Army chief’s meeting with chief justice stokes speculation of political messageThe meeting between Thapa and Rana comes at a time when the nation is awaiting a verdict on Oli’s House dissolution, which could determine what course the country would take.
Chief of the Army Staff Purna Chandra Thapa and Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana sent the Kathmandu rumour mill into an overdrive on Monday by holding a meeting, probably the first such one-on-one between the heads of the two agencies.
General Thapa reached Rana’s office in the Supreme Court on Monday afternoon.
Sources said the meeting lasted for about an hour.
Though the agenda of the meeting has been said to be a discussion on a piece of land, which previously belonged to the Army, where the Supreme Court is constructing a building, the timing of the meeting is significant, analysts say.
The Thapa-Rana meeting comes at a time when the nation is awaiting a verdict on Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s House dissolution move.
The month-long hearing concluded on Friday and the Constitutional Bench, led by Rana, is expected to pass a verdict within this week.
A retired general described the meeting between Army chief and chief justice as “rare”, carrying a political meaning.
“The argument that the [Army] chief went to meet the chief justice to discuss the land issue just does not hold water,” the former general, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Post over the phone. “If there really was an issue regarding the land, the Ministry of Defence could have taken it up. Why does the Army chief need to meet the chief justice to sort such things out.”
Oli’s December 20 House dissolution move has attracted widespread criticism, with experts on constitutional matters calling it an out and out unconstitutional move.
As many as 13 writs were filed at the Supreme Court challenging the House dissolution.
Oli’s decision led to a split in the Nepal Communist Party. Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal have severed ties with Oli ever since.
The House dissolution move has also sparked protests, with the Dahal-Nepal faction holding a series of demonstrations. In response, the Oli faction too is holding its own rallies, which look more like election campaigns, as Oli has called snap polls for April 30 and May 10.
The Army chief’s meeting with the chief justice also follows Oli’s warning in Biratnagar during his faction’s rally that there would be a strong movement if the Supreme Court reinstated the House.
A former brigadier general said that both the Supreme Court and the Nepal Army are considered by the people as independent institutions.
“The chiefs of the two independents agencies can definitely meet for various reasons but they should be careful about the timing as well,” the former brigadier general told the Post. “If the issue to discuss was land, how urgent attention did it need? Anyways a verdict on the House dissolution is just about to be passed. They could have discussed the land issue, if it indeed is an issue, after the verdict.”
During the month-long hearing on House dissolution, advocates pleading for the restoration of House had made some strong arguments compared to those defending Oli. Four of the five members of the amicus curiae too had argued strongly for the revival of the House.
It’s now up to the five-member Constitutional Bench to pass a verdict.
But Oli and leaders of his faction have been constantly saying that the House won’t be restored at any cost and that elections would take place on declared dates, with the first phase of voting just 67 days away.
If the House is reinstated, analysts say, Oli’s position is likely to be weaker. According to them, Oli’s warning of an agitation at Saturday’s rally “if the House is restored under some kind of collusion” showed he was on the defensive.
Oli’s move has thrown the country into uncertainty, as there is no clarity what political course the country could take in both cases–if Oli’s House dissolution is upheld by the court or if the House is restored.
Even if the House dissolution is approved by the court, there is no certainty that elections would take place on declared dates as the Election Commission is yet to resolve the Nepal Communist Party legitimacy issue. No one could tell what move Oli might take if his House dissolution is overturned by the court and Parliament is reinstalled.
Some, however, have been speculating that Oli could take yet another drastic step like imposing a state of emergency if his decision to dissolve the House is overturned.
“It could just be speculation but the recent chain of events has buttressed it,” said the former brigadier general.
The meeting between the chiefs of the national defence force and the judiciary also comes just a day before a meeting of the National Security Council.
A secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the National Security Council meeting on Tuesday.
The prime minister chairs the National Security Council while the ministers for defence, home, foreign and finance as well as the chief secretary and the Army chief are its members.
As per constitutional provisions, in case the government needs to mobilise the Army, a recommendation must be made by the National Security Council to the President.
With Monday’s meeting, this is the second time the Nepal Army has bungled on timing in a span of three weeks.
The Army on February 1 rolled its armoured vehicles along Ring Road, in what it called part of its regular drill, not giving two hoots about the date it chose to do so.
Sixteen years ago on February 1, then king Gyanedra Shah had staged a royal-military coup to seize power. Gyanendra ultimately had to pay a huge price for that. He was consigned to history as the last monarch of the 240-year-old Shah dynasty.
Coincidentally, when Army’s armoured vehicles moved along Ring Road on February 1 this year, the Myanmar military staged a coup. Questions were raised why the Army chose February 1 to conduct its regular drill.
The meeting between General Thapa and Chief Justice Rana on Monday also came amid a wave of misinformation lately that the army chief had praised Oli as one of the bravest prime ministers the country has ever seen.
According to Nepal Fact Check, a portal that conducts fact-checking on viral news and posts on social media, what was circulating on social media platforms regarding the Army chief’s statement was unverified information.
Nepal Army spokesperson Santosh Ballave Poudel on Monday “quote-tweeted” the @NepalFactCheck’s tweet and posted the link of the full statement of the Army chief, in a bid to clear the air that General Thapa had not said anything regarding the prime minister.
General Thapa’s meeting with Chief Justice Rana took place just hours after Poudel’s tweet.
The former brigadier general told the Post that the Army chief’s meeting with the chief justice at a time when political speculations are rife does not help the institutions and rather damages their reputation and image.
Earlier in December, Prime Minister Oli and Chief Justice Rana’s candid conversation, in full public view, during the inauguration of the new building of the Office of the Attorney General too had drawn a lot of attention and criticism, as the House dissolution move was already sub-judice at the court.
Analysts say by meeting the chief justice on Monday, the army chief has provided enough grounds for the people to speculate if something is indeed cooking. It cannot be ruled out that the Army chief met the chief justice on behalf of Prime Minister Oli, according to them.
“The meeting is mysterious and it’s meaningful,” said Geja Sharma Wagle, a commentator on political and security issues. “This meeting has come all of a sudden. This has raised so many questions.”
According to Wagle, the Nepal Army suddenly seems to have been quite active, albeit quietly, of late.
“This meeting between the Army chief and the chief justice is quite unusual. This is not the right time [for the Army chief] to hold a meeting with the chief justice who is leading a bench that has to pass a landmark verdict in a few days,” Wagle told the Post. “Why would the army chief go all the way to the Supreme Court to meet with the chief justice just to discuss an issue that is related to a piece of land?”
The land in question earlier belonged to the Nepal Army and it is situated on the southern side of the Supreme Court, within Singha Durbar.
It was supposed to be handed over to the Supreme Court in 2010, when Chhatra Man Singh Gurung was the Army chief, after a Supreme Court’s verdict in 2008.
The Sushil Koirala-led government in 2014-15, through a Cabinet decision, had formally handed over the land to the Supreme Court. The Army had its cavalry in that piece of land. During Rajendra Chettri’s tenure as the Army chief, the cavalry was shifted from Singha Durbar to Narayanhiti Palace.
Brigadier General Poudel, the Army spokesperson, said Chief Justice Rana had invited General Thapa to discuss some land-related issues.
“Discussion focused on vacating around nine ropanis of land for the Supreme Court for its expansion plan,” Poudel told the Post. “The meeting was not related to politics. The Nepal Army is committed to the constitution and it is well aware of its mandate.”
A court official also said that the meeting revolved around the land issue.
“The chief justice had invited the Army chief to request him to vacate the land that was previously owned by the national defence force,” said a senior official at the Supreme Court asking not to be named. “The chief justice wanted to discuss the matter with the Army chief so that the issue could be sorted out at the earliest.”
But there’s more to it than meets the eye, according to leaders of the Dahal-Nepal faction who allege that Oli has been working in collusion with some top key officials.
“Everyone must have noticed that Oli’s tone has changed lately,” said a leader of the Dahal-Nepal faction. “He appeared to be on the defensive but he was issuing veiled threats that his politics won’t be over even if the Parliament were restored, creating unease among political and security circles.”
Another leader of the Dahal-Nepal faction refused to comment on the meeting between the Army chief and chief justice.
“We do not want to comment on a meeting between the heads of the two institutions,” said the leader. “But if the meeting is politically motivated and has a political message, then it is serious.”
Subas Nembang, a senior Nepal Communist Party leader and a close aide to Oli, however, expressed unawareness about the meeting.
“And even if the Army chief had a meeting with the chief justice, it was not at the direction of the prime minister,” Nembang told the Post, asking not to make speculations of any sort. “Yes, the prime minister has said on different occasions that the House won’t be reinstated and I have full trust in him.”
According to Nembang, that the prime minister made a statement on holding agitation if the House is reinstated is over-exaggerated.
“He meant to say that our struggle as a communist party will continue,” he said.