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Renaissance of Military History, War and International Studies in India

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  • April 29, 2011
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Brigadier R .Dahiya (Retd), Advisor, Military Affairs Cluster, (IDSA)
    Discussants: Prof Anirudh Deshpande (University of Delhi) and Sqn Ldr RTS Chhina (Retd), Secretary Armed Forces Historical Research, USI of India.

    PK Gautam introduced the paper by saying that in India there is a knowledge gap in the pursuit of contemporary military history in the framework of international studies. He emphasized the need to catch up with international standard practices in this respect. The core argument of the paper is that the military history can no longer be peripheral as it is the root discipline for the development of strategy. Globally, the study of contemporary military history has already moved leaps ahead of the drums, bugle and trumpet approach. Unlike in the past, the trends in warfare have changed from inter state to that of intra state combined with the rapid changes in technology. Military transformations and change is still under inadequate conceptual scrutiny. In the force on force or the high end spectrum, technology is a vital input. This has now generated new demands on historians to grapple with more of science and technology. India is emerging as a global power. Yet in this soft academic and policy field it has serious deficiencies.

    The bottlenecks

    University System

    Indian University system does not facilitate the study of Military History. In universities like JNU and DU, there is no course in strategic theory and military history. The Department of Defence and Security Studies (DSS) in universities such as Pune, Madras, Allahabad, Meerut, Chandigarh, Patiala, Gorakhpur etc are also responsible for the neglect. Military history remains an optional paper with absence of professional faculty. This is an ad-hoc and inadequate approach. Although some limited work exists of the pre-independence British period, there is no serious original work by an Indian author on modern war studies. Rather, mostly foreign scholars excel here and are widely quoted.

    The State

    The state itself has not published official histories of major wars and operations barring that of 1947- 48 in J&K or liberation of Goa in 1961 and an un-official history of 1965 Indo- Pak war just released. Although the Kargil Review Committee and its follow up Group of Ministers Reports have been hailed as the first of its kind in independent India – the war dairies of the army have yet to reach the History Division for even archival safety.

    Military institutions worldwide rarely have been interested in studying their own experiences with any degree of honesty. Major reason military institutions get the next war wrong is because they either deliberately fail to study the last war, or do so only insofar as it makes leaders feel good. Seeing it from the Utilitarian History perspective, probably from a theoretical point of view monumental myth making could be a strong driver for officials not to declassify records of the defeat in 1962 at the hands of the Chinese, but the reason for reluctance to publish 1971 monumental victory is not clear.

    Indian Military

    There is no structural teaching of military history at the National Defence Academy (NDA). At the Indian Military Academy (IMA), there are no professors of war studies. The three general rules of study of military history- width, depth and context should be the conceptual bedrock for the study of military history. But these are not well appreciated, and understood. The fledgling Indian National Defence University (INDU) is expected to have a history section under the wing of its National Institute for Strategic Studies. But in the absence of consciously incorporating the History Division and archival work, it is likely to fall in the same process of ‘IR centricity’. The Indian military is also weak in the professional art of the mandated record initiation and keeping. One glaring infirmity is the absence of maps and sketches post independence, in after action reports. Units are the building block originators or sensors. But no scientific training is imparted to regimental or staff officers who need to initiate these primary sources like war diaries and historical records.

    The Result Due to Neglect

    Using archives not in India but in UK and other places, a handful of contemporary Indian authors have demonstrated the use of the historian’s craft and methods to interpret military and strategic history post independence. Due to absence of archival work, academics are discouraged to pursue diplomatic or strategic and war related topics. Historical maps like those of Sino- Indian border in any case are a rarity. On the 1962 war in Arunachal Pradesh we have not recorded oral history of the people. The same could be true for Ladakh. The popular history embedded in public psyche is that Chinese troop strength was overwhelming “waves and waves of hordes”: whereas interaction with people who were old enough to remember events of 1962 would perhaps reveal otherwise.

    Policy Suggestions

    Suggestions were given out at three levels. Level 1 is with the larger question of the Indian university system, where departments of History, IR and DSS to include the subject of modern war studies and military history. Military history should be Included in the INDU curriculum. Level 2 is at official/government level. Some suggestions here are; revive Historical Division, revive the statistical branch of the Armed Forces, restart the flow of documents from service HQ to History Division for safekeeping and for use by academics and scholars once declassified in future, incorporate the Indian Coast Guard in the loop, which has not been done so far. Maps and Sketches must be of a very good standard, projects to record history of insurgencies with counter insurgencies to be undertaken. Level 3 is about how units, formations and Headquarters need to gear up to capture and report data for historical work. HQ Integrated Defense Staff should become the nodal agency of the military history dimension. Introduction of the concept of combat historians has also been recommended.


    While declassification on time and in accordance with the Public Record Act and Rules (30 year cycle) is necessary, it is not sufficient. What is more vital is to capture data in archives of the instruments of power of the state: that is its armed forces and security agencies as per institutional practices. A fresh debate is needed on this key component of the intellectual growth. The case here is just not to declassify (the issue may be that the operation or conflict is still on going) but also to institutionalize the study. This in no case will militarize society, but would rather make our public in general and armed forces in particular, more professional in dealing with external threats. It will also throw new light on various insurgencies and facilitate policy options for counter insurgency in a vibrant democratic India.


    R.T.S Chhina was very appreciative of the paper. He found the paper to be a “groundbreaking” exercise. He urged upon IDSA to take necessary steps to make the recommendations of the paper see the light of the day. He was critical of the government’s policy of classifying documents. Under the rubric of “embarrassment to the government”, which is a very subjective thing, the government cannot hold the information back from the public. He also suggested to put the Public Record Act and Rules at the centre stage of the study as then the author of the paper can highlight the issue of government’s apathy towards the writing of an objective military history. He cautioned the author not to mix up the key issues of history with the theoretical debates of historians and political scientists when they approach a subject differently. By doing this the clear message will get diluted.

    Prof. Deshpande cited the lack of availability of the primary sources on military history in public domain as the main cause of the neglect of the subject. He elaborated how history is given a low priority in universities due to archival absence. “De-classifying” – is the only solution, he said. He also raised a very sensitive but important question of lack of internal democracy within the armed forces. The issue was raised in the context of military’s reluctance to part with any information and the tendency to mark most of the files as sensitive and secret. He pointed out that in Delhi University he has come across very keen students who may like to pursue the study of post independence counter insurgency as historians, but the climate is not encouraging. In many ways the armed forces themselves may be responsible for keeping all such matters under a security blanket.

    Dr Kalyanaraman suggested that the paper must clearly establish and explain the link of military history to that of strategic and security studies. One reason for the lack of interest in initial stages could be debate between guns vs. butter. His suggestion was to take up the study of military history at IDSA, which is aptly suited for the purpose.

    Anit Mukherjee, like other panelists, was very critical of the lack of primary sources for research and government’s apathy towards the problem. He suggested a slight change to the title of the study by prefixing “The Need” to the existing title. This he felt would obliterate any misconception about the study being only of academic value and would make it more policy relevant.

    Chairperson’s Remarks

    Brig (retd) R. Dahiya complimented PK Gautam and said that the issue of writing military history is of utmost importance. He said that history is important as it guides us in our future ventures as each and every event of the past has a lesson ingrained in it for the future. The importance of history is more pronounced in the case of military strategy. He concluded by thanking the panelists and the gathering for a constructive engagement.

    Report prepared by Amit Kumar, Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.