Unlocking war histories with a purpose

The declassification of India’s military history should also lead to building on successes and avoiding past follies

June 15, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 07:57 am IST

Saturday’s announcement by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on archiving, declassifying and compiling of war histories is a long overdue initiative that signals that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is at last willing to shed its shroud of confidentiality over happenings long gone by. Largely conforming to global practices, the policy has the potential to kick-start multiple initiatives within the MoD and the three services that will offer researchers, analysts and historians an easy lens into studying military operations in the post-Independence period.

Interlinked challenges

Drawing on my own experiences of nine years as a practitioner-historian who has struggled to put together two definitive historical and joint narratives of war and conflict in contemporary India, conversion of this policy into deliverables will be a tough and unglamorous grind. The four biggest challenges facing this initiative will be the fusion of political directives and strategic decision making with the operational and tactical happenings on ground; compilation and reconciling and analysis of events at multiple levels (headquarters, commands and field formations); putting together a team of dedicated researchers and historians with a mix of academics and practitioners with access to records and files; and lastly, putting together a concurrent oral history and digitisation of all archival compilations associated with this initiative.

Decisions to go to war and wage conflict in democracies are largely political decisions and it is important that such decisions are fused into compilations of war histories. For example, one of the reasons why the Indian Army is reluctant to declassify the Henderson Brooks Report that considered operational failures during the 1962 war with China is because it is largely a scathing indictment of the Indian Army’s leadership without any accountability assigned to the political establishment led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon. On the other hand, several histories of the Vietnam War can now be considered credible and well-rounded because researchers have had access not only to operational accounts but also to archived discussions between the political architects of the conflict such as Presidents J.F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and Defence Secretary Robert S. McNamara.

Similarly, General K. Sundarji and Ambassador J.N. Dixit have borne the brunt of much criticism by researchers examining India’s intervention in Sri Lanka from 1987-1990 because they expressed themselves in the open domain without fear. But it is only when researchers get access to records of discussions involving other generals, admirals and air marshals and even Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Minister of State for Defence Arun Singh and even political heavyweights in Tamil Nadu such as M.G. Ramachandran and M. Karunanidhi, that the cobwebs around Operation Pawan will be cleared.

On ‘Brasstacks’

‘Most military historians of contemporary India agree that Exercise Brasstacks (1986-87) heralded the transformation of Indian war fighting doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures in conventional war fighting, particularly in the plains and the desert. However, all of them, including this writer, have relied on oral recollections to put together a mosaic of what may have transpired in the confines of the Military Operations (MO) Directorate of the Army HQ and thereafter. Writing the official history of Exercise Brasstacks must be high on the list of the initial projects in this initiative as it will highlight the fusion of decisions taken at multiple headquarters right down to the regiment and squadron level.

The right approach needed

Notwithstanding the effort taken to put together official histories of the 1965 and 1971 wars, these are considered as safe histories that only scratch the surface of strategic decision making, operational analyses, leadership and lessons for the future. The reason for this is the absence of robust multi-disciplinary teams that are required to put together each such history and the desire to bring out non-controversial documents. While highlighting controversies and failures must not be an obsession with such initiatives, it is only a robust academic-cum-practitioner flavour accompanied by good and contemporary writing that will lend weight to such histories.

Unlike the Ministry of External Affairs which has stolen a march over other ministries in declassifying files, the three service headquarters and MoD have been rather slow in initiating this. Not only is it difficult to trace files from eras gone, it is highly possible that in the absence of digital conversion, several priceless discussions have been destroyed in the periodic discarding of files. But even if such files are available, who will spend long hours trying to identify elements that remain historically relevant?

Digitisation and creation of oral histories will form a critical component of this transformation. Both are either unfolding at a snail’s pace or are absent in our existing official repositories of history at the service headquarters or war colleges. A software major must be roped- in for this and an outreach must be made to individual historians, think tanks and global repositories to share their oral history collections on contemporary Indian military history.

The first chapter

Considering the timeline of 25 years, a suggested list of declassifications to trigger this transformative initiative are the Nathu La skirmish of 1967, ‘The Lightning Campaign’ in the Eastern Theatre during the 1971 War, Operation Meghdoot (Siachen), Exercise Brasstacks and its subsidiary operations, and Operation Falcon (Sumdorong Chu). Lest the initiative be accused of only showcasing successes, Operation Pawan (Indian Peace Keeping Force; picture ) too needs to be officially written about, albeit with due sensitivity. One of the hallmarks of a leading power/emerging power/power of consequence and a leading military is the ability to take criticism, tackle institutional reluctance to expose faultlines and push forward with reform with the big picture in mind. History does not offer a blueprint for the future, but it is certainly instructive in building on successes and not repeating the follies of the past. That proposition must be the bedrock on which this initiative takes off.

Air Vice-Marshal (Dr.) Arjun Subramaniam (retd.) is a military historian and the author of ‘India’s Wars: A Military History, 1947-1971’ and ‘Full Spectrum: India’s Wars, 1972-2020’

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