The biggest lesson of Indian history is that we are negligent of our own history and do not know much about it and as a corollary do not learn from it. In my 30 years of study of military history, I have not come across a SINGLE treatise or book that attempted to describe and learn from our various military defeats from the beginning of the 13th century.
No other single factor has been more responsible for Indian misfortunes on the battlefield in the past than the notion that if we have a righteous cause victory will be ours.
Another major change in the Indian mindset under the yoke of foreign dominance was a dominance of faith over everything else. From a reason/science-based faith (treatise like the Bhagavat Gita) we regressed to faith-based reason/science.
No other single factor has been more responsible for Indian misfortunes on the battlefield in the past than the notion that if we have a righteous cause victory will be ours. ‘Yato Dharma, Tato Jaya’, meaning – where there is Dharma, there will be victory. The notion is so ingrained in us that in 1962 when we suffered a defeat at the hands of the Chinese, this was the theme of speeches that Dr. Radhakrishnan gave all over India. As a school kid, I remember attending a public meeting in Kolhapur (Maharashtra) where he said this.
It is certainly good for the morale to emphasize that one is fighting for ‘dharma’ or righteousness but to then be certain that this alone will bring us victory is self-delusion. For too long Indians did precisely that and neglected newer developments in weapons and tactics. We also took the ‘dharma’ concept of war to the ‘method’ of fighting. So wars were fought not only for Dharma or righteous cause but also with righteous method. This meant no long-range weapons, no fighting at night, and no surprise attacks. And in tactics no deception no cunning no guile.
When the two armies met, the waterfront dissolved into several individual duels. Indian soldiers, especially Rajputs, would not go to the help of other soldiers and let each fight his own duel. Such armies had no hope when faced with armies imbued with religious zeal and attacked as a pack and NOT an individual.
History is not a mere chronicle of events. A proper analysis of the past yields valuable insights into political, social, economic, and technological causes that led to a particular outcome.
Chhatrapati Shivaji changed this outdated grammar of war and achieved great success. But such is the hold of the old glorified version of warfare that it continues to occupy a central space in the Indian mindscape. We excel in glorifying death and defeat as sacrifice and martyrdom more than victory.
History is not a mere chronicle of events. A proper analysis of the past yields valuable insights into political, social, economic, and technological causes that led to a particular outcome. In this sense, it is an important tool to tackle present and future challenges.
British Empire of India was a miracle, no less, since a handful of Englishmen ruled over a vast subcontinent for over a three century and a half. Indians were never defeated by foreigners: foreigners used Indians against Indians and won. Be it the Mughals or the British, they subjugated Indians with the help of other Indians. Troops from the Carnatic were used against the Marthas, Purbhaiyas (from Awadh), and Gorkhas against the Sikhs et al.
Most of the time the total number of British soldiers/citizens in India generally hovered from around 7-8000 to the figure of 60,000 at its maximum. Their number was always just a handful in comparison to the overall Indian population. United efforts by even two or three major Indian powers could have easily ousted them from their small outposts.
A lack of internal political unity is the single biggest cause of India’s misfortunes. Divide and rule was the basis of imperial British rule and the British went to great lengths to implement this policy. It was British political genius and the Indian lack of internal unity that was the main cause of British rule over India.
The truth is that the bulk of the country supported the British right to the end. The nearly 2 million-strong Indian army was the largest ever ‘Volunteer Army’ in the history of the world. Efforts of Subhash Chandra Bose and the formation of INA or the Indian National Army by him out of former soldiers of the British Indian Army jolted the British.
The Naval Mutiny of 1946 put the fear of God into their mind as they apprehended the repeat of the 1857-like revolt by the Indian Army. The mutiny was not just confined to the navy but also was widespread and affected many army and air force units as well. The British were so alarmed that they made plans under Viceroy Wavell (Operation Bedlam) to evacuate British nationals from various ports in case of general revolt by the Indian army.
It is often said that the flower of the youth of Great Britain perished in that war. England was also economically bankrupt at the end of the Second World War and was in no position to fight to retain its colonies.
The unrest in the armed forces was a reflection of the success of the mass movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi in 1921. It is to his credit that the freedom movement transformed from an elite concern to a cause supported by the masses. In addition, ever since the First World War, Britain faced an acute manpower shortage. It is often said that the flower of the youth of Great Britain perished in that war. England was also economically bankrupt at the end of the Second World War and was in no position to fight to retain its colonies.
Indian drew an erroneous conclusion from this event to deride military power as unimportant. The deliberate neglect of military potential till 1962 was the result. Although the military’s inept tactical handling played a major role in the debacle on the Eastern front in the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, the long-term causes cannot be ignored.
While India in the 21st century has overcome many of these shortcomings, some major weaknesses persist to date. Armed forces remain in splendid isolation from the scientific and technological institutes and personnel. In scientific research institutes, political ideology has begun to dictate the research agenda, and ‘faith-based projects are given priority. The governments, finance department, forever penny-pinching, regards expenditure on research as a luxury.
In the final analysis, Indians seem to have forgotten the cardinal lesson of history, it is lack of internal unity that led to our historical misfortunes. Today the political discourse has been so vitiated that even in times of national peril, like the recent pandemic or terror attacks, we seem to be divided.
Amrit Kal or 76th year is a good time to reflect on these long-term and fundamental issues.