Learning and teaching at schools sometimes may become a bit boring for students and teachers, but the response to the idea of having a military history seminar has been tremendous.

Seminal path-breaking ideas, if and when they gain traction, can impact the thinking process of an entire generation. In the profession of arms, as we progress from being wide-eyed cadets to even three and four-star ranks, we are constantly told that those who do not learn from history are doomed to make the same mistakes again.

Even though it is so much more practical to imbibe lessons from the past, history also tells us that no country ever learns from history, simply because the decision makers who eventually call the shots, rarely if at all bother to equip themselves with the knowledge that can make a difference. The latest hullabaloo in Parliament, where some members of the Standing Committee on Defence, made an exhibition of themselves underlines this stark reality.

An invite from Sangeeta Kain, the principal of the prestigious Welham Boys’ School in Dehradun to participate in a military history seminar, certainly had me interested. That I was being asked to join three other top ranking general officers to discuss the ongoing situation in eastern Ladakh with students drawn from the leading schools in India, suggested someone, somewhere, had got their basic thinking right.

Personally speaking, the campaigns that I had studied as a young officer contributed immensely towards my professional success and personal growth. Several management and leadership decisions which I took later in the course of my duty had their foundation in my learnings of military history. The method of solving problems may change with better use of technology but basic problems that confront the nations or the societies remain the same. Resultantly, the thought process of the current leadership must be based on the lessons learnt from similar situations in the past and a smart leader for sure will not repeat mistakes of the past. The current situation in eastern Ladakh resembles many such previous confrontations and Indian Army is handling it keeping in mind the lessons it learnt from the past.

The two-day seminar, the fourth since Welham Boys’ had taken the decision in 2017 to introduce its students to military history, had six sessions in all. Syndicates from 33 schools that represented all four corners of the subcontinent were in attendance. “Though this year we lacked the physical interaction between the students and the various officers, the focus was more on the contemporary situation, especially the northern border with China,” said Kain, who along with her team of schoolteachers ran the event with military precision. General Ved Prakash Malik’s opening session, where the lessons of Kargil could be applied to eastern Ladakh, set the tone. The insightful questions asked by the students clearly indicated that they had done their homework and the quality of the discussion would have done a Higher Command Group proud. Such is the impact of military subjects on young minds. We can tap this curiosity of the younger generation to make them understand issues of importance for nation building and national security through similar military history sessions in other schools as well. Remember, national security is too important and multidimensional a subject to be restricted to military, the paramilitary and police. It involves every facet of national power and every citizen has a role in the national security panorama.

There were two sessions that dealt with the “Dragon at the Door”; the first was purely from the Army’s perspective and this was moderated by Major General Jagatbir Singh, himself a product of the Doon School. Joining him were Lieutenant Generals K.J. Singh (who is the Chief Information Commissioner for Haryana after having hung up his boots as the Western Army Commander), P.J.S. Pannu, who commanded 14 Corps in Ladakh, and myself, whose domain specialisation was logistics. Listening to my co-panellists was an education, not so much because of what they said, but because how well the entire discussion came together. KJ, of course, also talked about the deployment of armour at high altitude, which has resulted in a quantum difference in the existing mindsets. The equal emphasis on understanding the logistical problems gave the students a fairly detailed and comprehensive understanding of the situation in Ladakh. One of my IMA course mates, who now heads a school in Kerala, re-established contact with me after almost four decades after he saw my name on the panel. According to him, his students came away with a reasonable idea of the situation, something he said television discussions failed to do. The effort put into getting the nuances right by Sangeeta Kain and her team is directly proportionate to the popularity and the brand value of this event.

The second part of the “Dragon at the Door” was from the perspective of the IAF and saw three Air Marshals—Anil Chopra, Ramesh Rai and Manmohan Bahadur—put on a masterly show that in crystal clear terms looked at the strengths and weaknesses of the IAF and the PLAAF. Listening to the aviators and their no-nonsense approach minus any frills and fancy footwork, one could not help but lament why the IAF was not used in an offensive role in 1962. If Chinese hacks were tuned in to the seminar, as they probably were, they would have had enough food for thought.

Day two had a detailed discussion on the 1947-48 J&K Ops, where certain new emerging facts were discussed in detail. The role of the J&K State Forces for some reason had always been brushed under the carpet. Brigadier Rajender Singh, Colonel Ajay K. Raina and Pankaj P. Singh together certainly knew their subject, though one felt a few maps would have made the discussion easier to follow. The fifth session looked at the QUAD and the students were exposed to a liberal dose of geo-politics. Commodore Srikant Kasnur, a serving naval officer, was joined by Dr Kajari Kamal, who is a faculty for the Post-Graduate Programme in Strategic Studies at Takshashila Institution, Bangalore. She has designed the course curriculum and teaches Kautilya’s Arthashastra, through webinars and contact workshops. Being from Welham Girls’ herself, Dr Kamal had an instant cult following among the students. Almost all the questions that were addressed to her originated from her old school.

The Navy was further very much in evidence with Admiral Sunil Lanba, an old boy from Mayo college, presiding over the closing ceremony that included the Chairman of Welham Boys’, Mr Darshan Singh as the other panellist. One of the many factors for Mr Darshan Singh’s love for military history can be traced to the fact that his father was also a General Officer in the Indian Army. My experience as part of the armed forces fraternity is that service officers’ sons and daughters learn a great bit about issues like security, discipline and sports as they grow up in a military environment. They invariably become ambassadors of carrying military lessons to society and the military history seminar at Welham Boys’ School is one such contribution that quite honestly is a national service.

Learning and teaching at schools sometimes may become a bit boring for students and teachers but the response to the idea of having a military history seminar has been tremendous. Classroom lectures are the traditional form of teaching and invariably the teacher teaching a particular subject stays the same for purposes of continuity and accountability. It is also no secret that after some time a large number of students find it a bit monotonous because of the identical setting in the class in terms of fellow students, location and the teacher. This innovative form of teaching students through a seminar which is like a festival with different panellists sharing their experiences makes learning remarkably interesting. It generates curiosity in the minds of students to learn more about military history and the past “glorious” and “not so glorious” chapters of our civilization. Information available through various mediums like internet is immense, all that is required is to create interest in the minds of the youth to search for the right subjects. This curiosity to explore would motivate students in understanding their interests and passion and will to a great extent help them find their calling in life. Going by the wonderful learning experience for all stakeholders and participants, especially the students, it is recommended similar seminars be held by other schools in the country to nurture a future ready generation of young leaders for the country.