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Lift veil of secrecy, let the narrative flowDefeated, not disgraced: Contrary to popular belief, Indian troops held on in Ladakh, most notably at Rezang La in eastern Ladakh, during the India-China war in 1962. photo by the writer
Military Literature Festival

Lift veil of secrecy, let the narrative flow

The absence of a policy on declassifying military files fuels misperceptions and impedes analysis

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Ajay Banerjee 

Despite four full-blown wars, a conflict in Kargil and the dramatic capture of Siachen Glacier in 1984, any history detailing the role of Indian Armed Forces remains cloaked in secrecy.

With no clear policy on declassifying military files, details are not known beyond the closed circle of armed forces; the only officially released history is that of the 1947-48 India-Pakistan war published by the History Division of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Beyond that, sources of military history in public domain are books written by retired officers. The ‘histories’ of Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 have been published by the MoD, but these carry a caveat by the authors: “I don’t consider this as an account of proper history”.

In the military, the units are building blocks. On ground, the troops have no training to document historical records. Researchers are handicapped in the absence of a system to collect and collate data, maps or sketches in archives. Transfer of post-1947 military records to the public domain has not been satisfactory.

Need to correct misperceptions

A popular belief is that India was totally ‘disgraced’ in the 1962 India-China War, all thanks to the narrative from Australia-based author Neville Maxwell’s book India’s China War that blames India for the ‘forward policy’ in the Himalayas and identifies it as a trigger point for ‘justifying’ China’s attack along the disputed frontier. But is it entirely correct?

The Henderson Brooks report on the 1962 War is classified even as Maxwell put out portions of it on a website. Another book, History of the Conflict with China. 1962, released for ‘restricted’ circulation by the MoD in March 1993, says the ‘forward policy’ — a decision taken by India in November 1961 — was to restrict the Chinese to their claim-line of 1956 and stop claims over the new territory in 1960. It was to “prevent further infiltration into unoccupied areas of Ladakh”, says the book that accepts the shortcomings, but tells how Indian troops held on in Ladakh, most notably at Rezang La in eastern Ladakh, just 5 km south-east of the hamlet of Chusul. “The Indian soldier was defeated but not disgraced in Ladakh,” it says, dispelling the notion of ‘disgrace’.

Other than the 1962 war, the book narrates the 1967 Nathu la (Sikkim, then not part of India) firing incident. It reads: “The Chinese troops suddenly opened machine gun fire on September 11, 1967, inflicting heavy casualties. The GOC 17 Div — the redoubtable Maj Gen Sagat Singh — blasted the Chinese positions with 5.5 medium guns. The Chinese agreed to a ceasefire on September 16. They had lost 400 men killed or wounded as compared to Indian loss of 65 killed and 145 wounded.” This hour of glory is officially not de-classified.

A small number of Indians, including the writer, have this book, which carefully carries the caveat: “The facts do not necessarily reflect the view of Government of India”. This indicates lack of ownership.

Change policy, declassify files

Anecdotes abound about Operation Meghdoot (Siachen), Operation Pawan (Sri Lanka) or the nine-month India-China standoff at Sum Drong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh in 1986-87. The Public Record Act 1993 does not entail automatic declassification of military records and exemptions under the Right to Information Act 2005 are a deterrent for researchers.

Nitin A Gokhale, author of books Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga and 1965: Turning the Tide — How India Won the War, argues, “Documenting history in absence of any official declassified record is tough. I go by personal accounts. It’s time to lift the veil of secrecy and have a policy to declassify.”

His views are echoed by Cmde Abhay Kumar Singh (retd), research fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses. “There is no system of declassifying files. The Navy has published its history and has put it on its website, means the Navy backs it,” he says.

Since 2000, the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research (CAFHR) under the Ministry of Defence backed think-tank United Service Institute is mandated to study history and its declassification and to assist their preservation of records. Secretary CAFHR, Sqn Ldr Rana TS Chhina (retd), says, “Nations that don’t learn from the past cannot prepare for future challenges. It is imperative that Indian military history writing breaks out of the hagiographic model and develops a mature, balanced and critical narrative style that allows for analysis and debate.”

A war history cell at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) produced a paper in 2016 titled A Historiographic Analysis of the Military History of Post-Independent India. Authored by Jaideep Chanda, it is blunt in stating: “An analysis of the military historical literature in India will primarily find personal accounts mostly written by retired Army officers…. the dearth of pure objective analysis and recording of facts by trained historians is sorely missed.”

Lessons from British ‘history writing’

The British dovetailed their version of history into accounts of military-diplomatic operations during ‘The Great Game’ (1815-1907) when the British expanded into Punjab and Kashmir. They attempted to capture Afghanistan and captured Lhasa, Tibet while the Russians entered and captured central Asia.

The British changed the course of history of Punjab and documented it. Gen Sir Charles Gough, who, as a teenaged officer of the Bengal Cavalry, took part in the Second Anglo-Sikh war (1848-49), penned The Sikhs and the Sikh Wars: The Rise, Conquest, and Annexation of the Punjab State. It was released in 1897, four years after Duleep Singh, the exiled son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, died amid questions raised in Britain. In 1849, when the British had won over Punjab, JD Cunnighman came out with A history of the Sikhs, From the Origin of the Nation to the Battles of the Sutlej. It sets the narrative and is cited even today.

In Tibet, British Army Officer Col Sir Francis Younghusband, under the guidance of his mentor Lord Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of India (1899-1905), invaded Tibet in 1904. London did not agree with Curzon-Younghusband annexation of Tibet, However, Sir Francis wrote India and Tibet in 1910, giving his point of view.

The same was true in case of Afghanistan Lt-Col Sir Alexander Burnes, a British diplomat, wrote two books — Cabool: A Personal Narrative of a Journey To, and Residence in that City and Travels Into Bokhara. Burnes got knighted in 1839 and was killed in 1841, but such was the narrative that modern-day author William Dalrymple in his 2012 book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan narrates how Burnes is still known as ‘Sikander’ in Afghanistan.

Books by Gough, Younghusband, Burnes and Cunningham are still sold online and cited world over by researchers, historians and the media, further driving the narrative.

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