Book Review: India’s Wars. A Military History 1947-1971

 

India’s wars by Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam is a history of the wars (external wars, not counter-insurgencies) fought by the Indian army from 1947 to 1971. It is a pretty good summary, but does have it’s weaknesses.

The book starts with a bit of the “pre-history” of the Indian army. Interestingly Subramaniam chooses to highlight two distinct streams that he believes should get credit for the internal culture and ethos of the Indian army. One is obvious: the British Indian army, which was the parent organization that was split (unequally) between Pakistan and India to create the Indian army. The second is an angle that would not have been included by an official observer/author in 1950, but that has obviously grown since then to the point that a Pucca Air Marshal gives it near-equal billing in his book: i.e. the armies of the Marhattas and the Sikhs. I think this reflects contemporary politics and cultural arguments in India more than it reflects the reality of the Indian army from 1947 to 1971, but will be happy to be corrected by people who have better direct knowledge of the Indian army in that period. Anyway, the author gives a quick and very brief account of the British Indian army. The origins and growth of that force are dealt with very quickly and summarily, but there is more details about developments closer to 1947. This is not a book that is heavy on relevant numerical data (i.e. this is not the sort of book where you get tables showing “The caste/religious/ethnic composition of the British Indian army from X to 1947”) and this is a weakness that persists throughout the book; the author is not big on tables or data. Perhaps as someone who grew up with some of that history, I did not find it detailed or insightful enough, but most readers may not mind this omission too much. And even if you are a British Indian army brat, the sections on the origins of the Royal Indian Air Force and the Royal Indian Navy are likely to add to your knowledge. Incidentally, many of the early aviators in the Indian air force seem to have Bengali surnames; the author does not comment on this, but I wonder if anyone has more information about this. If you do, please add in the comments section.

The mechanics of partition are dealt with too briefly; I wish the author had provided some more information about this process. It is not the main topic of the book, but Air Marshal Subramaniam has read widely and it would have been interesting if he had stopped to tell us more about this process and how it unfolded; perhaps in a new edition? That said, the role of the INA and the Indian Naval rebellions in shaking British confidence in their Indian armed forces is dealt with in some details and is one of the many plus points of this book. Incidentally this is the book where I learned that Field Marshal Auchinlek’s name is pronounced “Aufleck” and is in fact the same name as in the name of the actor Ben Affleck. One lives and learns.

The first war to be dealt with is the 1947-48 war in Kashmir. The author does an excellent job of describing the tribal invasion of Kashmir (Pakistan’s first use of “proxy forces” in its wars with India) and the touch and go situation in which Indian troops landed in Srinagar and pushed the tribesmen back. A lot of this history is dealt with in a more traditional military history fashion by Major Amin (whose book I summarized in this post) and in a more hagiographic but still factually accurate manner by the Indian Twitter writer @cestmoiz ( he blogs at https://cestmoizblog.com/) but this book adds to most existing accounts by highlighting the role of the IAF, which played a critical role in airlifting troops to Srinagar and then to Leh, supporting the besieged garrison at Poonch (for a year) and providing close air support in some areas. The account is obviously pro-Indian in its slant and unlike his account of the 1965 and 1971 wars, gives almost no details about the opposing Pakistani forces (whether irregulars like the tribesmen or the later regular forces), but the facts are generally accurate and the analysis is balanced and reasonable. He commends Nehru for taking action and for redirecting the main effort towards the relief of Poonch instead of pursuing the tribesmen West and Northwest of the valley, but is critical of his inability to overrule his British commanders and send in more troops after the first brigade was airlifted into Srinagar. The ifs and buts of history.

Next up is the “police action” in Hyderabad, which is described in some detail. I have not read much about this elsewhere, so I cannot say more about its veracity and about his analysis of the action. He also covers the (very one-sided) Indian invasion of Goa and then moves on to the 1962 war with China. He gives an excellent summary of the colonial era exploration and expansion of British power into the remote mountains of Ladakh, Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh that laid the foundations of this war and his summary of the these events is objective and fair. He details Nehru’s curious mix of obstinate refusal to countenance Chinese complaints as well as naive and foolish myopia about Chinese intentions, followed by the disastrous “forward policy” that led to war. The history of the war itself is well described, though he (like almost all authors on this subject) remains in the dark about the details of Chinese military leadership and order of battle but that is not his fault, it is a natural outcome of Chinese opaqueness about such things. For the first (and only) time in this book he is openly critical of some of the senior Indian military officers, including a Lt General (BM Kaul) who left his post because of “altitude sickness” and went home to Delhi to recuperate, apparently without ever feeling the need to go to a hospital (and while happily sauntering around in Calcutta along the way). As an IAF person he also highlights the fact that the IAF was qualitatively superior to the PLAAF but was hardly used in battle except to airlift supplies.

The 1965 war with Pakistan is covered reasonably well, but again it is the air war where he is at his best. The military operations are described more or less accurately, but not in any great detail by military history standards. And two of the most embarrassing episodes (from an Indian point of view), i.e. General Niranjan Prasad’s breakdown when counter-attacked in Lahore by the PAF and General JN Choudhry’s suggestion (or verbal order, depending on whom you believe) that India should withdraw to the Beas river in the face of Pakistan’s armored offensive in Khem Karan sector, are not mentioned at all, though both are attested in General Harbaksh Singh’s own book about the war. Again, the book would have gained from some more data (numbers of troops, guns, tanks, casualties etc) but is otherwise reasonably good. You can read more about the military history aspects in Major Amin’s summary of the war in this article.

The easiest war to write about (from an Indian POV) is obviously the 1971 war and Subramaniam does a good job of describing the preparations as well as the conduct of operations in that war. He gives due credit to General Sagat Singh, whose unusual aggressiveness and initiative played a large role in the rapid Pakistani capitulation in the East. He  gives due space to the IAF and the Indian navy and as with the account of the 1965 war, is able to describe the forces and commanders on the Pakistani side as well. He describes the “offensive-defensive” Indian strategy on the Western front and the fact that the disparity in forces was not as great on the Western front, but still hints that India could have done more and blames Indira Gandhi’s “magnanimity” for the fact that she did not coerce Pakistan into settling the Kashmir issue after 1971. This may be how it looks in hindsight, but the fact is that India did not have decisive superiority in the West and it is by no means clear how much more it could have achieved in the West even if Indira Gandhi had not been “magnanimous”. This is not the only place where he portrays the Indian leadership as being too timid and “idealistic” and in fact he then devotes an entire chapter to Kautilya and the lessons of realpolitik. One gets the feeling that these sections of the book may have more to do with contemporary Indian culture wars (Hindutva vs XYZ) and less with a strictly objective analysis of Indian military history from 1947 to 1971. While never as aggressive (or remotely as capable) as, say, the Japanese or the Germans in WWII, it is by no means the case that India was some sort of pacifist nation that ignored the importance of coercive force in international relations. From Kashmir, to Hyderabad, to Goa, to the “forward policy” to attacking across the international border in 1965, India was not as gun-shy as the author sometimes hints.

Overall, this book is a good introduction to the subject. It is generally quite detailed when it comes to the IAF, but sometimes a bit less so when it comes to army operations.  More tables and facts and figures would have been useful, but may have been omitted because this is a popular history, not a traditional military history. The author has a definite political and ideological agenda (very pro-Indian as expected, but also keen to teach what he regards as “the lessons of hard-nosed realpolitik”) but the details are accurate; he picks and chooses his opinions, but does not do a bad job with the facts. Well worth a read.

 

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8 Replies to “Book Review: India’s Wars. A Military History 1947-1971”

  1. I often hear this line that “India didn’t settle the Kashmir issue in 71”, I am not even sure what it means. If Bhutto signed a paper saying that Kashmir belongs to India, would that have settled the issue? What is the value of any agreement when government gets overthrown and Bhutto is hanged?

    Of course Pakistan can’t force the people of PoK to join India against their will. Only plausible solution is making the LoC permanent border, which is what they tried in 71 which didn’t work out anyway.

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    1. IG did not ‘try ‘ making a permanent border or any other outcome in the western border. That’s is a weakness of Indian policy, they don’t know what they want. She got vague promises from ZAB that all border issues will be settled bilateral lunch.

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    2. What settling means is making the LOC the permanent border in lieu of POWs . There was no land swaps involved so i am not sure how unachievable really was it. And irrespective of all the hue and cry made for civilian leadership in Pakistan, when it comes to India they are not that different. Hadn’t Bhutto been hanged he would have done exactly the same stuff which the military does, only in a more sophisticated way. We feel that by design civilians are cautious while military is aggressive, the role of Bhutto and Ayub in 65 showed the roles can be reversed as well.

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  2. Great Review!

    What do you make of the subcontinent hagiographical approach to almost every thing from wars to communities, nationalism etc (My army best, my language oldest, my music sweetest etc). It sad that we have a dearth of incisive war historians of S-Asian origin.

    “I think this reflects contemporary politics and cultural arguments in India more than it reflects the reality of the Indian army from 1947 to 1971, but will be happy to be corrected by people who have better direct knowledge of the Indian army in that period.”

    You are correct , but i am not surprised . Out of all the communities in the South the brahmin is most swayed by hindutva/ hindu nationalism talk. Because he has no other group to turn to. On the Sikhs and marathas being the only force worth mentioning its easy since sub consciously we dont really consider the “other” forces as Indian anyway.

    “Incidentally this is the book where I learned that Field Marshal Auchinlek’s name is pronounced “Aufleck” ”

    Just few days back i learnt that Mountbatten real name was Wattenburg and he came from german royalty but had to change this after WW1 due to anti german hysteria in UK. As you said one lives and learns

    “This is not the only place where he portrays the Indian leadership as being too timid and “idealistic” and in fact he then devotes an entire chapter to Kautilya and the lessons of realpolitik. ”

    I used to think that all this Kautilya talks are mostly on watsapps and twitter , while our military really focuses on some real on ground strategy rather than some ideas of 1000s of year old. But looks like i was mistaken, that this whole “Kautilya the master strategist” meme has inflirted army men as well.

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  3. While I am not qualified to comment on the military nature of the war with China, it should be clearly noted that the war was more a response to Nehru’s ceding of much of government control in 1962 owing to health and other issues (http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/2308/1/McGrarrIndia.pdf), and running the foreign policy-defence as a two person fiefdom involving himslef and Krishna Menon. This opened a gambit for Krishna Menon to seize control of foreign and defense matters. Egged on by USSR, and his unfortunate dependence on Luminal, he ran the forces from Goa to Tibet in 1962 without a great deal of parliamentary control. The army was neither ready nor willing to get involved in such a commitment. Details of Krishna Menon’s mishandling can be read in Chapters 32-34 of Mathai’s reminiscences of Nehru age, and J.K.Galbraith’s related chapters on India and US at the same time. Personalization and narrow casting of departments lead to such behavior; something similar to this is happening in US with both, Rex Tillerson attempting run it as a fiefdom but was completely ignored by other members of the foreign policy Troika. Luckily no major crises broke out. Unfortunately, in India, a major crisis did break out but was run poorly by Menon.

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      1. The third axis to this three legged stool of failure was the difficulty in the defence budgeting process by 1956. TTK became the finance minister with a grand plan of industrialization but found the budget was may be 20% of the spending required. He had to redo the budget which was presented twice in 1957 as interim and final. The average defense spending was about 2% of the GDP, especially after KM was made the defense minister, but what could be purchased with this was limited as inflation exceeded double digits. By 1961, the ministry had become essentially spending most of its budget on personnel and infrastructure with limited purchases of armaments. This was acceptable as the government has not anticipated either Goa or China. More details of difficulties in budgeting associated failure can be read in:

        Raju G. C. Thomas. “The Armed Services and the Indian Defense Budget.” Asian Survey, vol. 20, no. 3, 1980, pp. 280–297. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2643745

        Dalvi, Himalayan blunder (1969)

        While military aspects are not well described in Indian literature, the financial and administrative aspects are well described. Re; the political perspectives, it may be worth starting with the works of Neville Maxwell, and the insights of Chou en lai, who, in general found JN and KM to be men for whom action was anathema and talking was the end game. You may not agree with those ideas, but they are some perspectives.

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