Military history as adjunct of political strategy

The Indian Army held a farewell parade after the liberation of Bangladesh and final withdrawal of troops, at the Dacca stadium on March 12, 1972 where the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took the salute.   | Photo Credit: HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

In the late 1970s, Prof. Rajan, our Head of Department in the faculty of Military History and International relations at the National Defence Academy, always urged us to look at military history not as an isolated discipline, but as an adjunct of political strategy and diplomacy. This contextual relationship, he said, was imperative for a clearer understanding failing which it would remain only a description of battles and campaigns. I have never forgotten that advice. Since then, I have always looked at military campaigns through the lens of multiple processes of statecraft without ignoring the heat and grime of battle.

Military history, a laggard

I have always wondered: why has the discipline of military history, particularly in the post-independence era, remained a laggard in India’s contemporary historical discourse? Has it to do the ‘pacifist’ tag attached to modern Indian strategic thinking or to a reluctance to showcase the exploits of a military that still carries a perceived colonial legacy?

My gut feeling is that political and social historians who have dominated modern Indian historical discourse have been more comfortable writing and teaching history that is socially relevant; politically engaging; and that showcases India’s rich civilisational heritage and its multicultural, vibrant democracy. Making matters difficult for a minuscule number of military historians has been our archival carelessness and opaqueness when it comes to periodic de-classification of military matters.

Many global universities look at military history as a clear subset of history focussing on strategy, operational art, campaign studies and tactical battles. I guess it just did not make sense for Indian universities to devote time to this genre of history when other topics were attracting greater attention.

India’s military history and wars since Independence have been well-chronicled, though in a piecemeal manner, within the country and abroad by scholars like Sumit Ganguly ( The Origins of War in South Asia); Stephen Cohen ( Arming without Aiming); Jaswant Singh ( Defending India); Srinath Raghavan ( 1971-A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh); and Neville Maxwell ( India’s China War).

However, only a handful of civilian writers like P.V.S. Jagan and Samir Chopra ( Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War) have written extensively about specific campaigns and battles.

Conflicts of all genres have only been covered in a single offering, albeit very briefly — in the most critically acclaimed book on modern Indian history, India after Gandhi, by Ramachandra Guha.

While there have been laudable contributions by a number of soldier-scholars — like Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal ( My Years with the IAF); Lt. Gen. S.K. Sinha ( A Soldier Recalls); Maj. Gen. D.K. Palit ( War in the High Himalayas and The Lightning Campaign); and Vice Admiral Mihir Roy ( War in the Indian Ocean) — these have generally been service-specific or personal perspectives on the conduct of India’s modern conflicts.

Some exhaustive joint narratives have also been written by Ministry of Defence historians like Dr. S.N. Prasad and Dr. Thapliyal ( Official Histories of the 1947-48, 1965 and 1971 conflicts), and one cannot but appreciate the attempts of journalist-scholars like Inder Malhotra, D.R. Mankekar, Shekhar Gupta and Nitin Gokhale to keep the military discourse going. However, no one has really focussed on giving a fillip to the study of modern Indian military history, either in our war colleges or in our universities.

Having taught extensively at one of India’s flagship institutions of Professional Military Education, I remain unhappy at the manner in which modern India’s military history is being studied at our war colleges and universities — not a single university or college has a department dedicated to it like the ones at King’s College, London (War Studies); and Oxford University (Changing Character of War). Strategic studies, which allows scholars to prognosticate about the future rather than rummage through archives for lessons from the military past, seems a more fashionable genre.

Absence of a focussed discourse

With that as a backdrop, I have often wondered: how are we going to sensitise India’s youth in the years ahead on the exploits of India’s armed forces and the role they have played in nurturing and protecting its vibrant, secular and multicultural democracy? Will the absence of a focussed military discourse lead to a continual decline in the attractiveness of the armed forces as a career option? I hope not!

Modern theories of international relations — that look at balance of power and national interest, or universalism and collective security as a final objective of state policy — invariably have had the military as a tool to achieve it, though it is always articulated as the last and the least-preferred option.

The West has for long considered the study of war as being vital for survival of the state in the face of periodic threats from totalitarian forms of invasive and disruptive political philosophies. Nations like the U.S., Great Britain, France — all flourishing democracies — have government-backed institutions that take great pride in chronicling wars and saving the lessons for posterity.

Writers and scholars like William Dalrymple ( Return of a King); and Christopher Bayly ( Forgotten Armies) have chronicled wonderfully the military exploits of the British Raj even when it was in its death throes. Sir Michael Howard ( War in European History); John Keegan ( A History of Warfare); and Williamson Murray ( War in the Air: 1914-1945) have made a name for themselves as military historians of rare pedigree; and journalist-scholars like Rick Atkinson ( The Liberation Trilogy) continue to tell the story of the exploits of American soldiers in World War II through masterful narratives.

Unfortunately, India has no such system in place where scholars, wanting to showcase the operational exploits of free India’s military campaigns in the form of easily digestible narratives, are encouraged by mainstream academia.

It is understandable that India does not want to abandon its overarching principles of non-violence and peaceful coexistence as key determinants of its political philosophy. However, considering the realities of modern geostrategic compulsions and expanding national interests, it is high time that it institutes radical changes in the way it records, analyses and disseminates its military history.

Indian tales of courage, valour and bravery in the face of insurmountable odds are not an exclusive preserve of the warrior princes of ancient and medieval India, but also of soldiers, airmen and sailors of a secular, democratic and modern India.

One of the ways of upholding the pride of India’s armed forces is by telling its recent stories to people at large via interesting narratives that are neither self-adulatory, nor derogatory or scathingly critical, but in ways that allow us to learn from our mistakes and take pride in past accomplishments.

( The author is a serving Air Vice Marshal in the Indian Air Force. The views expressed are personal.)

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 12:13:23 AM |

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