New Delhi, May 23: King Gyanendra’s decision to acquire tanks, armoured personnel carriers and helicopter gunships has set alarm bells ringing in Nepal and in India.
Delhi is trying to fathom the motive, particularly as some of the items he is buying — like tanks — are virtually unusable in Nepal’s terrain, except in the Terai area bordering India.
A tender was floated through a notice in the government mouthpiece, Gorkhapatra, on May 14 seeking applications from agents of international firms wishing to be included in the list of suppliers.
The long wishlist includes “armoured personnel carriers and tanks”, other than arms, accessories, spare parts and ammunition.
The move follows Indian army chief Gen. .C. Vij’s visit to Kathmandu. Vij told the palace and members of the Royal Nepal Army that it would be difficult for Nepal to win a military victory over the Maoists and before long a political settlement had to be found.
S.D. Muni, a Nepal expert and India’s former ambassador to Laos, said the king may be trying to send more than one signal. “Perhaps, it is an attempt to pressure India into giving more arms to Nepal and backing him to the hilt. At the same time, it could be a display of authority to the political parties. To the Maoists, it may be a signal that if they have to strike a deal, it is the king with whom they should do it. Otherwise, he will not hesitate to use military strength.”
In the past, countries like India have supplied Nepal with armoured personnel carriers. But what has caught the eye this time is the shopping list for tanks and helicopter gunships.
An Indian diplomat said: “For Nepal to acquire tanks is like some countries getting ballistic missiles.”
Under a 1965 agreement with India, Nepal can buy arms from countries like the US and Britain, but with Delhi’s knowledge. Nepal has not strictly adhered to it.
In 1988, when the late King Birendra decided to buy anti-aircraft guns from China, the Rajiv Gandhi government decided to block 14 of the 18 trade points in retaliation.
There is a feeling in some quarters that King Gyanendra is flexing his muscles, “basking” in the support he appears to be getting from the US.
“The country seems to be caught in a headlong rush towards an unsupervised, unrestricted military build-up it can ill afford,” said Kanak Mani Dixit, a journalist writing in the Nepali Times.