Need to deal with our military past with genuine scholarship, not jingoism — like this new book on 1971.
On a flight back home Friday morning, as I was lost reading Eagles Over Bangladesh (HarperCollins, 2013), P.V.S. Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra’s brilliantly researched and reconstructed history of the air war in the eastern sector in 1971, an old friend sitting next to me asked why I was so fascinated with military history. Funnily, I had been asked the same question recently by a prominent young national political leader on the sidelines of a wedding. His question, in fact, was sharper, maybe because he is so much younger: “Why are you so obsessed with war?”
I said military history was indeed a fad with some. But he had made me think harder and I said that in the Indian context, it wasn’t wars that fascinated me, it was the decade of the Sixties. In so many ways, this rocky decade defined the new Indian republic. There were half a dozen reasons and an equal number of occasions when India could have broken up or lost its identity. Certainly, the remarkably secure and united India that we live in today was then unimaginable. Some of these reasons were internal secessionist movements, from the Tamils (the DMK was as separatist as it was iconoclastic) to the northeastern tribes, and then the death of two popular prime ministers (Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri) while in office. But the 1960s was also India’s decade of wars. It started with the Goa campaign in December 1961. Celebrations were not yet over when the Chinese stormed across the Himalayas in 1962. That led to Nehru’s sad, lonely and defeated decline. But it also rid India’s defence forces of a curse called Krishna Menon and created a national consensus for stronger militaries. This was a work in progress when Pakistan first successfully probed our vulnerabilities in Kutch in 1965 and, encouraged, launched a large invasion of Kashmir later the same year, resulting in our first full-scale war in September, involving all three forces. All three were caught, sort of half-cocked, in the middle of a massive expansion and modernisation, but achieved a reasonable stalemate. There were many situations during that 22-day war when India’s fate, to steal from the title of Lt Gen L.P. Sen’s wonderful autobiographical account of the 1947-48 Kashmir campaign, hung by a slender thread. In 1967, there was another probe by the Chinese in Sikkim’s Nathu-la. And although this episode is mostly forgotten now, while it lasted, the intensity of fighting was much greater than at any time in Kargil 1999. It had also come when, recovering from two big wars and fighting large-scale starvation in a ship-to-mouth situation, and with a still wobbly Indira Gandhi, India was at its most vulnerable ever.
ONE could argue that the 1971 Bangladesh war was also, in many ways, an extension, or rather conclusion, of the same violent decade. For both countries, their anger simmering after the inconclusive 1965 engagement, this was like returning to unfinished business. If you took a convenient liberty and defined the decade as 1961 to ’71, two things would stand out. One, that of all the combat casualties suffered by the Indian armed forces in the 65 years since Independence, nearly 80 per cent came in this rough decade as, besides the Portuguese, the Chinese and the Pakistanis, they also fought two really nasty insurgencies in Nagaland and Mizoram. Two, that the end of that decade also marked India’s last full-scale, conventional war.
There have been tense moments and skirmishes since, but nothing that soldiers would describe as an industrial-scale battle between two armies. In fact, the British general, Rupert Smith, in his classic, The Utility of Force, questioning the cost-effectiveness and efficacy of traditional armies today, mentions that the last time two large bodies of tanks were locked in battle over a large theatre was during the Israeli-Arab Yom Kippur War of 1973, and yet, armies around the world still maintain tens of thousands of tanks. It makes us reflect on our own situation, where the last fighting on any scale whatsoever between two opposing tank forces took place in December 1971. Since then, our respective cavalries have been busy training, exercising and, indeed, most brilliantly and happily, parading at national ceremonies.
Unfortunately, even four decades of relative peace have not given us the sense of distance and detachment to start taking a non-partisan, fair and professional view of our military history. Our national discourse (sadly, India’s is now much worse than Pakistan’s) has turned so jingoistic today that you sometimes wonder if 10 years of total peace have left us itchy and impatient for some “action”.
So here is my riposte to those who think I am obsessed with military history: how come our society, in its most secure, upwardly mobile and internally focused phase ever, is not willing to sit back and savour peace? Why is it still fighting in its mind the wars of the past, notably 1962, a madness that resumes any time even a five-man Chinese patrol strays to our side of the Line of Actual Control?
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COULD it be that one reason our societies have not learnt to enjoy peace and security is the shyness with which we approach our military past, where our military historians find it difficult to distance themselves from the national flag, or in the case of former soldiers, from the regimental pennant? Fair, dispassionate and clinical recording and analysis of military history serves to defang jingoism, unlike Amar Chitra Katha or Doordarshan-style “reconstructions”, or the equally sad rubbish in Pakistani school textbooks that perpetuate hatred and fear and brainwash both our societies to view our militaries only after wrapping our minds in olive green or khaki. It is because we confuse military history with perpetuating commando-comic mythologies that we, as a society, have failed to achieve the collective, strategic calm we deserve and which our wonderful armed forces have earned for us.
That is why writers and historians like Jagan Mohan and Chopra are so unique and valuable. I know neither of them personally — which underlines how outdated I am as a reporter — but their latest book is compulsory and therapeutic reading for anybody who loves the armed forces or is interested in national security. It is a remarkably detailed and dispassionate account of IAF operations in the eastern sector in that decisive war. While India’s control of the skies in that theatre was never disputed, the duo also remind you that there was a tiny group of equally proficient and patriotic fliers at the other end, even if they added up to just one squadron of Sabres confined to one airbase (Tezgaon at Dhaka). They were willing to challenge and tangle with repeated waves of IAF attackers, despite losses, and did not give up until their airfield was totally cratered by the MiGs innovatively using a runway-busting Russian bomb. That episode is one of the more striking parts of this piece of documented and annotated research, so rare in India. For each major skirmish, they have reached out to Pakistani sources for their side of the story. The result is a credible, non-partisan assessment and a far cry from the usual gallantry award citations.
This isn’t really a review, and there are too many stirring sections in the book to list in a column. But one stays with me. The first air skirmish of 1971 took place at Boyra, a few miles into Bangladesh, on November 22, 10 days before war actually began. Four IAF Gnats ambushed and shot down three Sabres strafing Indian army units. Of the two Pakistani pilots who ejected, one was Flg Off Khalil Ahmed, brother of diplomat Aziz Ahmed Khan, who did two postings in India, the last as one of Pakistan’s most popular high commissioners. We have been friends for 25 years, and once, in a late night conversation while on his first posting, at his Greater Kailash-1 home, he had reflected on how, if he were to carry scars, his job in India would be impossible as his kid brother (then a still-green pilot) was the first PoW of 1971. The second captured pilot, the book reminds you, Flg Off Parvez Mehdi Qureshi, rose to become the chief of the PAF. A gem from a footnote in the book: among the congratulatory notes he received was one from Donald Lazarus who, as an equally young Flg Off in a Gnat, had shot him down. Qureshi not only replied to him, but also complimented him on the “fight” shown by IAF pilots that day. Can you find a more touching story of the business of soldiering, of chivalry and honour on both sides with such formidable military histories? Ok, I will tell you just one more. When these two PAF pilots’ parachutes landed, soldiers of 4 Sikh, who they had been strafing, began thrashing them with rifle butts. They only survived because a young Indian major rushed out, disciplined his men, and took them away to safety that PoWs are entitled to. The major’s name was H.S. Panag. Ring a bell? Check out his article in this paper on the debate on the army’s role in Kashmir (‘The drift in the Valley’, IE, December 18, 2013, goo.gl/SYDQzP).
Postscript: Jagan Mohan and Chopra had done an equally thorough and honest history of the air war of 1965, in which the IAF had not done too well (published by Manohar, 2006). They promise us another one soon on the western sector in 1971.