Who is Rookmangud Katawal?
Foreword by Mikel Dunham
When I first met General Rookmangud Katawal, he was at the height of his career. It was during a pivotal moment in Nepal’s history. Only a few days before, on April 10, the historic 2008 Constituent Assembly Elections had been held. Prior to the elections, the country thrummed with trepidation over regional outbreaks, mob threats and the probability of widespread violence in and around the polling stations. As it turned out, the day came and went with less hostility than predicted. The unexpected victory of the Maoists sparked self-congratulatory dancing in the streets. The defeated parties hung back in shell-shocked silence. The king had not yet made a public statement. Whatever one’s party affiliation may have been, there was palpable relief that – if nothing else – the long-postponed event was finally over. The day I drove to Army Headquarters, there was still celebration in the air, but also emerging sobriety – a kind of election-day hangover. The country had undeniably reached a turning point. But now what? The rollercoaster ride wasn’t over. The opportunities and challenges were multifold; both required ethics and transparency, attributes in short supply among the political parties.
I interviewed General Katawal on the top floor of the sprawling Army Headquarters. Brigadier General Rajendra Chhetri invited me to ink my signature in HQs’ oversized guest book. I signed directly below the two previous visitors: Jimmy Carter and American Ambassador to Nepal Nancy Powell. I then followed Chhetri further down the hallway, windowed on the right side, the panes streaked with late afternoon rain. The view was looking down over Kathmandu. I couldn’t decide if HQs’ vantage point was above the fray or at the very heart of it.
Chhetri stopped at a door on the left, knocked, paused, then ushered me into a dimly lit, expansive, but sparsely appointed conference room. Stretching away in the background was an impressive table that might seat a score of brass. There were two non-military oil paintings – mountainscapes – on the paneled walls and that was about it in terms of visual diversion. Closer to the entrance was a heavy desk and a seating arrangement of crimson stuffed armchairs with matching sofa.
The Chief of Army Staff was alone. Chhetri left us, closing the door behind him.
The ironclad handshake of General Katawal is something one doesn’t forget. Coupled with direct eye contact and upturned anvil jaw, his grip conveys a message that here is a man who once topped the 61-day United States Army Ranger School, and who probably could still carry, without flinching, 40 kilos of weaponry and equipment on his back.
General Katawal asked me to take a seat on the sofa. Cameras and recorders were forbidden so I pulled out a notebook and pen. Before I could ask my first question, Katawal cut to the chase: “What do you want?”
It was meant as a challenge and I appreciated it. It was like pitching a movie to a producer. You had five minutes to either sell your story or get booted. He didn’t care if I liked him or not, which I found refreshing after having interviewed numerous politicians, including Maoists, who seemed to be taking a civilized break in front of the camera before resuming their dogfights. The main political actors in the continually changing governments of Nepal – supporting each other one day, betraying each other the next – offered me pre-scripted answers, with attendants nearby to cut short interviews should their bosses tread thin ice or should I become too annoying. In stark contrast was General Katawal. He was perfectly comfortable being alone with me. He didn’t need backup. Who he was today, he would be tomorrow.
I put my questions aside. Instead, I briefed him on what my recent activities in Nepal had entailed. The Election Commission of Nepal had chosen me to be one of their international observers. On Election Day, I canvassed three districts – Morang, Sunsari and Dhankuta – pinpointing various polling stations that had experienced tampering in the past. I saw plenty of irregularities. I photographed a twelve-year-old boy stuffing “his” ballot into the box with a policeman standing three feet away. I saw entrances to polling stations flanked by scores of sullen but intimidating YCL members, sitting in the shade and monitoring the locals who dared to vote. I took a side-trip to a hospital in Darang, where a man was said to be in critical condition from a beating at the Bhutaha polling station. When I arrived, he had already died. At twilight, on the return trip to Biratnagar, my car was stopped and surrounded in Itahiri by a large group of young drunk thugs. No security in sight. After some fairly aggressive haggling, my international observer vehicle was reluctantly waved through. As I approached Biratnager around 8:45pm, I videoed a squad of armed police retrieving an unexploded bomb. As I entered the small hotel where I was spending the night, I heard Jimmy Carter’s voice blaring from the television mounted on the wall of the dining room next to the entrance. A group of reporters were gathered there, looking up at the screen. The ex-president – who was in Nepal, but never left the Kathmandu Valley – was proclaiming that the elections had been peaceful, free and fair. The reporters laughed at his naïve appraisal. It only then that the general smiled and took over the conversation.
The whole problem in Nepal was misinformation, he told me. His frustration was evident in his tightened lips. Everyone dismissed him as the “adopted son of King Mahendra” and therefore jumped to the conclusion that he was against democracy. Nothing could have been further from the truth, he told me. He supplied me with a thumbnail sketch of his hardscrabble childhood in the eastern part of Nepal, far away from the Kathmandu-centric elite. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that his supposed close connection to the royal family was a fairytale. He believed in the constitution and rule of law. More important, he believed that one of the main duties of the Nepal Army was to protect the constitution and rule of law.
The man spoke from his chest and from his heart. I could take it or leave it. I left Army HQs aware that there had been no interview, per se. I never published a word from that 40-minute meeting. But I came away with something far more valuable: someone to respect.
Although I don’t live in Nepal, I return here frequently and, if possible, touch base with General Katawal. After his retirement in 2009, and the klieg lights moved elsewhere, the general and I became trusted friends.
I was in Nepal during the horrific 2015 earthquakes. Although it was difficult to reach anyone in Kathmandu by phone, I was in contact with Katawal every day. Finally, five days after the first quake, I had dinner with the general and his family at his home. There was a large tent set up in his garden where his wife, daughter-in-law and her children slept. He preferred bunking in his office on the ground floor, with quick exit to the outside when the never-ending aftershocks became too threatening. It was during that typical Nepali dinner – one of the best I’ve ever had – that he asked me if I would be interested in editing the English translation of his autobiography. I pounced on the opportunity.
What man had experienced a more intimate relationship with the broad spectrum of Nepali culture and society – from powerless peasants to the aristocracy of old Nepal? Katawal was like a Nepali timeline incarnate.
He was born in 1948, just when the stage was being set for the demise of the 100-year-old reign of the Ranas. He was a toddler when King Tribhuwan returned to Nepal from Indian exile and re-established Shah rule. The pampered existence of the royal family was as distant from his goat-herding childhood as was Kathmandu from Okhaldhunga, the isolated district where he was born. But local holy men said he was destined for great things and his mother took the prophesy to heart, instilling in him a relentless drive to get a proper education and rise to the top.
It was King Mahendra, assuming the throne in 1955, who gave young Rookmangud his chance to break away from a rural existence. On a royal tour of eastern Nepal, Mahendra heard the young lad recite poetry, was impressed by the boy’s intellect (and perhaps amused by his bravado), and selected him to be taken to one of the preeminent schools in the Kathmandu Valley, Pharping Boarding School. This was one year before a new constitution was written wherein the king accepted the establishment of a parliamentary government.
Rookmangud found himself in classrooms with boys who came from some of the most privileged families in Nepal. It was a challenge to fit in, but he made a name for himself by taking first in most of his classes. Meanwhile, in 1960, Mahendra launched a royal coup, jailed political party leaders and established absolute rule, thus putting an end to the nascent development of democracy in Nepal. In its place, the king established the Panchayat system, basically a one-party system grafted to bolster Mahendra’s rule.
In 1969, Katawal began his career in the then Royal Nepal Army, eventually graduating from the Indian National Defense Academy, receiving a Bachelor of Arts from Tribhuwan University, a Master’s Degree in National Defense from Pakistan’s Qaeda Azam University, the Distinguished International Honor Graduate of the US Special Forces Course, the Gideon Award in the US Ranger Course, and a graduate of UK’s Army Command and Staff College. He had come a long way from his rural years, when, in order to be able to practice writing the alphabet, he had had to make his own ink from soot.
In 1972, King Birendra assumed the throne, continuing his deceased father’s absolute rule in Nepal.
While Katawal was given increasingly key Army staff appointments, Birendra was faced with growing hostility from his subjects. In 1979, a nationwide pro-democracy movement erupted in protest of the Panchayat system. The following year a national referendum was held that resulted in unqualified support for the Panchayat system, although many thought the process had been rigged. Minor amendments to the constitution were announced to mollify the public. But in 1981, when elections to the National Panchayat were held, the political parties boycotted the elections, a process repeated in 1983 and with the same dubious results.
That same year, Katawal left Nepal along with his family. He had been selected for the plum assignment of becoming Nepal’s Government’s Liaison Officer to the Brigade of Gurkhas of the British Army and Government of Hong Kong. The position was for three years and, during that stint, he had numerous opportunities to host the royal family en route to and from their various international tours. Katawal was nothing, if not a careerist, and he made the most of the opportunity by developing relationships with people who, otherwise, would have been beyond his station in life.
In 1988, he was appointed the Chief Military Personnel Officer of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
While Katawal’s career constantly moved upward, King Birendra’s Panchayat system – ever more dysfunctional and despised – was on the verge of collapsing. In 1989, India imposed an economic embargo on Nepal. It struck a devastating blow to the nation’s economy and, in turn, enraged the people, who put the blame squarely on Birendra’s shoulders. This led to the 1990 People’s Movement (Jana Andolan), which resulted in the promulgation of a new constitution that significantly compromised the Crown’s power and legitimized a multiparty democratic system.
Meanwhile, after serving in the Research and Development Wing at Army HQs, Katawal became Commandant of the Royal Nepalese Military Academy in 1993.
In 1996, Katawal was promoted to Brigadier General. Some of his superiors – all hailing from the rarified background of the ruling class – were fond of telling Katawal that, no matter how well he performed, a poor eastern boy with no pedigree would “never become Chief of Army Staff.” And they weren’t joking. An Army Chief’s last name was either “Rana”, “Shah”, “Basnyat” or “Thapa”. One of the most interesting things about Katawal’s life story is that, the higher he rose in the Army hierarchy, the more he encountered the pushback, the rigidity of the upper class. The discrimination wasn’t universal, but the undercurrent was always there. Likewise, as he rose through the ranks, his direct access to the palace became increasingly restricted. The king’s inner circle, all from the old aristocracy, distrusted this “upstart”, this “easterner” and further stigmatized him – quite erroneously – as an avid supporter of the pro-democratic Nepali Congress political party.
The same year that Katawal became a Brigadier General, a Maoist faction of the Communist Party of Nepal went underground and declared a “People’s War”. At first, most of the politicians in Kathmandu labeled the Maoists as “terrorists”, but otherwise paid insufficient attention to them, tucked away as they were in the western hilly districts of Rolpa, Rukum, Pyuthan and Salyan. Out of sight, out of mind. Besides, the political parties were too preoccupied with their interminable internecine war with one another. Corruption, coercion, lust for ministerial offices and jealousy of each other’s power was the political culture of Nepal. Between 1991 and 2000, there were ten different governments – the perfect storm for political instability – and the crafty Maoists took full advantage of it.
In 1999, Katawal became Director of Military Intelligence. No one in Nepal was in a better position to see the Maoist threat and yet there was little that he or the Army could do, since the palace had refused to mobilize the Army in order to crush the insurgents. That job was left to the police and later, in 2001, the newly created Armed Police Force.
On June 1, 2001, an unspeakable tragedy occurred that rocked the nation: the Palace Massacre. At a private family dinner party, Crown Prince Dipendra apparently gunned down his father, his mother, his brother, his sister and numerous other royal family members before turning the gun on himself. Soon after, without knowing what had actually taken place, General Katawal was ordered to rush to HQs and stay there. As the hours passed, information slowly trickled in. Prince Dipendra was still alive, in a coma, intensive care. Against strict orders, Katawal jumped on a motorcycle and raced to the hospital:
Chhauni Hospital was heavily guarded. Members of the royal family were filing in with stunned looks on their faces. Despite so many people milling about, the hospital was eerily quiet.
After sunrise, he managed to get into Dipendra’s room:
The crown prince’s head was completely covered in bandages. He was unconscious. His motionless body lay on the bed and I gave up hope of him ever coming out of this alive…
Katawal’s account of the aftermath of the Palace Massacre is one of his autobiography’s most poignant narrations. By the next morning, although the palace was ridiculously slow to admit what had happened, the basic facts of the tragedy leaked out to the public and the nation was overcome by grief, suspicion and, above all, anger. Katawal remembers:
… there was no time to grieve. I was assigned to arrange the funeral procession.
That evening, I took my position in the procession and walked beside King Birendra’s body. The streets were overflowing with mourners. The shock of the event was palpable and, in many ways, the cortège was surreal. Hooligans near Swayambhu threw stones at Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s car. Their anger was not only directed at the Prime Minister. Prince Gyanendra was being singled out, as well. Many suspected that he was somehow behind the massacre.
Dipendra finally succumbed to his head wound, and his uncle, Gyanendra, was crowned king. Thirteen days later, Katawal was promoted to Major General. It was a ceremony filled with mixed emotions. Birendra had supported Katawal’s career – from the beginning of his reign until his ghastly death.
It wasn’t long after the Palace Massacre that Katawal took over as Adjutant General of the Nepal Army. In November 2001, following a breakdown of peace talks with the government, the Maoists ended a four-month-old ceasefire with a wave of attacks on police posts and army barracks. King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency, erasing a decade of civil liberties including freedom of press and freedom of assembly. The following year, in October 2002, the king sacked the entire cabinet, assumed executive powers and indefinitely postponed parliamentary polls. The “People’s War” intensified.
By May 2003, nearly 7,200 Nepalis had been killed in the Maoist revolt, with no end in sight. Five of the six political parties with seats in the dismissed parliament had had their fill of King Gyanendra’s direct rule and launched the Joint People’s Movement. A new slogan gained momentum: Abolish the monarchy and establish Nepal as a republic. The increased political chaos, coupled with the rising number of dead from the guerrilla conflict was reaching the boiling point. And it was at this juncture, at the end of the year, that General Katawal was selected to command the army’s Western Division – ground zero – the very area where the “People’s War” had begun seven years before. According to the Maoists, it was completely under their control.
The national and international media parroted ad nauseam the Maoists’ claim. Katawal capitalized on his transfer to Western Nepal by revealing a different picture in the hinterlands. For example, he foiled the Maoists’ attempt to block King Gyanendra’s scheduled tour of Western Nepal. The Army cleared the path; Gyanendra made his scheduled stops and Katawal made sure the media was there to cover it. “Where are the Maoists?” Katawal asked the cameras. In addition, Katawal focused on ramping up development projects that increased interaction and trust with the local villages. The Army and Police presence was so great in places that numerous Maoist leaders were driven across the Indian border. Not surprisingly, Katawal was in the crosshairs of Maoist leadership. But since they were powerless to actually kill him, they resorted to a cowardly alternative: Katawal’s wife began getting anonymous phone calls, advising her to buy a white sari – the customary garb for a widow.
In September 2004, Katawal was promoted to Lieutenant General and took over as Chief of General Staff. Being back in Kathmandu was perhaps more contentious than his direct skirmishes with rebels in the West. The king was getting into the habit of dismissing prime ministers on an almost yearly basis. He blamed them for failing to hold elections on time and not being able to bring Maoists leaders to a roundtable negotiation. Finally, on 1 February 2005, Gyanendra declared himself absolute ruler, promising the country that he would return Nepal to normalcy within three years. His announcement was unapologetically heavy handed and he repressed any form of dissent, restricting civil liberties, including freedom of speech. By the time the royal address was over, all of Nepal’s mobile phone networks and landlines went dead. The king had ordered a nationwide communication blackout.
The diplomatic community publicly denounced the move as a “setback to democracy.” But off the record, ambassadors told Katawal:
If peace can be restored by bringing the Maoists to the democratic process, then the King should be allowed to do so. This will also be a major lesson for the political leaders, who have spent all of their time fighting amongst themselves. We think the King’s move is the best solution to rescue Nepal from the present political crisis.
Initially, a surprisingly large percentage of Nepal’s population condoned the king’s move: Nothing else had worked, so why not give the king a chance to turn things around? Katawal also supported the king’s takeover but not necessarily his methods. He was particularly concerned that censorship of the media would come back to haunt the king. And then there was this:
No one objected when the King took steps to bring the parties in line, but now it seemed he was concentrating on consolidating his own power by removing anyone who didn’t agree with him. He excluded the Congress and UML from his Cabinet of Ministers and selected former office-bearers from the Panchayat regime. There was no evidence that these throwbacks to the past would improve governance… Less than a month after the royal takeover, seven secretaries were dumped. People who had served the monarchy were being punished, triggering fear and paranoia among government officials. Their faith in the monarchy was crumbling fast.
Ambassadors were now unwelcome at the palace. To make matters more insular, the King’s inner circle of sycophants never challenged the king’s mulish – if not delusional – decisions. At a time when he should have been exhibiting flexibility, the King became even more rigid. Domestically, he had turned his back on the political parties and they had countered by turning their backs on him. In fact, they had come to the conclusion that it would be far more profitable to dialogue with the Maoists, the king’s archenemies.
For all practical purposes it was Gyanendra, himself, who was destroying the monarchy. Although no royalist, Katawal believed in the merits of a well-managed constitutional monarchy. Even a merely symbolic monarchy, with no real power of its own, offered historic continuity to a nation that was in dire need of unifying assets. From 2005, up until Gyanendra was dethroned and evicted from Narayanhiti Palace, Katawal sought private audiences with the king in order to shed light on the king’s precarious situation. On the few occasions that he did manage to speak to the king in private, Gyanendra either left in mid-sentence or responded with a royal sneer.
The Five-Party Alliance grew into a Seven-Party Alliance and, on 22 November 2005, they officially joined hands with the Maoists. Together, they agreed to resolve the 10-year conflict through political negotiations. Without the palace’s participation, they converged in Delhi and inked a 12-Point Agreement that called for the abolishment of absolute monarchy and addressed a spate of other contentious problems, including those involving class, caste, gender and economics.
It was a game-changer. The Maoists came out of hiding and took to the streets. On 6 April 2006, they and the united parties declared the People’s Movement (Jana Andolan II). Normal life screeched to a halt. The world watched, day after day, as the protestors swelled to the tens of thousands, while security forces in riot gear and tanks blocked the perimeters of the royal palace.
Finally, on 21 April, the King announced that he would restore parliament, thinking that that would solve the problem. He was deluded; it was a case of too-little-too-late. The Maoists and the Seven-Party Alliance gave him an ultimatum: The protests would continue until a Constituent Assembly was formed and the monarchy was abolished. The next day, the streets of Kathmandu swelled to hundreds of thousands of protestors. Finally, on 24 April, the king announced he was stepping down.
Six months later, on 18 September 2006, Rookmangud Katawal was sworn in as the new Chief of Army Staff (COAS). He was the first Commander-in-Chief of the Nepal Army to come from a common family. At a time when much of the public dismissed the Army as aristocratic, reactionary and a stooge of the beleaguered monarchy, Katawal’s unprecedented promotion should have sent a message that the Army was not that easy to stereotype. On the contrary, the streets were rife with the rumor that it was only a matter of time before the Army – in secret collaboration with the disgraced king – would stage a military coup. In fact, Katawal was approached on numerous occasion by leading figures to do precisely that, but he refused to act against the constitution.
The United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), arrived in Nepal in early 2007 to oversee the scheduled 2008 Constituent Elections and, more important, to monitor the the 28 cantonments, which were set up to house the Maoist ex-combatants until they could be reintegrated into society. Almost from the beginning, UNMIN’s presence was plagued with questions of its neutrality, as well as its ability (or inclination) to correctly cipher Maoist irregularities. Early on, UNMIN conducted a headcount of the rebels to weed out child soldiers and new people recruited after the peace agreement was in place. Their count was just under 20,000 combatants. The Army did everything in its power to point out the headcount discrepancies but UNMIN Director Ian Martin wasn’t listening. (In 2009, however, the UNMIN’s verification process became a source of embarrassment after a secret videotape of Maoist Supremo Prachanda caught him boasting to his followers that he had duped UNMIN by padding the camps with young people who didn’t actually qualify. The real number of the People’s Liberation Army, according to Prachanda, was actually between 7,000-8,000. Even that was an inflated figure.)
The April 2008 National Elections results indicated that the Maoists had won a surprising majority of the seats in the Constituent Assembly (CA). They did not achieve a mandate, but they were clearly in a position to take over the government. In May, the CA abolished the monarchy and pronounced Nepal a republic. Ram Baran Yadav (of the opposition Nepali Congress party) became Nepal’s first President. Prachanda became Prime Minister.
General Katawal spent most of his COAS tenure dealing with army bashing, with Maoist duplicity, and with formulating a practical solution to reintegrating the ex-rebels, while, at the same time, preserving the integrity of the Nepal Army. His job became even more besieged after Prachanda became Prime Minister:
With the King effectively neutralized, the Maoists turned their attention to bringing the Army to its knees. They knew very well that the Army was the only disciplined, well-knitted and professionally united institution in the country. Their goal was to put the Army under their control – a vital step if they were to achieve their ultimate goal: to complete their process of state capture. They were prepared to go to any lengths to accomplish that. [They] had done an excellent job in manipulating the media by portraying the Nepal Army as rapists, murderers, and basically the private army of the ex-King. [On the other hand] …the international community admired and relied on the Nepal Army for its decades of professional participation in UN peace missions. In other parts of the world, the Nepal Army represented the very model of an institution dedicated to maintaining peace and stability.
Nevertheless, Prachanda pushed on, dead-set on forcing the Army to integrate – wholesale – 19,000 “ex-rebels”, a group with far less education, questionable skills and virtually no professional military training or experience on a par with the Nepal Army’s international standards. For Katawal, the consummate military professional, meeting Prachanda’s demand would be the equivalent of allowing the army to be destroyed. That was not going to happen on Katawal’s watch.
Prachanda focused on issues he thought could destroy Katawal: controversy over Katawal’s alleged close affiliation with the ruling class and the Indian government; Army recruiting issues regarding replacing eight generals, who were facing retirement; and the Army’s boycotting of a Sports Tournament that Prachanda had tried to commandeer with members of his youth group, the Young Communist League. Based on these “transgressions”, Prachanda unilaterally sacked Katawal.
His autocratic ploy backfired. The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), a pivotal party in the coalition, withdrew from the government in protest. This was followed by the President of Nepal overriding Prachanda’s bold move and ordering Katawal to continue as COAS. This, in turn, resulted in Prachanda’s furious resignation in May 2009, followed by the collapse of the Maoist government. This final “Prachanda vs. Katawal” battle-of-wills is recounted in the last chapter of Katawal’s autobiography – a political thriller if there ever was one.
Katawal has often been portrayed as arrogant, which is a fair assessment. But after reading his life story, I don’t believe he was ever conceited. He merely took pride in what he had achieved on his own. He had faith in the simple mantra that upholding one’s principles was the only course of action. No doubt this had a lot to do with his soldiers’ deep admiration for him. His unwavering belief in his own abilities and in his prophesized fate of becoming a “big man”, nourished his conviction that his role was to safeguard Nepal’s stability, to protect its constitution and rule of law – no matter who was in power.
Above all, amidst the interminable political intrigue and backstabbing, Katawal emerges as man of self-empowerment – a man who, against all odds, transcended social prejudice and rose to the top of the military at precisely the moment in history when his country most needed him. Decade after decade, his story offers an insider’s view of the machinations going on behind the closed doors of Nepal’s power elite. Reading the general’s autobiography is, in essence, reading the timeline of Nepal’s struggle to emerge as a modern day democracy.
As might be expected, although Katawal has now retired from the Army, he keeps up an exhaustive schedule of reading, traveling, physical fitness, public functions, private ceremonies, and speaking at conferences and media programs.
Mikel Dunham is an author, artist, photojournalist, and Himalayan historian. This foreword was written by Mikel Dunham for the English translation of General Rookmangud Katawal’s best-selling autobiography. He also acted as editor of the translation for this book. You can follow him at http://www.mikeldunham.blogs.com/
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