The Army chopper was circling over Bhuj. It was 2001, beneath us was an entire city flattened as if with a sledgehammer and the words had dried up over the helicopter’s headphones. We were filming the first pictures after the deadly earthquake and sitting next to us, the general stuck up a conversation. Pointing to his nametag with an ironic smile, he wanted to know if it struck a bell. He was one of the big names of Kargil, one of the senior commanders who allegedly first turned a deaf ear to ground warnings of Pakistani intrusions and then tried to silence those who said, we told you so. There was a certain challenge in his voice as he talked about the media and its wantonness. It was surreal: at that time, at that place, over that town, to talk about Kargil and the press.
The problem then and the problem until now with Kargil has been an absence of a credible military history. What we had are journalistic memoirs, accounts of great individual and regimental bravery but always in the shadow of serious charges and counter-charges. Even K. Subrahmanyam’s committee, which did a mini-strategic review of the war, never dealt with the actual conduct of military operations. These were outside its ambit. But the internal war history, as it stands, will now have to be re-written following the Armed Forces Tribunal’s long-overdue vindication of Brigadier Devindra Singh and his excellent command of the Batalik Brigade. The public affirmation of an honourable soldier after he was shamefully victimized for personal reasons is welcome but there is a deeper problem here: our lack of a sense of history and the paucity of public official histories of the Indian Army. Part of the reason why the Army’s internal account of the war could be doctored, along with the Brigadier’s personal records, was this culture of limited access.
In contrast, the US Army has been sending trained historians into Afghanistan with regular forces. Attached with Task Force Dagger of the Special Forces, one such historian produced the official history of Operation Enduring Freedom from 2001 to 2002. The US Army Centre for Military History has similarly published a detailed history of small unit action in Iraq until 2007 and a volume of oral histories by American soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Produced by trained academics, with former and serving soldiers, these are among hundreds of monographs published by the Center over the past six decades, including on the reverses of Vietnam. The Americans may not be great paragons of virtue but the Pentagon understands that knowledge is power and credible histories, as opposed to mere factotums, are crucial.
Where does India stand in comparison? It took twelve years after our greatest military triumph – the 1971 war – for an official history to be commissioned but it wasn’t put out till 1992. Even then, it was only released for official use and with limited circulation. Its writer, S.N. Prasad, barely managed to conceal his disgust in the preface, saying it was “useless and wasteful” that it was not being published. “I do not consider this account a proper history,” he wrote, “but only a compilation of facts in narrative form.” One has to weep with him. This, in a country that produced the Arthashastra. If this was the fate of a fabulous conquest, is it any surprise that the Henderson-Brooks report on the 1962 debacle is still a state secret. And public histories of the IPKF or say the gritty takeover of Siachen in 1984 — forget about it. For the general public, the History Division of the Ministry of Defence has so far not published on anything more recent than the 1961 Hyderabad action or peacekeeping operations in Congo. For the rest, we have to be content with personal memoirs, occasional research papers or restricted accounts locked away for internal use. This must change.
Perhaps the problem is the larger Indian neglect of history. Perhaps we should take solace in Gandhi who once argued that “a nation is happy that has no history.” But even the Mahatma was not right about everything. The way the past is constructed defines the present and a nation that does not know its history is condemned to repeat it.