Thursday, July 19, 2018

google plus

Tribune Special

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

[ + read story ]

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.

Kargil took military by surprise: Retd officersMilitary Literature Festival

Kargil took military by surprise: Retd officers

09 Dec 2017 | 1:32 AM

Recall how Army Chief was told not to set timeline

Brig walked across to warn Chinese at Doklam: Bakshi

Brig walked across to warn Chinese at Doklam: Bakshi

09 Dec 2017 | 1:58 AM

Ex-GOC-in-C: Didn’t move inch thereafter

Military diplomacy vital, but ‘unexplored’Military Literature Festival

Military diplomacy vital, but ‘unexplored’

10 Dec 2017 | 1:15 AM

Ex-Army Chief Gen VP Malik says much more can be achieved with participation of forces

Many tears, few words for war-scarredMilitary Literature Festival

Many tears, few words for war-scarred

07 Dec 2017 | 5:42 PM

Not much has been written about the plight and rights of soldiers maimed while answering the call of duty

The salience of military historyMilitary Literature Festival

The salience of military history

06 Dec 2017 | 2:05 AM

War books are not only a prominent source for understanding the world’s conflicts — past, present and future — but also a useful base material for sociologists and political scientists to forecast future societal trajectories

A paying strategyVALUE aDDITION

A paying strategy

22 Apr 2018 | 1:59 AM

Employability concerns can be dealt with effectively by working on internship experience during the college tenure

A holistic courseHumanities

A holistic course

22 Apr 2018 | 1:55 AM

If you like to explore the fascinating world of understanding human beings, then you will fit like a ‘T’ in this stream. Pick a combo of your choice and gear up for a great learning experience

Going soft payssmart skills

Going soft pays

22 Apr 2018 | 1:50 AM

When the race for joining top institutions and landing plum jobs is so frenzied, it is important to focus upon the aspects that really matter

Get on the path of learningan overview

Get on the path of learning

22 Apr 2018 | 1:43 AM

With more than 3.5 crore students enrolling in higher education courses every year, the magnitude of responsibility for colleges and institutes is enormous, especially when it comes to providing a holistic learning experience

Memsahibs and their musingsMilitary Literature Festival

Memsahibs and their musings

07 Dec 2017 | 6:55 PM

There are paeans dedicated to Indian Armymen, but their wives remain the unsung heroes. A handful of books take in their perspective and examine their stories

From battlefields to bookshelvesMilitary Literature Festival

From battlefields to bookshelves

07 Dec 2017 | 6:44 PM

The region’s military literature traces its roots to ancient times. It presents a rich treasure trove of experiences and opinions

The controversy cauldron simmersMilitary Literature Festival

The controversy cauldron simmers

07 Dec 2017 | 6:34 PM

Revelations of unsavoury truths and unfair dealings involving the armed forces have created ripples in the literary circles over the years. Books highligting corruption, strategic failures, political blunders, besides tell-all autobiographies have always stoked reader interest. Here’s a peep into some of the significant volumes in this realm, and what these said

Bridging the gaps in military historyMilitary Literature Festival

Bridging the gaps in military history

07 Dec 2017 | 6:22 PM

Official war histories of our country have remained under sealed covers and archival material is largely unavailable to military professionals, scholars and academics. This has led to an inevitable void in information

Graphic exposure to skirmishes & soldiersMilitary Literature Festival

Graphic exposure to skirmishes & soldiers

07 Dec 2017 | 6:09 PM

Comics with sagas of battles make for tremendous stories and are a good way to engage young minds