FormerÂ army chief Rookmangud Katawal tells all in soon to be released memoir
A month after King Gyanendra’s coup of 1 Februrary 2005, I was summoned to the Royal NepalÂ Army headquarters at Bhadrakali to meet Lt Gen Rookmangud Katawal. The coup had beenÂ meticulously planned, and was accompanied by mass detentions of political leaders and democracyÂ activists. There was an information blackout, and military censors in the newsroom had to approveÂ pages of Nepali Times before it went to press.
Katawal had a vice-like handshake which I thought was a part of his psy-war repertoire. In theÂ hour-long conversation, he wanted to know the reaction to the kingâs takeover among members ofÂ the international community and the media, and delivered a veiled warning to toe the line.
Nearly ten years later, Katawal still has an iron handshake and the same non-nonsense manner asÂ he greets me in a living room festooned with framed photographs and military honours. Â HisÂ memoir, which will be published by nepa~laya this month, is brisk and brusque, just like theÂ abrasive general himself.
An eight-year-old son of a Newari mother in Okhaldhunga, Rookmangud Katawal always wanted toÂ see what a king looked like. So, when Mahendra was riding across eastern Nepal during one of hisÂ inspection visits in 1958, Katawal sneaked into the royal tent. The king, wearing shades even atÂ night, was so impressed with the boyâs confidence that he instructed the Ministry of Education toÂ enroll him in the boarding school in Pharping near Kathmandu. Later, on a visit to the schoolÂ Mahendra was proud to see that the boy had topped his class even after a double promotion.
Katawal was a good student, and never lost his Â precociousness. Being a descendant of Dev RajÂ Katawal, one of Prithvi Narayan Shahâs generals who was killed during the siege of Kathmandu inÂ 1767, he was destined for a military career. He rose up the ranks, and despite strong oppositionÂ from the established Rana-Shah brass, became Army Chief during Nepal’s dramatic transition fromÂ war to peace, from monarchy to republic. Katawal, as it turned out, outlasted the royal rulers whoÂ were his benefactors.
Many thought the generalâs rapid rise was due to his proximity to the royal family. Katawal says theÂ palace just gave him a scholarship, but admits turning the rumours to his advantage. Katwal wasÂ appointed Liaison Officer to the Brigade of Gurkhas base in Hong Kong, where he hosted KingÂ Birendra in 1983 after his US state visit when Ronald Reagan endorsed Nepalâs Zone of PeaceÂ proposal. Katawal remembers frantically trying to find the kingâs preferred brandy, and flying in aÂ live goat from Kathmandu for the royal birthday party.
The 2001 royal massacre was the beginning of the end of the monarchy. Within five months, theÂ army was sucked into the war, something Birendra had tried to prevent when he was alive. KatawalÂ was then heading the Department of Military Intelligence, but says the army was fighting with itsÂ hands tied because the palaceâs instructions were to not go on the offensive, only to disarm theÂ Maoists and bring them to the negotiating table.
A few days before the 1 February 2005 coup by Gyanendra, Katawal noticed that the top brass wasÂ frequently sneaking out to the palace for meetings. âSomething was cooking,â Katawal says, and hisÂ suspicions were confirmed when he overheard the Army Chief assuring the Indian ambassador onÂ the phone that no coup was planned. Â The next day atÂ 9AM, the prime minister was sacked,Â government dissolved and Gyanendra had taken over. Katawal remembers an envoy telling him:Â âRK, your king is a liar.â
Katawal admits that he initially supported the royal takeover to âteach the politicians a lessonâ soÂ the army could focus on defeating the Maoists. But a few days later, when Gyanendra appointedÂ Tulsi Giri and Kirtinidhi Bista as co-chairmen, he felt it wasnât going to work. Within 14 months,Â Gyanendra was forced to step down.
In 2009, with just four months left in his tenure as Army Chief, elected Maoist Prime MinisterÂ Pushpa Kamal Dahal tried to tempt Katawal to step down in return for being appointed ambassadorÂ to the UN or France. When the general refused to take the bait, Dahal sacked him.
The ensuing cascade of events is now called âKatawal Prakaranâ, and resulted in President RamÂ Baran Yadav askingÂ the Chief to continue in office, and Dahalâs resignation the next morning. Katawalâs account of 3Â May 2009 is as riveting as thriller, detailing how he took two pickup trucks of commandos for hisÂ meeting with Dahal in Baluwatar with instructions to storm the building if he didnât appear everyÂ ten minutes at the window.
Back at HQ, the situation was tense with the Maoist-appointed Gen Kul Bahadur Khadka preparingÂ to take over as Chief, and Katawal was still in charge tillÂ midnight. Katawal summoned Khadka andÂ didnât mince words. âYou bloody joker, what do you think you are doing?â Katawal says he told hisÂ colleague, but what he really said is probably unprintable.
âPrachanda thought he could turn Nepal into a one-party peopleâs republic, â Katawal recalls, âheÂ knew if he could take over the army no one could stop him.â Had he accepted Dahalâs bribe ofÂ ambassadorship and resigned, or surrendered to Khadka onÂ 3 May, Nepal may have been aÂ different place today â probably a one-party dictatorship.
Katawal doesnât hide his disdain for Dahal and his manipulations, âMr Cloudâ (Ram Bahadur Thapa)Â and his hard line, Girija Koirala for being too soft on the Maoists, Ian âMr Comradeâ Martin andÂ UNMIN for being against democracy.
After two recent books by Sudheer Sharma (Prayogshala) and Prashant Jha (Battle for a NewÂ Republic) both of which detail the depth of involvement of Indian intelligence in Kathmandu,Â Katawalâs memoir gives us an insiderâs account of the events and personalities that shaped recentÂ Nepali history.
Past imperfect, Prashant Jha
Hand-to-hand, Prashant Jha
Start again, Editorial
Two translated sections from Rookmangud Katawalâs memoir.
âYour king is a liar,â British ambassador Bloomfield told me one day.
I could not accept such things being said about our head of state and supreme commander. I shot back: âHow could you ever say that about my king?â
âHe is not fit to be king,â the ambassador said even more tersely.
The exchange went on for a while, but I could not convince the ambassador. None of the ambassadors were for an active monarchy, they were not welcome in the palace. But the people surrounding King Gyanendra, and those who were using his power did not warn the King that he was losing international support. At a time when he should be showing some flexibility, the King had become more rigid. I tried to convince the Chief several times to take the message to the King that he should meet the NC and UML, which still had popular support. He did not reply.
3 May 2009
âWe are not going to surrender. No wayâ I told President Ram Baran Yadavâs adviser. âI donât want to do anything unpleasant myself. My legitimacy finishes by 12 midnight.â
At about 11PM, the President called.
âDo I have to put it in writing?â The President asked. âCanât I not write it?â
I replied: âIf it is not in writing, there will be a question of legitimacy. A letter would resolve the issue.â
By then, KP Oli had got to the palace despite his health problems, and called to say the President had decided to send the letter and to inform all the generals.
A few minutes later, the fax arrived, reinstating the Chief of Army Staff. It was a clear and direct letter, just as we wanted. Soon after, my mobile and all the landlines started ringing off the hook.
The needle on my watch approached midnight. But I wasnât sleepy, I went to meet my soldiers outside.