Many of us suspected it but we now know for sure how the Mughlani blockade of Nepal ended in February 2016. Just prior to the visit of Nepal’s commander-in-chief to India as part of the preparatory summit homework, Nepal Army had sent an experienced general (now retired) and an astute colonel to India to convince the Indian Army top brass how the blockade was damaging India’s image in Nepal at a mass scale and how it might affect the overall security of north India, including through corrosive dissatisfaction among the Nepalis serving in the Indian Gurkha regiments. It was after all their families back in Nepal that were suffering in multiple ways from that ill-conceived neighbourhood adventurism by India’s South Block. Subsequently, the Indian Army then got the Indian government to reconsider the neo-colonial advice it was getting from its Babudom suffering from a chronic East India Company hangover.
All this was happening even as Nepal’s own Loktantrick political class had hopelessly politicized the Sadar Munshikhana with partisan favouritism, damaged its credibility at home and abroad, and reduced it to impotence since the end of the Panchayat. How would anyone take it seriously when Nepali embassies remain without ambassadors for years, and when eventually populated by incompetent and semi-literate party hacks see ambassadors embezzling money given to the families of dead Nepali labourers, engaging in black-marketing in the country they are accredited to, and often summarily sacked or recalled even while doing commendable jobs on behalf of the country when prime ministers play musical chairs as they have twenty-five times in as many years? How would one take the civilian defence ministry seriously when its secretary, reading a minister’s speech, could not even pronounce (let alone understand) ‘paradigm’, ‘Panchasheel’ or ‘non-alignment’ and had to be prompted from behind to the embarrassment of one and all?
This and many other interesting details emerged at a day-long seminar on defence diplomacy at the Army’s Shivapuri Staff College on 10th February. That outfit, which primarily runs year-long courses to train majors to eventually graduate to colonels, has quietly over the last decade achieved major diplomatic recognition even as that of the country’s foreign ministry has declined precipitously. It sees army majors from abroad, including the US, China, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh and other countries taking the course together with Nepali majors, with some getting a masters’ degree in peace and conflict studies from Tribhuban University along the way. One year it was an Indian Sardarji major who got the best thesis award for his work on the Maoist insurgency. Can one even imagine a young American diplomat taking such a course at Nepal’s Institute for Foreign Affairs or a Chinese civil servant opting for a course at Jawlakhel’s Administrative Staff College?
I once asked an American major who had just completed the Shivapuri course if career-wise that year was a dead loss for him, since he could have instead gone to West Point or Sandhurst or any other major NATO training establishments of repute. His answer was quite revealing. No, he said, it was on the contrary a great honour and opportunity: Shivapuri had two advantages over other older and more established military schools. First was that Nepal Army had possibly the best experience in counter-insurgency, having had to face that in the most hostile terrain in the world with the worst possible equipment (including Indian blockade of its contracted supplies). The second was its experience in peace keeping abroad and peace building at home that was second to none. He further added, where in the world would one get a chance to live and study with army colleagues from China, India, Pakistan and other countries in addition to very friendly Nepalis in the middle of such a pleasant national park?
In these Loktantrick times, it has become fashionable, especially among those steeped in Vulgar Marxism and totally illiterate regarding the writings of Rosa Luxembourg, to disparage the army and deny it any role in statecraft. Although the King and the Nepal Army have been the only institutions that have faithfully honoured the peace accord of 2006, it became a fashionable precondition for the political parties, their lackey intellectuals and the so-called “international community” to denigrate and slander these two institutions as they went overboard in imposing alien ideologies of federalism, republicanism and secularism that goes against the very grain of Nepali history and its nation formation. The resulting mess over the last decade is plain for everyone to see, including the “international community” which seems to have reached a point of fatigue. In the meantime, Nepal Army, which felt politically orphaned (to use the words of one of its past commanders), has maintained its discipline, absorbed the Maoist combatants within its folds, and gone about its duty without fuss or fanfare. And the King’s popularity continues to rise even as that of the party leaders continues to sink.
Those who deny the army its due role in statecraft howsoever subdued forget that it constitutes the very definition of the state, which is a “monopoly over the instruments of violence” that is then tempered by policies, laws and procedures regarding its use. To use ancient Hindu Samkhya terms, it is tamasik shakti (coercive power) that activates the rajasik (persuasive) and is legitimizes by the satwik (moral) powers inherent in any society as part of its history and culture, the example of the wax, wick and flame of a candle being the respective picturesque corollary. To quote Henry Kissinger quoting Stalin (in HK’s latest book, World Order), “Whosoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise.” Kautilya might have concurred: without the backbone of that tamasik power, no satwik or rajasik power can hold on for long. Nepal saw the imposition of alien systems once the Nepal Army was marginalized in the so-called “peace compromise” (i.e. shanti samjhauta) at the apex of the Maoist insurgency. Mercifully, thanks to the inherent discipline of the Nepal Army and the moral rectitude of the King, the nightmare of “two armies, one country” has come to an end, but not without badly damaging the rajasik order of the country.
A good example of this basic fact of statecraft is the role of China’s PLA during the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. An hour and a half before the formal handover ceremonies got underway with the participation of Prince Charles of Britain and President Jiang Zemin of China, the PLA forces entered Hong Kong and occupied all the key strategic locations. The British press decried the “ungentlemanliness” of the Chinese “who did not have the courtesy to wait until Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia had left the harbor”; but the Chinese knew that transfer of sovereignty meant transfer of land to whatever the PLA could hold. Their sagacity certainly thwarted any subsequent bloodshed and mayhem characteristic of India-Pakistan independence, and nipped in the bud any “Free Hong Kong” movement!
Given that the Nepal Army actually predates the formation of the Nepali state in 1769, it has a key role to perform in preserving the Nepalipan of these lands watered by the great Himalayan rivers from Mechi to Mahakali, especially when the country’s rajasik institutions are in shambles. In meeting the challenges ahead, the key is to retain the compass of the satwik strength of Nepalipan while sublimating its own tamasik strength to rajasik ends.
This it might do in several ways: developing its engineering capacity to undertake large infrastructure projects from transport and navigation to hydropower and disaster-proofing in much the same way as is done by the US Army Corps of Engineers and others; lobbying and getting implemented the “Swiss model” of obligatory military service as the requirement of Nepali citizenship, and drawing from that pool its core professional team (which would also put to rest the slander that it discriminates against certain ethnicities, something put to rest by the eloquent prime minister KP Bhattarai in his press conference with his Indian counterpart VP Singh in 1990); basing that “Swiss model” on the already accepted (by a majority of the world’s countries) idea that it is to establish Nepal as a Zone of Peace; expanding its health and medical services to remote areas so people there have affordable access to basic service, etc. How it can assuage our two neighbours and convince other international players that this is the correct path for Nepal is going to be at the core of Nepal’s Defence Diplomacy of the future.