Book review: Guts, Guns and Some Glory

A military history about the Indian armed forces sets a benchmark for thoroughness and excellence.

Book | India’s Wars: A Military History 1947-1971
Author: Arjun Subramaniam
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 576
Price: Rs 799

It is a refreshing change to see a senior, serving IAF officer writing an all-encompassing tri-service military history, following in the footsteps of the great Thucydides, and closer home, Lt Gen P S Bhagat,Maj Gen DK Palit and Lt Gen S K Sinha. Most of our military history, written by retired armed forces officers, concerns their own service and are either personal accounts justifying their conduct, or provide their perception of historical events. The author has maintained a detached, scholarly approach, devoid of service and regimental loyalties or even patriotic emotions. To that extent, the book is
a benchmark.
Subramaniam is widely read and his research is thorough, as is evident from72 pages of endnotes, detailed secondary sources and an elaborate index. His research is supplemented by primary material from interviews and the Ministry of Defence archives.
The book provides an excellent overview of the Indian armed forces, warts and all, from 1947 to 1971, with a special focus on politico-military relations and the conduct of war. Each war is dealt with at three levels: strategic, operational and tactical.
Subramaniam rightfully laments the lack of strategic culture in India — Kautilya is recalled only to score brownie points. The author does not mention this, but no formal political directive was given, or political objectives spelled out, for any war.
The 462 pages cover a vast canvas, full of details that matter. Having read many books on each of the wars and having participated in the 1971 war, the book came as a pleasant surprise with details that I was not aware of. Unhesitatingly, I would recommend it to the general public and cadets at the military academies.
In part one, the author provides an overview and rightly laments the neglect of military history. It pains me to mention that for nearly a decade in the 1990s, the Indian army did away with the military history paper in the Defence Services Staff College Entrance Examination. I called it “intellectual suicide”. The second part addresses the evolution of the Indian army and, later, the armed forces. Part three covers operations in Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-48, Hyderabad (1948) and Goa (1961). The account of J&K is well-handled, particularly the critical first week, the less discussed battles of Skardu, Poonch and Ladakh, and the role of the IAF. Without the daring transport aircraft pilots led by Air Commodore Mehar Singh, Poonch and Leh would have been lost.
The author calls the acceptance of the UN-brokered ceasefire an opportunity lost. However, he fails to analyse the capabilities of the Indian army and the fact that the Pakistan army was fully committed by the end of 1948. We would have required a force level of three to four divisions, which we just did not have. At best, we could have tactically improved our hold on the Valley by going up to the Kishanganga river, securing the Haji Pir Pass and improving our posture along the present-day LOC in a limited way.
On the Sino-India war of 1962, Subramaniam highlights the absence of a national security strategy and contingent defence preparedness, as well as reliance on diplomacy and tactical actions to secure and defend an inhospitable frontier region. Like most analysts, he squarely blames Nehru. As the devil’s advocate, I dare ask that if even today our infrastructure is only 30 per cent of what we should have, or what China has, and if our armed forces can at best only keep their heads above water vis-a-vis the People’s Liberation Army, could Nehru have created the infrastructure and the armed forces capacity to challenge the PLA by 1960?
Nehru almost did the impossible by relying upon diplomacy and flagging the frontier region, except Aksai Chin, where China preempted us by 1959. Under political and public pressure after the clashes of 1959 in Ladakh and NEFA, he made the strategic blunder of directly challenging the PLA. The rest is history.
The author is kind to the Indian army, saying that it was ill-equipped, backed by poor logistics and poor operational art. The fact is that odds notwithstanding, the Indian army psychologically collapsed and failed to give a cohesive operational and tactical response.
The collapse at Sela-Bomdila was psychological, not physical. Chushul was abandoned when only three infantry companies out of 12 were attacked. No campaigning is feasible above 12,000 feet in NEFA and Ladakh from December and, consequently, the Chinese would not have been able to sustain their forces as the passes would have closed. That meant that we had to hold on for just 15-20 days more. That the nation was humbled in two sharp battles of four to five days in October and November 1962, with the loss of only 3,000 soldiers, will remain a permanent blot on the Indian army.
The 1965 war is factually well-covered, and Subramaniam rightly concludes that it was a stalemate. He laments our performance at the operational art level and is candid about the lack of tri-service synergy and the limited role played by the navy.
The 1971 war is very well analysed. It saw a reformed Indian army, after the debacle of 1962 and the stalemate of 1965. There was greater strategic synergy and confidence between the political and military leadership, much better tri-services cooperation and brilliant conduct at the operational art and tactical levels. It was India’s greatest victory in nearly 1,000 years. Subramaniam sets the record straight: though full-scale war began on December 3, 1971, tactical operations to shape the battlefield dated from in early November, some as deep as 15-20 km from the international border.
In the last chapter, the author wonders how Kautilya would have assessed India’s prowess, and concludes that he would have been largely critical. Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. In none of the wars was political or national strategy laid down, nor were political ends and objectives spelled out. No formal political directive was ever given to the armed forces. Indian armed forces marched to throw the Chinese out of Kameng division of NEFA on the formal direction signed by a mere joint secretary (HC Sarin) on September 22, 1962.
Even the military objectives were hazy. Barring 1971, the conduct at the operational level was pathetic. The victory in Bangladesh notwithstanding, we cannot run away from the fact that Dhaka, the political and military centre of gravity of East Pakistan, was never spelled out as a political military objective. It was only due to the brilliance of Gen Sagat Singh at the operational level and commanders at the tactical level, notably Brigadiers H S Kler and Sant Singh, that Dhaka became the focus of operations, leading to the psychological collapse of the Pakistan army.
We still do not have a formal national security strategy and the contingent force development strategy. We do not have a chief of defence staff and jointmanship is notable for inter-service squabbling. Kautilya would have resigned and let the ill-informed king and his illiterate courtiers fend for themselves.
The writer, a retired lieutenant general, was GOC-in-C of the Northern Command



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