Book Title: Full Spectrum: India’s Wars | 1972-2020
Author: Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (Retd).
Air Vice Marshal
Manmohan Bahadur (Retd)
It was sometime in 2007 when Ramchandra Guha’s book ‘India after Gandhi’ was released, and it lamented the fact that India’s history had stopped being written after it got Independence, and how his hope was that the book would fill that void. In 2013, the book somehow came up in my conversation with Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam, who was then commanding an operational headquarter of the IAF at Pune. Arjun was a bit glum about how “that historical narration of 700-odd pages, covering six decades, has just about 10 pages of the numerous wars that India has fought!” He may well have said 15 pages, but the point being made was that there was no authoritative and researched account of India’s conflicts, perhaps the highest in numbers that had been thrust on a fledgling democracy so soon after its Independence while struggling with the effects of a traumatic Partition that killed millions. Then, he said, “I am researching and writing on our wars.”
As it turned out, his first book, ‘India’s Wars,’ published in 2016 covered conflicts till the 1971 Indo-Pak war. “Full Spectrum” is a continuation of that documentation as he chronicles the void in recording of India’s multifarious and multi-dimensional conflicts from 1972 till date.
The book starts with an introduction on what war is all about and the various ways it manifests itself; this academic discourse in a historical account is welcome for its uniqueness as it helps understand the nuances of conflicting ideas — which war is actually all about. It then moves on to discussing the insurgencies, call them rebellions, in the North-Eastern states. Not many are aware how the Indian state used its armed forces to subdue the violent elements and enable the politicians in bringing Nagaland and Mizoram to the national mainstream. It’s the use of the offensive element of the IAF that is most fascinating and when one discusses whether air power should be employed in internal insurgencies, one needs to remember that there is a precedence, but as a last resort — that desperate situation had arisen in present-day Mizoram and Nagaland!
The narration shifts westward to Op Meghdoot, the ongoing Siachen saga, the disastrous Sri Lanka peacekeeping episode in 1987, the quick airborne intervention to upset the coup plotters in Maldives, the plunging of J&K into a crisis in the late 1980s (with full support from Pakistan) and then to Kargil 1999. Kargil is discussed threadbare, with no punches pulled in talking about what went wrong in those hills where we lost 520 brave Indians; this added emphasis is done on purpose as the Indian leadership comes face to face with a well-coordinated scenario of hybrid warfare in the subsequent years leading up to the Chinese incursion in eastern Ladakh this year.
AVM Subramaniam’s analysis wades through the 2001 Parliament attack and the resulting military activation in Op Parakram, the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist mayhem followed by the Uri carnage and the even more deadly Pulwama terrorist strike in February 2019 to drive home the point of hybridisation of threats. The Indian response in the beginning of the century, characterised as ‘strategic restraint’, gives way to a policy of ‘strategic offense’, demonstrated by the ‘surgical’ strikes by the Army post-Uri and then the IAF attack on terrorist training camps at Balakot in mainland Pakistan in 2019. This change is captured succinctly: “Recalibrating its relationship with its adversaries can help India define the extent to which it is willing to be pushed by them. There is a growing willingness to move from reactive to proactive deterrence, but it is too early to assess whether it will be possible for India to walk the talk given the capability deficit that exists across the national security architecture.”
“Full Spectrum” takes readers through the intense security challenges that India has faced though detailed research done by the Air Marshal for almost a decade — 51 pages of end notes and references and an interviewee list of 66 people from around the world! There are ‘lessons learned’ segments, along with suggestions for the way forward.
Are there campaigns that have been missed out? For sure — for example, the chapter on UN Missions, but to do justice to India’s contribution to peacekeeping would require a full book by itself. A tabulated listing, though, could have helped absorb the enormity of India’s contribution. Similarly, while campaigns and operations analysed in the book have a wealth of data, a reader would have benefitted with some more maps or sketches. Once again, the author would have had to make a choice — to keep the narration of five tumultuous decades within an acceptable length or let it become an unwieldy one. He has wisely chosen the former and made up by adding an ‘essential reading list’.
A war thrust upon a nation leaves it with no choice but to fight back, win and convey a sense of deterrence in no uncertain terms to the adversary. “Full Spectrum” has this sense watermarked as a thread in the narration of challenges that have come India’s way. It’s a fine reference book for all who want to know the invaluable contribution of India’s armed forces in nation-building.