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 continued…
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