By Ameet Dhakal
News Editor, the Kathmandu Post
KATHMANDU, Aug 22 – The Nepali Army (NA) may appear the same old “royal” army from outside but the changes that have taken place within are immense, especially in the way it thinks. Interestingly, what has changed the most is precisely what has been asked about umpteenth times about the army on the street and in the House of Representatives since the April Revolution: it’s loyalty toward the monarch. “It [loyalty] completely broke down after Janaandolan,” said a major who has served 16 years in the army.
Half a dozen army personnel of different ranks whom this scribe interviewed said the king’s hold on the army was over. When asked what would happen if the parties and the Maoists failed to sort out issues in time, giving way to frustration, and in the meantime the king decided on a takeover once again, another major said, “He can’t do it”. After a pause, he added, “Tara usle teso nagarla [But he won’t do that]”. The confidence in their tone and lack of respect for the king in their language are striking. During their entire careers they were taught to use “Maharajdhiraj sarkar and baksinchha” while referring to the king. In about 100 days since the Janaandolan they have comfortably dropped such honorifics and have learnt to speak their mind.
What should be the future of monarchy? Not a single interviewee advocated a republic. Two of them favored some “space” for monarchy. But everyone said if there was a referendum on monarchy its result should be acceptable to all.
“The army is well aware that in the 21st century it can defend monarchy only if the people want it,” said a captain.
All those interviewed, however, showed strong objection to writing off the monarchy in the interim constitution. “The political parties or the Maoists or parliament have no right to decide on the future of an institution that has been around for 238 years,” said C B Gurung, a retired lieutenant general. But he added, “It should be left to the people and the verdict of the sovereign people should be acceptable to all.” The army somehow believes that removing monarchy without the verdict of the people is tantamount to a Maoist victory and the army’s defeat.
What led to this sea change in the army, vis-à-vis its relations with and perception of monarchy is a complex matter. For there are a number of factors at play.
The most striking of these is the elimination of the Shah-Rana clan from the army’s top leadership. By coincidence, among the top seventeen incumbent army generals (those above Brigadier General) none is a Shah or a Rana. That has cut off the monarchy’s flesh-and-blood kinship with the army at the very top.
The monarchy’s links with the army at the lower rungs is far weaker. The pull of globalization and pressure of insurgency have radically changed the profile of the bottom-heavy Nepali Army within a decade. Since immigration to the West became easier in the 90s and life in the army riskier after the insurgency began in 1996, recruitment from the elite class took a nosedive. Almost 50,000 out of the 92,000 currently serving in the NA are not only young but were also recruited after the insurgency began. “This young crowd is somewhat indifferent toward monarchy. The army leadership cannot thrust loyalty to the king upon them even if it wants to,” said another retired general.
The army’s exposure to Nepali society after the insurgency and to the outside world, including to other war-ravaged countries, have also greatly influenced perceptions. A major who led many operations in the field said, “People don’t trust us and hardly provide any information. We are seen as someone’s army, not theirs.” Almost all interviewed army personnel made it a point to emphasize that they are a part of the “national army”.
As the insurgency dragged on and the Maoists and the Seven-Party Alliance entered into the 12-point understanding, the delicate relationship between the army and the king was further strained. A senior army general claimed that top generals had advised the king in writing, through outgoing army chief Pyar Jung Thapa and long before the April movement, that the king should rethink his roadmap.
An anecdote a young officer recounted, of a visit by his boss to a museum while accompanying King Gyanendra during the African Safari, is most revealing. “When we were in the museum, which documented the history of a former monarchy, a thought suddenly came to my mind that this was also the destiny of our own king,” the officer quoted his boss as saying. Perhaps the army had sensed what was coming long ago.