Documenting Indian Military History

Author: Squadron Leader Rana TS Chhina, (Retd)

Period: July 2013 - September 2013

Documenting of Indian Defence History*

Squadron Leader RTS Chhina (Retd)**

In this talk I shall be focusing on aspects dealing with the Military History of Independent India i.e. the period since 1947 when India ceased to be a British colony. By no means does this imply that the Military History of events prior to Independence is not of significance or importance. However, the subject of this talk is ‘Documenting of Indian Defence History’; and this particular aspect is a function of the State and the Society that it serves, both of which altered significantly with Independence. Therefore, it is in this altered context that we must examine the proposition before us today.

                However, before we do so, it may be beneficial to ask the basic question as to why is it important for Defence History to be documented? In order to provide an answer, I would like to highlight the role of three distinct institutions that have a stake in the documenting of our Military History. These are the State, Military, and Civil Society, including Academia and the so-called “Strategic Community” centred around indigenous think tanks, both official and autonomous. Each of these segments have a direct stake in structuring the historical narrative of our military institutions, albeit from different perspectives and with differing objectives. First, the State.

                Following the well-known Clausewitzian maxim that “War is but an extension of politics by other means”, it follows naturally that the State as a political entity will have a keen interest in developing an “official” narrative of historical military events. These accounts provide an official version of the military and political events that contribute to the development and execution of inter-state conflicts. In India the responsibility of compiling these official accounts rests with the Ministry of Defence (MoD), History Division, one of the oldest such departments of the Government.

                These official histories of India’s wars are, in theory at least, intended to be critical assessments capable of analysing faults and failures and of serving as a tool for study and instruction by military professionals. To avoid degeneration into mere laudatory hagiographies, they are therefore usually compiled by professional historians working with a team of civil and military officers.

                After Independence, India has been engaged in four major conflicts: three with Pakistan in 1947-48, 1965 and 1971, and one with China in 1962. In addition there have been a number of significant military deployments and engagements deserving of documentation: these include the Police Action against Hyderabad 1948, the Liberation of Goa 1961, the Indian Peace Keeping Force or IPKF in Sri Lanka (1987-90), Kargil 1999, operations in the mountain ranges around the Siachen Glacier since 1984, and numerous counter-insurgency operations; as well as peacekeeping operations around the world, under the UN flag.

                However, for reasons that do not stand-up to scrutiny, the operational records of the MoD after 1962 are still classified. As a result, none of the operations undertaken by India since the 1962 Sino-Indian War have an official version. The sole exception to this is the 1965 Indo-Pak War; however, even this is a bowdlerised version of an original draft history. Though it is published by the MoD, the ministry has not accorded it the status of an “official” history, so great is the ambiguity prevalent in official quarters. Consequently, the histories of the 1962, 1971 Wars, the Siachen and Kargil Conflicts and the IPKF Operations have not been published even though copies of the unpublished draft histories of the 1962 and 1971 Wars compiled by the MoD have been available on the internet for nearly two decades. That such a regrettable state of affairs prevails despite the recommendations of a Parliamentary Committee clearing their publication, points to a systemic problem that deserves serious attention and the sustained pressure of the Academia and Civil Society to initiate measures to rectify it.

                The second institution that is intimately connected with Defence History is the Military itself. History has multifarious uses for the Military. Military institutions use history as tool for motivation, for promoting esprit de corps and as a means of study, analysis and instruction of various professional aspects, ranging from tactics to strategy. Incorrect recording of operational history, or the non-publication of it prevents our military institutions from analysing and learning operational lessons based upon past experience. This has serious implications for National Security.

                The third, and in my opinion most critical element that has a primary claim to knowledge of our Military History and access to the Records that document it, is we, the people, i.e. Civil Society and Academia. In any democratic society, the people have a right to be informed about activities of the government. The Armed Forces form a vital pillar of the State, one upon which the security and very existence of the country may depend in times of national crises. It is therefore all the more incumbent upon the people to ensure that the Government provides them with access to information about the Military and its activities, so that the systems of checks and balances which are the bedrock of a democratic polity are implemented on the basis of informed debate and not left to the tender mercies of a Civil or Military bureaucracy to decide.

                This leads us to the due process which governs the preservation of Records based upon the study and analysis of which Military History is written. Primary source Records form the life-blood of the historian’s craft. Without them, there can be no authentic Military History.

                In India, the preservation of Records by official record making bodies, including the Military, is governed by the provisions of the Public Records Act 1993 and the Public Records Rules 1997. These lay down the process by which the Records are to be managed and in due course, transferred to the public domain.

                However, certain ambiguities combined with the lack of institutional accountability have led to a situation wherein very few official Military Records find their way to the public domain. A review of the Public Records Act and Rules, initiated by the National Archives of India a few years ago has still not resulted in any satisfactory solution. As a consequence a large number of important Records continue to be destroyed largely through ignorance. These Records are treated as functional documents in the Government offices and are destroyed once they have outlived their utility. Record rooms with trained Record Officers, as mandated by law, are either defunct or moribund. The Right to Information (RTI) Act is often resorted to by the citizens in order to obtain information about non-current records, adding to the burden of governance and to the inconvenience of researchers. Timely and correct transfer of Military Records to the public domain under the provisions of the Public Records Act will ensure that such superfluous RTI applications are eliminated.

                India is today a rising power with the third largest Army in the world. It is also a fascinating example of a flourishing post-colonial democratic polity. Its geopolitical position and security environment demand that its Military institutions function at an optimal capacity. In order to do so, the military professional, the strategic expert as well as the average citizen, all must have access to a well analysed and documented Military History and to the Records that enable further research, analyses and informed debate. These considerations alone make it incumbent on all stakeholders in documenting India’s Defence History to ensure that this history is not lost to the Nation through ignorance, neglect or apathy.


*This is the text of a talk delivered on All India Radio on 27 Aug, 2013.

**Squadron Leader RTS Chhina (Retd) is Secretary and Editor CAFHR at USI.

Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXLIII, No. 593, July-September 2013.


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