Independent India’s wars: A full but not fully fair account (Book Review)

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Title: India’s Wars: A Military History, 1947-1971; Author: Arjun Subramaniam; Publisher: HarperCollins; Pages: 576; Price: Rs.799

There is no doubt that military history is an key component of history, and can only be ignored by any nation at its own peril. It is also beyond dispute that India has not been well served in this regard since the heyday of Sir Jadunath Sarkar, even though it faced four major wars in its first quarter century as an independent nation.

This may well be because none of them – save 1962 to some extent and time – represented an existential threat – and the fact there was no direct military role in India’s freedom, but, in any case, does not excuse the lapse for a country with a glorious and military tradition stretching back centuries.

Though each of these wars have been dealt at great length in memoirs, analyses et al of prominent participants, but while historians are now belatedly taking up the wider story and effects of global conflicts India has participated in, including the home front aspect, post-Independence Indian military history is still disadvantaged. Works like Major K.C. Praval’s comprehensive and absorbing “Indian Army After Independence” are there and take the story to the end-1980s, but the focus is overwhelmingly military and hence do not provide the whole context and impact.

This work attempts to address these deficiencies.

A serving Indian Air Force officer, Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam, says he had four objectives in undertaking this work, including “to showcase the legacy of modern India’s military pioneers along with the exploits and sacrifices of its armed forces in protecting India’s sovereignty and democracy” both for international and Indian (specially young) readers.

Then – and quite importantly – “to chronicle the largely fragmented contemporary military history of India in the form of an easily readable joint narrative…”, thirdly, to strive for “the need to adopt a progressive approach towards declassifying material about national security and learning from the mistakes of previous wars, campaigns and conflicts…” and finally to urge youth, not only those in uniform, to “read more about war and conflict in the subcontinent after Independence as part of India’s overall historical discourse..”

And in his accounts of the evolution of the Indian armed forces post independence, the 1947-48 India-Pakistan War, the Hyderabad and Junagadh operations, the liberation of Goa, the 1962 border war with China, the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan, Subramaniam presents the Indian defence services in all their capability and courage, but also some ineptitude at some levels.

To a great extent, the author meets most of his objectives – though he misses the opportunity to try to resolve certain controversies, reconcile conflicting narratives related to quite a few incidents and solve some mysteries – say for example, the mysterious officer who appears in Kashmir during the 1947 conflict and tries to reverse decisions (as recounted in Lt. Gen. L.P. Sen’s “Slender Was the Thread”).

But one major omission is leaving out UN peacekeeping operations and some mistakes, which shouldn’t have occurred in a work by someone from a defence background. One glaring one, repeated at least twice, is terming Gen. Thimayya as the head of UN forces in Korea in the aftermath of the Korean war – he was only the head of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Committee, responsible for dealing with the fate of POWs, especially Chinese and North Koreans. (Gen. Thimayya later did head UN forces – but on Cyprus).

The problem however lies in some of Subramaniam’s observations and conclusions, especially in higher political direction of war – and where Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in concerned – and only helps to underscores the truth of French leader Clemenceau’s dictum that “War is too important a matter to be left to the military”.

The treatment of the INA issue can also be disputed – though some ‘patriots’ and hero-worshippers will see red. But the worst is in his attempt to identify the “DNA” of the Indian armed forces, citing the examples of the Marathas, Sikhs and the Rajputs – good examples for valour but scarcely for wide vision or longevity of political institutions while loftily choosing to “ignore” the Mughals as “foreigners who ravaged India”. Professional historians are allowed likes and dislikes but one cannot ignore history in such a subjective fashion.

And thus while the narrative is superlative, the judgements are debatable – to say the least.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])

–IANS

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