What put Maoists on backfoot
BY AKHILESH UPADHYAY
KATHMANDU, April 24 - It sounds surreal, reads like a page from a nail-biting thriller.
On Thursday, 25 generals were present at the meeting of Principal Staff Officers at the Army Headquarters. The agenda was a serious one: Maoists are in a larger mission than to eliminate Nepal Army. They were out to derail the peace process and destroy Nepali democracy. And something had to be done to stop that.
It was PSOs and Valley commanders first meeting after the Maoist-led government issued a clarification letter to Chief of Army Staff Rookmangud Katwal.
The meeting started with DGMO (Director General of Military Operations) Gaurav Rana, saying that this was a historical moment and therefore it called for a frank discussion. “We are facing a tsunami and we must stop it,” he said. “The virus which is trying to destroy the Army is in this room.”
Himalaya Thapa, who heads the No. 1 Brigade added, “The root of the trouble is here. We must look for it and get rid of it.” A number of other generals also spoke at the meeting.
All the ire was vented against Lt. Gen. Kul Bahadur Khadka, who remained silent right through the meeting. Khadka, second in command in the Nepal Army, is the supposed Maoist choice to succeed Katawal.
At last, it was Katawal's turn. He said, “We should not let politics enter our house. We should stop this tendency to knock on the politician's door for promotion.”
For the first time, Lt. Gen. Khadka found himself completely exposed in front of the generals and the Nepal Army establishment, said a senior Army officer recounting Thursday's event.
He and other Army officers recounted to the Post late Thursday how on Wednesday they came close to mounting a “soft coup” to counter Khadka and the Maoist plan. The threat, they said, pushed the Maoists on to the back foot.
This is how the plan was. Maoist leaders, ministers and other selected individuals would be arrested. Former king would be put in Nagarjun Palace in “line arrest.” Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala and a number of other leaders would be cut off from the public.
Singhadurbar, Baluwatar, YCL and Maoist offices, the Ministers' Quarters at Pulchowk would be put under 'siege.' At the UN-monitored cantonments, the arms containers would be guarded, but the PLA combatants would not be harmed and would be allowed to leave the cantonments for home or for foreign employment. UNMIN monitors would be put in helicopters and flown to Kathmandu. “They would be treated with dignity,” said an Army officer.
“It was a plan that just was not a military coup,” said the officer. “I don't want to disclose the exact timing of the move. Such things are always kept secret.” There were hints that the “soft coup” would have taken place possibly in the wee hours on Wednesday.
All this started after the prime minister demanded Katawal's resignation on Sunday. By Monday, insiders say, Katawal seemed enthused by a renewed confidence. “By then he had received strong backing from India and he felt emboldened. For our part, we gave him a lot of moral support,” said another senior officer. “We told him 'don't worry. We will get the support. We proposed a coup. We had no time to lose. Losing time meant the Maoists would get Katawal.”
Having listened to all the calls from Army officers, Katawal finally said, “That's not the right way to go about it. He suggested that the best way to move forward would be through the confines of the statute.”
It was important for Katawal to take the president in confidence. “India played a crucial role to establish the link between the Army and the president,” the officer said.
“We were not the planners for presidential rule,” said the officer. “We were involved only in the military side of the operation.” An official with the president's office said, the president was under tremendous pressure from the Army to react, adding: “But we were not pushing for presidential rule.” The pressure on the Army was huge, said the officer. “Maoists and Kul Bahadur were using each other to execute their plan. Kul Bahadur would be made the chief as soon as Katawal submitted his clarification. The plan was to get rid of Katawal by any means. Even by killing or abducting him, or putting him under house arrest. Making Kul Bahadur the chief by hook or crook.”
According to the officers, Kul Bahaudr had submitted a plan to the Maoists months in advance and they liked it. The Army chief would get a 35-year service period; others 30- year period; all 19,000 Maoist combatants would be integrated in the Army; PLA commander Nanda Kishor Pun “Pasang” would be made Major General and many others would get brigadier positions; there would be no new entries in the Army for a while; and 50 percent of the Army would be used for development work.
Kul Bahadur, according to the officers, had also lobbied with the Maoist-led government not to give the eight generals (whose retirement has been temporarily stayed by the Supreme Court) extension. Kul Bahadur, they added, also gave the generals the impression that the Army chief was unsuccessful to defend their case with the Defence Minister.