precipitate a political crisis when his tenure was ending anyway?
When the question of recruitment came, we knew what was at stake was the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and its implementation. So we discussed the issue within government and also tried to convince other political parties that this man is trying to challenge civilian supremacy. That this is a question of principle — either we assert civilian supremacy or army supremacy will get established. A serious debate took place with different political parties and ultimately, I acted because the other major political party in the government besides the Maoists — the United Marxist-Leninists — agreed to take action against Katawal. It is only then that I asked some questions of the army chief and tried to take action against him.
Who were the UML leaders who agreed with this?
Top central leaders like Jhalanath Khanal, Ishwar Pokharel and Bam Dev Gautam agreed that Katawal is always trying to challenge the elected government and that this will create a very bad situation in the coming days and therefore we should take some action. And when UML leadership agreed, I also discussed with the leadership of the Madhesi Forum (MJF). They too agreed to go ahead. Today, the MJF is sticking to its position but the UML reversed itself later on.
In the cabinet, when it became clear that UML was no longer on board, why did you feel it necessary to go ahead with the dismissal, knowing it would trigger a major crisis?
Because it is a question of principle, it is a question of making history in this country. If we surrender to this army chief or to army supremacy, this will create a very big problem in coming days. Therefore, we preferred to stand firmly. Even if I should have to resign from the government, I must establish civilian supremacy in Nepal.
So you were looking at the experience of Pakistan?
Exactly, we discussed here what happened in Pakistan, and how in India, civilian supremacy has been established from 1947 up to this time.
And that is the model you wanted to follow for Nepal?
Exactly, I discussed this question with different political leaders, that we have to learn from the experience of India in this issue, not Pakistan.
But India went along with President Ram Baran Yadav’s decision to rescind the cabinet order and reinstate the general. Did that disappoint you?
Well, we expected that India would take a consistent position in favour of civilian supremacy because of its own traditions and because it had supported the struggle for democracy here. In fact, I want to make it clear that before taking any action against Katawal, I told the Indian Ambassador, Rakesh Sood, that if it is possible, could you please send a message that I want to have a serious discussion on this issue and if either the foreign secretary or some other senior person can come here to talk. We knew some confusion is there between the Maoist-led government and India on this question. I wanted to settle this issue through interaction and discussion with high-level officials from Delhi. But unfortunately, the ambassador informed me that this cannot happen now because the election campaign is going on, that nobody is there, that it is very difficult.
So you wanted the Indian leadership to be on board before you took action against Katawal?
But they say you promised you would not act without wide consultations, and that you didn’t stick to that assurance.
Let me clarify. When the question of this army chief was in debate, right from the beginning of the recruitment issue last December, I tried to consult with different stakeholders, even with Indian officials, that this man is not comfortable with the peace process, not comfortable with civilian supremacy. And, therefore, I want to take some action against him. So the debate was there, just after the recruitment issue came. They said, yes, but it is not good to take action now, let him go in the natural way. But these negative things continued. Even then, before taking action, I had said I would consult with the different political parties. And there were 15 days of consultations.
Some people say the change in the UML’s position was the result of Indian pressure. Do you agree?
That would be going too far. Inside UML there was a heavy pressure for the leadership and maybe some sorts of pressure from Delhi also.
The media is speculating that the Maoists had reached out to Lt. General Kul Bahadur Khadka, that you wanted him as army chief because of some understanding. What is the truth?
All these rumours are baseless and completely wrong. We see no difference between Khadka or Chattra Man Singh Gurung or other generals. Our concern is with Katawal, who is acting against civilian supremacy. And we tried to convince other political parties, and even some members of the international community, that we don’t have any preference that Khadka should be the next chief. He is second in command and when we take action against the chief, the second will naturally come. But we did not have any hidden agenda or hidden interaction with Khadka.
And there was no plan to give him an extension, since has only a few weeks to go till retirement?
No. In fact, we made him acting chief. If we wanted to make him chief in that way for an extended period, we would not have made him only acting chief in our cabinet decision. So he was to be acting chief and we were open to discuss about the chief [after his retirement] — to either make Gurung or some other general. Some people think we are trying to manipulate Khadka in favour of the Maiosts. These baseless rumours are meant to confuse the people.
Why was the army recruitment issue so important for you? And what was the need to deny an extension to the eight brigadiers as recommended by Gen. Katawal? I am told many of them were highly competent, professional officers.
It was agreed that there should be no recruitment by the Nepal Army or Peoples Liberation Army until integration and rehabilitation of the PLA is complete. In fact, the UN wrote a letter to us saying the proposed army recruitment should be stopped as it violates the CPA. After this, we wrote to Katawal saying it should be stopped. But he defied us. As for the brigadiers, there have been so many instances in the past when an officer’s tenure ended and extension was not given. So this time too, in the case of the eight brigadiers who had reached the end of their tenure, we felt that to address change, to give opportunity to new officers, we should do this. And not only in the army but in the police, 10-11 officers were not given extension. If I don’t give opportunity to new officers, the old status quo will be maintained, it will not be consistent with the movement for change.
Some of your leaders have said that unless Katawal’s reinstatement is revoked, the Maoist bloc will not allow the Constituent Assembly to function. Wouldn’t that be an irresponsible thing to do?
We believe the president should correct his extraconstitutional action and we are not going to disrupt the CA functioning for the time being. Previously, the Nepali Congress had disturbed the functioning of parliament on the issue of the chief and in a counterattack we are also stopping it because NC taught us to do these kind of activities! But we are not going to have a continuous kind of programme like that, we will let the CA function and elect the government.
So you are not going to stand in the way?
And can you rejoin government?
We will not be part of the government if the president does not correct his instruction on Katawal.
Could a possible compromise be restoring the status quo ante before the dismissal but with the CA passing a resolution firmly establishing the principle that the civilian government alone has the right to take decisions about the military and not the president?
On the issue of the principle, we will agree with that kind of proposal. But right now, in the process of forming the government, it is not possible to form an agreement on that line. We will be in the opposition in that situation.
Do you feel the Maoists will gain electorally in the future by staying in the opposition now?
We haven’t thought of the next election, we are thinking about civilian supremacy. If we go into opposition, it will mainly be for civilian supremacy. The Maoists struggled hard for a CA when others were against it, we fought hard for a Republic and now for civilian supremacy. People will ask why other parties are silent, how come only the Maoists are fighting for this. The image of the party has gone up in the hearts and minds of the people. This is our victory.
(Tomorrow: Prachanda on India’s fears about China, and the problem of integrating Maoist combatants into the Nepal army.)