Review by Jon Dorschner
India’s Wars (A Military History 1947- 1971) by Arjun Subramaniam, Harper Collins India: New York, 2016, ISBN 978-93-5177-749-6, 576 pp., $39.99 (Softcover).
Since I was teaching at West Point, it has struck me that there are a paucity of courses available for American military personnel on the Indian military, the world’s fourth largest. To rectify this, I put together such a course, but had difficulty finding a textbook. During my last trip to India I ran across India’s Wars, which was being widely read and discussed by Indian government officials and military officers. When I picked it up and started reading it, I knew I had the ideal book for my students. In his introduction Subramaniam states that he felt compelled to write this book because India’s younger generation is profoundly ignorant regarding the role of the Indian military in the country’s history. The book assumes that the reader has little or no prior knowledge and aims to fill in the gaps.
Subramaniam is a serving officer in the Indian Air Force with the rank of Air Vice Marshall (Major General in the American Air Force). In the American Army, officers called “Army intellectuals,” try to analyze military issues, seek higher education, conduct research, teach, and publish. Subramaniam is the Indian equivalent. With a PhD in defense and strategic studies, he currently teaches at the National Defence College of India.
Subramaniam rightly ascertained that much of the existing Indian literature on the Indian military falls into two categories, “memoirs” by retired officers, which are heavy on personal remembrances and exploits, and “lionizing works,” which take a jingoistic tack and portray the Indian Armed forces as superheroes that have never made a mistake. Books from these two genres have limited scholarly value, leaving a huge gap in the literature. Subramaniam’s work, by contrast, is a straightforward historical work that strives for objectivity. He praises the Indian armed forces when they perform well, and does not hesitate to catalog their mistakes. This book does an admirable job of addressing a serious shortcoming.
This work is valuable for students because it places the Indian armed forces in their historical context. Before plunging into India’s post-independence conflicts, he takes the time to document the origin of the modern armed forces in the Indian medieval period. India was, at that time, a patchwork of princely states rather than a unified nation. Long protected from invasion by the Himalayan mountain chain, Indian rulers did not devote much time or resources to the development of capable armed forces. This changed when Muslim invaders from Central Asia penetrated the mountain barrier and started to conquer the subcontinent. This compelled Indian armies to adapt to an existential challenge. Subramaniam points out that while India produced great military leaders and brave rank and file soldiers, its nascent armies were often defeated because of a lack of proper military doctrine and tactics and an inability to overcome deep political divisions.
These same problems plagued India when it faced a new invader in the shape of the British East India Company. Initially granted permission to engage in trade and commerce, the Company took advantage of Indian weakness to embark on a war of conquest with the intent to strip India of its resources. British colonial accounts of this conquest were strongly biased, presenting a picture of inherent British superiority. Subramaniam correctly asserts that that Indian forces at times presented real challenges to the East India Company Army and at several points came close to inflicting defeat on the British. This was because several of India’s indigenous armies were capably led by charismatic leaders who successfully inspired their troops. Over the course of time, Indian armies became more adept and more sophisticated, but failed to sufficiently master modern military skills or overcome inherent disunity.
Subramaniam rightly points out that the Indian soldiers of the East India Company Army fought for the Company for a wide variety of reasons. After these troops rebelled in 1857, the British Crown took over India from the Company. Most of the Company’s Indian troops did not participate in the rebellion, but this did not mean that they transferred their loyalty to the British Empire. Historians agree that their principal loyalty was to the Army itself. Most Indian soldiers and officers in the colonial Army ignored the nationalist movement and focused on maintaining military discipline. This did not work to the advantage of the Indian armed forces after independence.
The long and close tie between the Indian military and the British was reflected in the armed forces. The Indian Officer Corps was English speaking and anglophile and revered British regimental culture and the British military legacy. This caused India’s nationalist leadership to look on India’s military professionals with suspicion. They attempted to craft an idealistic foreign policy that downplayed the role of military power and routinely underfunded the armed forces.
Subramaniam documents that in all its conflicts, the Indian armed forces faced equipment and infrastructure shortages that presented severe obstacles. As a result, Indian soldiers, airmen, and sailors became adept at “doing more with less.” Lack of access to sophisticated weaponry forced Indian military personnel to become self-reliant. The emphasis was on overcoming shortages by cultivating steadfastness and courage on the battlefield. Indian military officers continued to “lead from the front,” resulting in a higher rate of officer casualties than found in western militaries. The British provided the Indian military with a strong emphasis on military professionalism. This enabled Indian military personnel to successfully meet these challenges, make the transition to Indian national forces after Independence, and overcome the innate suspicion of India’s leaders.
The story of the Indian armed forces was thus initially dominated by the gradual shift from colonial forces to national forces and the forging of a new identity. It is amazing to note that the first commanders of the Indian armed forces were British rather than Indian and that because of an initial officer shortage, British officers continued to serve in the Indian armed forces in the years following independence.
The book is valuable because it treats the Indian armed forces as a unified whole. India’s military was long dominated by the Army, which was an infantry-centric force. The literature reflects this Army centric view and Subramaniam corrects it, by describing the development of India’s three major services in detail. His portrayal of the Indian Air Force is particularly enlightening. He points out that in colonial India few Indians had the opportunity to fly and, as a result, many Indian Air Force pilots were initially Anglo Indians or Indian Christians. Time and time again, Indian pilots with English names make their appearance in the narrative.
This is a reflection of the robustly non-communal nature of the Indian Armed forces, which is one of its strongest points. In a multi-religious society with competing religious groups, the Indian Armed forces is a meritocracy, which does not discriminate on the basis of religion. Throughout the account, Indians from every religious community work closely together to defend the nation, and succeed in carving out an Indian nationality that supersedes religious identity.
Several British policies from the colonial era worked to the detriment of the Indian armed forces. The British did not see any need to create an Indian Air Force or Navy. They developed the Indian Army as an infantry dominated force meant to put down tribal revolts in Northwest India (present day Pakistan and Afghanistan) and to protect the Northwest border from possible incursions by the Russian Empire. This dominance by the Indian Army over the other services inhibited inter service cooperation. The Indian armed forces had difficulty conducting joint operations and the Army and Air Force had difficulty embracing the concept of close air support of Indian ground forces.
The Indian Armed forces also inherited a regimental system based on ethnically-based regiments. This reflected a British insistence that “martial races” were best suited for the military. The British recruited actively from a few ethnic groups deemed “martial races” and discouraged enlistments by other Indians. To its credit, the Indian armed forces have largely dismantled this overtly racist system and created regiments free of ethnic identity, providing opportunities for Indians from all ethnic groups. This has opened up the military and made it more representative of Indian society.
Subramaniam’s insistence on objectivity is reflected in his depiction of the Pakistani armed forces. Except for a brief war with China in 1962, all of India’s conventional conflicts have been fought against Pakistan. The two armies share the same military heritage, but face off against each other over and over again. Most Indian accounts of Indo-Pakistan military conflicts are black and white narratives depicting a battle between good and evil. By contrast Subramaniam does not hesitate to praise the performance of the Pakistanis when praise is due, or to point out incidents when the Pakistanis performed better than the Indians.
This relative balance in performance and capabilities resulted in wars with no clear-cut victors. This situation was finally resolved in India’s favor in 1971, when the Indian armed forces decisively defeated Pakistan and liberated Bangladesh. By 1971, Subramaniam argues, Indian military professionals had learned from their previous mistakes, while the Pakistan military had lost its professional edge.
Subramaniam points out that:
“The defeat further shattered the martial myth of the Punjabi and Pathan-dominated Pakistan Army as it crumbled in the face of a secular and diverse Indian armed forces and the non-martial Bengalis….The slow normalization of relations between India and Pakistan since the 1971 war can mainly be attributed to the obsession of the Pakistan Army to ‘get even’ with India and avenge the loss of 1971. (page 426)”
Other Indian works have emphasized American patronage of Pakistan and its armed forces and the resulting hostility felt by Indians toward the United States. Subramaniam takes a more nuanced view, pointing out that the US-Pakistan relationship was not as beneficial to the Pakistan military as previously portrayed. He also rightly points out that the United States was not nearly as pro-Pakistan as Indian authors liked to assert.
For example, Subramaniam dismisses the deployment of the US Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal by President Nixon during the 1971 war as insignificant, a strong contrast with the usual hyperbole shown by Indian authors. He writes that:
“Seeing that India refused to blink and somewhat reassured by the Russians that India would agree to a ceasefire soon after the fall of Dacca, the Seventh Fleet called off its coercive deployment in the Bay of Bengal. In retrospect, the diversion of the fleet was a much hyped up non-event, played up even more by a raucous media. (page 391)”
This work is almost ideal as a primer regarding the Indian armed forces. An American reader can read only this one book and fill in almost all the gaps in his knowledge. Of course, much has happened in Indian military history since 1971 and Subramaniam hopes to address this era in a second volume.
No book is perfect. If there is a shortcoming in this work, it is Subramaniam’s failure to address the role of the Indian Army in counter-insurgency. His work treats war in limited terms, defining it primarily in terms of conventional war between the armies of nation states. However, the Indian Army has a long and checkered history of counterinsurgency warfare against separatist insurgents in Northeastern India and Punjab, Islamist insurgents in Kashmir, and Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka.
These wars are more problematic and more controversial than India’s conventional conflicts, but no account of the Indian armed forces is complete unless it deals with them. India currently faces an indigenous Maoist insurgency. There have been serious proposals to deploy the Indian armed forces to this conflict. It would have been interesting to read Subramaniam’s depiction of the performance of the Indian armed forces in this area.