Loosing War Without A Fight: Sterile State of Military and Warfare Studies in India

A profound yet least narrated change that democracy has brought to world politics is the shift of political power and decision making from the axis that was dominated by military personnel and war strategists to civilian domains. Post World War II, increasing number of political premiers have come with little or no formal military and war experience or understanding. A principle feature of democratic systems is the subordination of military under civilian control. This has resulted in the power plot being tilted towards the welfare state.

However, the significance of military and war in politics has not been underwhelmed. It is still an essential feature of International Relations (IR) and diplomacy. The latest disruption to global security, decentralized and ideology based extremism and terrorism has added a new chapter to what was earlier understood in the binaries of internal and foreign generated conflict.

An essential bridge between polity and military (also vital component of IR and geostrategic affairs) is the domain of Military History and War Studies; and the growing distance between purviews of civilian and military paradigms only add weight of their importance.

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However, the focus of the Indian state has been blatantly opposed to record keeping, declassification and development of this field of knowledge. A recent paper by Shri PK Gautam (available here) reveals the poor state of affairs which has left a deep vacuum of information, resulting in ill informed state machinery/ politicians/diplomacy, poorly equipped military and security departments, frustrated academia and disillusioned public.

War studies and military history is a fluid nomenclature to a very broad multi and inter disciplinary field of knowledge that encompasses, to name a few, following subject:

  • Military craft, strategy and tactical knowledge
  • Policy, planning, logistics and operational scheme and case studies
  • Industrial and technical affairs
  • Civil and military diplomacy
  • Philosophical and cultural facets of war
  • Social, economic and individual factors of war and geopolitics
  • Historical and political dimension of war
  • Intelligence and covert assets

Traditional experts and beneficiaries on the subject have come from the military, diplomacy and IR. However, as geo-politics and strategic affairs have spun out in the last fifty years, there has been a strong realization that war and conflict to is a multi dimensional phenomenon. Most importantly, with privatization of defence production, innovation and advancement demands that industry is well aware of combat intricacies. The more they understand the customer and his environment, the more accurately can they pin point at gaps that can be filled, greatly aiding in product research and development.

A pre and post war sentiment analysis of border communities can help aid fill crucial trust gaps between local support and intelligence. Insouciant attitude towards public sentiments is something no democratic government can afford. Diluted public opinions towards national and geostrategic interests forms the backbone of internal security, acting as an antidote against corrosive elements and anti-national fringe groups. Diplomacy and foreign relations are enriched through exposure to historical records and reports which give deeper understanding of contemporary issues and accuracy in prediction. Academia and historic research is enriched with timely and prudent archive sharing and declassification.

Indian Military History

A textbook example of all of all of the above is the Sino-Indian conflict of 1961-62. After the war, for reason abundant, all official findings and narrative was made classified. The Brooks-Bhagat report was never tabled in the parliament. Even Unarmed Victory, a compilation of opinion and first hand letter account between Russell, Nehru, Khrushchev, Mao among others by Bertrand Russell was banned from India. What resulted in the absence of any meticulous report or corroborate-able official narrative is a plethora of sentimental and quasi academic books and articles, which hardly any value add to the relations and tensions that prevailed in the aftermath of the bloody defeat or subsequent escalations, including the current one embroiling Bhutan this day as well.

The same is almost as true for every other war or intervention that India has carried out, notes Gautam. He cites media reports alleging that in 1992, despite official narratives of ’62, ’65, and ’71 being prepared and signed by the then Defence Secretary N. N. Vohra, but was halted from publication due to the intervention by the Ministry of External Affairs.

Concurrent mess has many, but two broad aspects to it. First is the institutional framework that is governed by the Official Secrets Act, 1923 (first version came in 1904), a lingering colonial artefact, chartered by the ‘Raj’ to prevent shenanigans of the not so trustworthy subjects. Further fortification was done by the Civil Service Conduct Rules, 1964 which effectively prevents communication of any official document without express authorization. Trends percolate all the way to the bottom of the administrative pyramid taking various forms and shapes based on personalities and levels of discretion and with an almost pathological interdepartmental distrust, the final configuration shouldn’t come as a surprise.

There are no formal criteria for the declassification of documents marked secret or sensitive. Thereafter comes the whole issue of access to material that is classified and lies poorly organized in the national archives. The despotism inculcated by British has been systematically embraced by post independence India, keeping a matter of routine, a subject for discretion The Right to Information has not been able to make any substantial dent in the pillars and walls preventing structured flow of information.

It prima facie evident that the successive governments have given little or low priority to the subject. Every historiographical account has resounded the lackadaisical approach and apathetic state of affairs to bring forth any substantial reforms. Even the incumbent regime has more or less continued with the legacy despite ample chest thumping to change the global narrative of India.

Even if we digress to the matter of manuscripts and other ancient documents, there is little change in the general attitudes. The authors personal experience in Bhutan has been that there are numerous ancient Samskrit scripts lying in Bhutanese national archives and monasteries; many of them have been lost from India forever. The government of Bhutan owing to the ‘more than pleasant’ relations will be willing to share the riches of shared textualised philosophies and more with alacrity. But there has been no attempt till date to access these treasures. Indian government has not laid claim to scripts taken away by the colonial powers till date either. The impassivity is again rampant in the context to policing and internal security as well.

Indian Soldiers in Haifa

Famously quoted by George Santayana – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This reality has hit India multiple times since independence where we lost territory multiple times and then had to shed precious blood to reclaim the same. The same mistakes are perhaps at the edge of repetition due to present escalation of tensions in the Indo-China relationships.

Despite several attempts to chapterise war and military literature, it can be said without reservations that all such attempts lack depth due to lack of access to formal account and official documents. Without questioning the sincerity invoked in these personal attempts, it is my humble submission that they are not in any manner a viable alternative to an absent institutional mechanism for developing understanding and scholarship of warfare and military affairs.  As cited by Gautam, a notable attempt in the correct direction is The Indian Foreign Affairs Journal: A Quarterly of the Association of India Diplomats which has started to archive oral diplomatic history. This is a noteworthy attempt worthy of emulation by other institutions as well. Gautam’s has also provided several immediate and long term actionable in his work which deserve the attention of government as well as anyone engaged in the task of national building.

Sources and References:

Gautam, P.K. “The Need for Renaissance of Military History and Modern War Studies in India | Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.” Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, no. IDSA Occassional Paper No. 21. Accessed July 7, 2017. http://www.idsa.in/occasionalpapers/TheNeedforRenaissanceofMilitaryHistoryandModernWarStudiesinIndia.

Jaideep Chanda. “A  Historiographic Analysis  of the Military History of  Post-Independent India.” Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), no. MANEKSHAW PAPER No. 64, 2016 (n.d.).

Jaideep, Prabhu. “Declassified CIA Documents: India’s Lackadaisical Approach to Files Bodes Ill for National Security.” First Post. Accessed July 7, 2017. http://www.firstpost.com/world/declassified-cia-documents-indias-lackadaisical-approach-to-files-bodes-ill-for-national-security-3226722.html.

Manning, Scott. “What Is the Value of Studying Military History?” Historian on the Warpath, October 15, 2009. http://www.scottmanning.com/content/what-is-the-value-of-studying-military-history/.

“Official Secrets Act Versus Right to Information Act.” IASPOINT. Accessed July 7, 2017. https://iaspoint.gktoday.in/current/official-secrets-act-versus-right-to-information-act/.

Raman, Anuradha. “The Case for Full Disclosure.” The Hindu. Accessed July 7, 2017. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/The-case-for-full-disclosure/article14022827.ece. n.d.

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