On July 9, 1971, US secretary of state Henry Kissinger arrived in Peking for a secret meeting with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. This was at the height of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and the US saw an opportunity to entice communist China into its fold. A highlight of Kissinger’s successful visit was a book that Zhou gifted him. It was called ‘India’s China War’ by Neville Maxwell. Impressed, Kissinger told Zhou, “Reading that book showed me I could do business with you people.” A few months later when India and Pakistan went to war, President Richard Nixon and Kissinger’s sympathetic view on China, a Pakistani ally, was influenced by Maxwell’s book which blamed India for the 1962 India-China war.
Incidentally, Maxwell had drawn extensively from the Henderson Brooks Report, India’s internal report of its debacle in the war, which was leaked to him. The report, classified and unavailable to Indians, was used by Maxwell to shape a narrative that favoured China at India’s cost. In 2014, Maxwell put parts of the report online, even as it continues to be classified in India. In a ridiculous irony, a guarded state secret became a highly public document.
For decades, India has grappled with a predicament of reconciling the past with moulded perceptions. Politicians and bureaucrats have often used the national security card as a pretext to shut down narratives that would have placed political and military leaders associated with those events under greater scrutiny. Lack of disclosures meant inadequate access to key documents, war diaries, minutes and communication exchanges that stymied rigorous research and knowledge. In the absence of authentic sources to write war histories, scholars have often depended on oral accounts, and archives in the UK and US. In 1999, the Kargil Review Committee recommended the declassification of war records to analyse past lessons and prevent future mistakes. However, bureaucratic prevarication prevented effective implementation.
Two decades later, defence minister Rajnath Singh has approved the policy on archiving, declassification and publication of war histories by the ministry of defence (MoD), marking a welcome beginning.
So how does declassification of war records help? It primarily helps develop varied interpretations of history and encourages robust works of scholarship. Military strategists and civilian researchers benefit from independently analysing political exchanges or military actions preceding or during a war which, in turn, helps to identify sources of causality, recognise intent and review outcomes. The aim is to stimulate a dispassionate debate that is shaped by a credible understanding of the past. Apart from policymakers and academics, Indian citizens have a right to know the past.
Rajnath Singh’s announcement has been welcomed by scholars but deeper structural and cultural flaws exist. Operational records are required to be vetted for declassification by organisations concerned and sent to MoD’s historical division. The MoD will publish an official account of operations within five years after completion of a war. A committee formed to oversee the publication would be headed by a joint secretary, members from the three services, MEA and MHA officials. It might include ‘prominent military historians, if required.’ Experts will not have a role in the publication and the committee is unlikely to have a historical background, thus making the final outcome less credible. “Who are the people that will decide the declassification process?” asks Anit Mukherjee, a former army officer and author, arguing for the involvement of military historians in this process.
One solution could be to redact sensitive portions instead of doling out interpreted versions. This practice, followed in the West, ensures compliance with matters of national security. Mukherjee believes that original source codes must be made available to determine the authenticity of information. There is also a fundamental need to comprehend the value of preservation. Lt Gen Satish Nambiar, who was on a declassification committee, once wrote about the alleged ‘wilful’ destruction of operational documents pertaining to the 1971 war, during a review process, due to lack of consciousness about military history.
Many scholars have also complained about the difficulty in accessing material at the MoD’s historical division. This tendency to mire information in bureaucratese has meant a subdued participation of civilian military historians, unlike the US which has a rich tradition in the field. It isn’t surprising that there is a lack of awareness about post-independence wars involving India. Encouraging a culture of declassification in this hyper-digital age will enable deeper scholarship and wider readership. The way forward: appoint independent subject experts to evaluate, redact sensitive portions and allow access to information sources. Else, more Maxwells will shape a history we shy away from. As an African proverb goes, “Unless the lion learns to write their history, every story will glorify the hunter.”
Rakesh Sharma: AGAINST
For unsanitised war history to emerge, Indian record-keeping has to change too
Indian armed forces have been incessantly in combat since Independence and have fought many wars, generating rich history. In a welcome decision, the MoD has come out with a new policy that sets a clear timeline for compilation, publication, archiving and declassification of historical records, with some discretionary powers. It is imperative hence to examine what will be available to researchers and historians, as a consequence.
At the outset, let me say that military history cannot just be events listed chronologically. It is an adaptation of events which attempts to explain logically the whys and hows, making it intellectually persuasive and stimulating.
Why would it be important for current and future generations to study and analyse, say the 1971 India-Pakistan War? It will not be to imitate or replicate the strategy and tactics of 1971. It will be to learn about political and military leadership success and failures, and how and why operations were prosecuted in a particular manner. Invariably such treatise will advance greater understanding of military history, and while not providing a future blueprint or a roadmap, it will equip agile minds to make informed decisions.
To be worthwhile, military history would depend on fair, dispassionate and correct recording of events, segregating myth and fable, with verifications and correlations from many sources. Yet, many military historians, even while studying the same records, will invariably come up with distinctly dissimilar conclusions. There are three pointers that mandate examination.
First is, contextualising research of military history. As British politician Sir Michael Howard had observed, “The roots of victory and defeat often have to be sought far from the battlefield.” Indeed lack of contextual underpinnings will lead to a superficial view of war with lessons and conclusions established without proper background. India’s civil-military relations are denoted by ‘absent dialogue’ as per the doyen of Indian strategic thinkers, K Subrahmanyam. The directive issued by the government to the first overall Force Commander of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was ‘delightfully vague’! It will hence be material to base the history on political directions. Contextualising will be problematic, as whatever there is, will be with the government and not easily available. Pragmatically, a historian will build his case on recorded and available information and relegate unavailable information to inconsequence.
Second, is to study in depth, the minutest of details of the campaigns and battles. The units of the Indian armed forces have immense sense of izzat (honour) and naam (reputation). There is hence an innate desire to protect that in all campaigns and battles and in counterterrorism operations. The unit honour must be paramount. There is also a matter of unit citations and individual awards. This compromises on actualities, and becomes miserly with truth. To obtain correlation, in addition to the sanitised histories available in South Block, detailed correspondence, situation reports, digests of service, initial and final reports, memoirs, regimental histories, all become relevant. It may not be feasible to obtain such records from units and field formations. Historians would rely on select declassified information that eulogises one operation, and then try to reconstruct history from fables.
And third is the breadth of wars and campaigns that armed forces are involved in. In a major quirk, the warring history of post-Independent India is a near continuum to the present day. Case in point is the Henderson Brooks Report (HBR) pertaining to the 1962 war. Defence minister YB Chavan had on September 2, 1963 in the Lok Sabha stated that “by very nature of the contents it would not be in the public interest to lay the report on the table of the House.” In response to a query in Rajya Sabha on the release of HBR, defence minister AK Antony in 2008 reiterated that the “…freeze on would continue considering the…security implications.”
Defence minister Arun Jaitley in 2014 had stated in Rajya Sabha that HBR “… is a top-secret document and…release of this report, fully or partially… would not be in national interest.” Though excerpts of this report are in open domain, it is apparent that historicity of HBR is subsumed by the continuum of difficult negotiations and border claims with China. For instance, Rezang La in Eastern Ladakh where Indian soldiers demonstrated great valour in the 1962 India-China War was again the frontier of a near war in September 2020.
In sum, relevance of the study of military histories is imperative to learn from failures and successes. But military history is just not story-telling, it requires being candid, truthful, correct and with cross-referenced validation. For that, a cultural change is imperative in recording, retaining and preparing for timely declassification. The policy change enunciated must provide guidelines for dispassionate and fair mechanisms for recording. Without this, writing histories will be challenging, the outcomes may be questionable! As Dutch historian Pieter Geyl remarked, ‘History is an argument without end.’ And that’s what a declassification exercise could turn into.