Military & Aerospace

Who bother about Military History?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 15 Mar , 2016

The short answer to this question, none! After having spent over 30 years in the field, I can say this with certainty. With a few honourable exceptions like late General Palit and General Sinha and late Dr. SN Prasad, this field is bare of any notable figures and solid work. Neither does the field exists in universities, including the ‘prestigious’ (?) one’s like the JNU or Delhi or any other university. Study of war is a poor orphan in the Indian intellectual milieu.

Imagine, the history of 1947-48 J&K Operations was published only in 1987, thanks to the initiative by Dr Prasad. We seem to have forgotten the old saying that those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it!

The histories of our post-independence wars are unfortunately mired in red tape with the governments refusing to publish them under one pretext or the other. Imagine, the history of 1947-48 J&K Operations was published only in 1987, thanks to the initiative by Dr Prasad. We seem to have forgotten the old saying that those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it!

Unfortunately, the armed forces are no different! Let me recall my own experiences, as these are relevant to the topic under discussion.

It was some times in 1987 that as a joint director in Ministry; I took the opportunity to attend the Senior Command Course in the College of Combat. Since I had already made up my mind to take a premature retirement it was ‘free time ‘for me. I was at that time deeply involved into research on the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. During the course, to my horror, the exercises set in the Arunachal Pradesh terrain, pointedly excluded the use of air power. On being questioned the stock answer was that air power is ineffective in mountains and this may escalate the conflict. The roots of this doctrinal orthodoxy lay firmly in our 1962 experience.

During the research on 1962 Indian military debacle, I was intrigued by the fact that the whole of conflict was fought without the use of offensive air support. When I raised the issue, Dr. Prasad readily agreed that the non-use of offensive air support be included in the official history as a full-fledged chapter. Our team interviewed the ACAS (Ops) of that time. His answer was stunning, ‘we did not think of using fighter aircraft as that would have escalated the conflict and India would have lost international support’. So, as per this winning war was less important than retaining international support?

Use of air power would certainly have turned the tide in 1962, as it did in 1999 Kargil clash.

Our team consisting of Air Commodore OP Sharma and I meticulously researched the issue and came to a conclusion that the Chinese at that time did not have any capability to use its fighter aircraft. These were out of range in Ladakh and in any case had a very low take-off weight since the Chinese air fields were all located at high altitudes. India on the other hand had airfields in vicinity and could have dominated the air with its (then) top of the rung aircraft like Hunters. Use of air power in Ladakh would have compensated for Indian lack of artillery and in the East would have interdicted Chinese foot columns and logistics (as it did much later in Kargil conflict 1999).

But most importantly, use of air power by us and lack of it on the Chinese side would have had a great impact on troop’s morale. By most accounts, our rout in East was due to loss of morale. Use of air power would certainly have turned the tide in 1962, as it did in 1999 Kargil clash.

The root of this ignorance of role of air power goes back to history of 1947-48 Kashmir conflict. As mentioned earlier, the official history was only published in 1987, a full 25 years after 1962 conflict. Even a cursory reading of that account shows that the air power played a decisive role in throwing out the invaders from Kashmir valley in less than two weeks’ time. The air force carried out relentless attacks on the supply columns and acted as flying artillery. Our domination of air meant that our commanders had full information about the enemy movements while the enemy was fighting blind.

If the full and analytical account of Kashmir operations was to be available in 1962, may be, just may be, the decisonmaking on offensive air support may have been more rational and not based on platitudes. I do not mean to discount other factors in this episode, namely, the war was being run as private affair by Lt. Gen. BM Kaul, with the air force chief only reading about it in next day’s papers! The insidious role of pro-US lobby that wanted India to receive a drubbing at the hands of the Chines so that it goes into American embrace on rebound also cannot be discounted. Yet with all these factors being accounted, the truth remains that study of past war could have been a corrective to faulty conduct of war.

Indian military history is still waiting to be written by Indians. When will the Lions write the story of the hunt! This is not merely an academic issue but impacts on the present and future as the 1962 episode shows.

In the history of India, the third battle of Panipat in 1761 is regarded as a major event that led to the downfall of Marathas and advent of the British. It was indeed a watershed moment, but so was an equally important event in 1756 when a short sighted Maratha Peshwa (Prime Minister) colluded with the British to destroy the Maratha navy. The destruction of ‘brown water’ navy of the Marathas that could successfully thwart the English from entering coastal waters was an event far more important than battle of Plassey fought a year later. When under Admiral Watson and Robert Clive, the English burnt the Maratha navy, the obtained freedom of movement between their three out posts at Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. In the Anglo Maratha war in 1781, the English successfully used this to move troops from Madras to Bombay (under General Sir Eyre Coot).

Even the series of battles that the Marathas fought against the English in 1803 (under Governor General Wellesley) are seldom known to lay Indians giving rise to the myth that the English took over India from the Mughal’s. The battles of Delhi, Aligarh, Lassawari (near Agra) and Assai have been totally forgotten. The result has been a mindset that haunts Indians that they have been under foreign rule for thousand years…….a myth that in no small measure gave birth to secession in 1947.

The Maratha epoch is still relatively better known but what about our naval expansion in South East Asia, under the Pallavas and Cholas? Or about the overseas exploits of Vijaynagar Empire?

Indian military history is still waiting to be written by Indians. When will the Lions write the story of the hunt! This is not merely an academic issue but impacts on the present and future as the 1962 episode shows.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored a book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996.

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5 thoughts on “Who bother about Military History?

  1. Congratulations for this important and timely article. it was nice to see that you are pursuing the research work.
    Please send me your postal address so that I may send you copies of Chankya Journal of Chankya Centre for Strategic Studies – a think tank with which I am associated as the Director General and Chief Editor.
    S D Pradhan

  2. Col. Athale, the battles you mention which have been forgotten was a deliberate attempt by the British. They hired their own stooge Sir Syed Ahmed Khan from 1839 till 1869 at Agra to write the Muslim history in India under their directions. The British wanted and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan obliged, by including battles in full details where they were victorious but forget the others where they lost.

    The history so written in summary form, became part of school curriculum and continues to be taught until today. A few nomenclature changes like Mutiny of 1857 is called First War of Independence have been made. The Gorkha wars they lost are hardly mentioned except the one they won.

    This collusion you mention about Peshwa entering into conspiracy to destroy the Maratha navy in 1756 is not even mentioned in the history books. Looting of treasury of Bengal, Delhi, Lahore, Tipu Sultan’s treasury and many more are not even covered. This educationist who was a British stooge failed even to mention the looting.

    But we cannot blame the British too much. They were administering the victor’s justice. What I regret about that they hired natives to write it and the natives were very willingly writing it.

  3. Conitnued….

    As this was a strategic contribution to victory it has completely escaped the annals of Military Historians who are more comfortable with what they understand: the battles between Infantry and Patton Tanks or, at best, the dog fights between Gnats and Sabres. Kargil show cased the woeful lack of adequate and appropriate air power for close ground support. A MIG and a Chopper were downed in the early stages due to the lack of Anti-SAM decoys and the severe imposition of US ideas by the Vajpayee regime (in a 1962 redux) leading to the effective withdrawal of air power from the theater. As on date, the Neta-Babus still believe that the correct way to conduct a war is the way they conduct their politics and gang fights in the slums or houses of legislature. By sheer numbers. Quantitative rather than qualitative and “paid to die” without the necessary equipment, training and so on. Hence the Air Force and the Navy that are more equipment and training than manpower driven are even less understood. The top Brass of these services are equally guilty by following in the foot steps of Babu Land and not pushing to the fore front of winning wars but, instead, asking for “toys for the boys” like an entirely redundant, obsolete and carcinogenic Admiral Gorshkov that is marooned in Karwar port without the armour, defenses, aircraft or accompanying war and logistics ships that would make up an operatable Carrier, which when operatable will be all dressed up with nowhere to go.

  4. Continued…

    In 1962 Nehru grounded the Air force on US advise and my Dad’s eldest brother’s (Air Commodore R. Sitaram) career came to an end because of his vigorously championing the commitment of Air Power against China. In 1965 my Dad’s second eldest brother (Air Marshal Rajaram DFC) was sacked by Shastri for smashing Pakistan’s reserves (both men and materials) at Peshawar by surprise and bringing the war to a quick and abrupt conclusion. Peshawar was almost out of range for the bombers and there were no long range fighters to provide escort, so he called for volunteers when the met report was favourable. He did not inform Air HQ or MoD of the plan as this would have immediately leaked to Pakistan and doomed the mission. (He was reinstated by Indira Gandhi). After the Peshawar bombing the then Chief of Air Staff (ACM Arjun Singh) was summoned and admonished by Shastri. The exact words used were “Aisa kabhi nahi hona tha”, to which the COAS replied “Phir kabhi naheen ho saktha hai” as the element of surprise was not replicatable. I heard this tale from FM Manekshaw and this was corroborated by Air Commodore Sitaram. (The Air Marshal had passed on from Leukemia a few days before he could take over as COAS long before I got to hear this story) Air Marshal Rajaram, DFC, was given a Padma Bhushan along side Vijayanthimala with Indira Gandhi, as Prime Minister, in attendance at Rashtrapathi Bhavan. He was always embarassed by the Padma Bhushan which pulled an Air Officer down to the level of politicians and entertainers.

    That was in the days of KCOs. Today there are campaigns to dishonour the Field Marshal with a posthumous Bharatha Rathna The details of the campaign used to be in the Rajaram Room at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington and may still be there if not erased or modified for political convenience. In India, Parliament stood up in one accord to erase cartoons published in 1948 from Government approved School History books in 2012!

  5. How many professional officers have read Liddel Hart, or even the brilliant Readers’ Digest two volume condensed World War II omnibus? Between them, they hold a Staff College course. But then, the SSB actively discourages the recruitment of thinkers and intellectual calibre into the Officers Corps since 1965 at the behest of the Neta Babu-Kleptocracy. Does it not?

    India does not understand air power and how to use it. Because, the Navy and the Air force have generally been pushed under the carpet as it is convenient to do so given inter service rivalry and the absolute stupidity of the Neta-Babu over lords who know little else beyond how to loot and plunder the Nation. and the Army seems the closest thing to the Police they know and understand and the severest threat to the immortality of their methodologies of plunder and perpetuation.

    ACM PC Lal, then a Group Captain was the Technical Advisor on a trip to the US with Jabberlal and Pimp Menon. The US had aircraft parked around the base at Texas and the trio were taken on a circle around the base and asked which lot would India like to buy. Lal wanted to inspect every aircraft first. Jabber and Pimp were aghast and in the inerests of “diplomacy” over ruled Lal and picked a bunch of Dakotas (rather like Maun Mohan Singh and the Faux Art Salesman Honest Antony buying C-130s). An honourable King’s Commissioned Officer by spine and training, Lal resigned. Thanks to his family connections (DCM Bharath Ram and Charath Ram) Lal was brought back via HAL. And luckily for him, my uncle died of Leukemia a week before he could take over as Air Chief so, Lal made it by the skin of his teeth. He deserved it.


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