The ’71 execution

Recent revelations about the destruction of the Indian Army’s records pertaining to the 1971 war are deeply disconcerting. The Army’s Eastern Command — the key operational formation involved in those momentous events — had apparently shredded the documentation pertaining to various aspects of the conflict. More troubling is the fact that the Army itself has remained somnolent for over 35 years, and has unearthed this decision quite recently. It is not yet clear who ordered this act of vandalism, and why. But the episode points to the Army’s anaemic attitude towards its own history.
Consider first the seriously flawed system of maintaining records and making them available to researchers. The ministry of defence (MoD) does have a historical section. But the process of transferring old files to the section from the divisions of the ministry and the services is halting and ill-defined. The situation with respect to the documents of various commands and operational units is worse still. There is no reason why most of these documents should be retained by any component of the military beyond a specified period. Documents pertaining to wars can easily be transferred out of the originating unit after a reasonably short span. This will, however, require a dedicated team of professionals at every level to regularly go through old files and declassify them. Neither the ministry nor any of the service headquarters — let alone individual formations — has any such working mechanism in place.
Further, the historical section is much too small to maintain this massive documentation in its custody. One of its main roles should be to ensure smooth and regular transfer of files to the National Archives of India. The norm in most democracies is to transfer most files that are nearly 30-years-old to the archives. In exceptional cases some documents are retained for another 10 years — no more. The transferred documents are then provided by the archives to scholars. In our case, however, few documents from the MoD or the services for the post-1947 years are available for consultation in the archives.
It is also worth noting that the existing system endangers the very existence of records. The requisite expertise for preservation of old documents is not available anywhere outside the National Archives. Records languishing in various departments and units are likely to perish with time. In an age where most countries have begun digitising their records, the ministry persists with its archaic archival policy. Even our own ministry of external affairs has started down this route. It is about time the MoD reviewed its practices.
At a deeper level, this mismanagement of records reflects the military’s lack of interest in its past. Take, for instance, the official histories of post-Independence wars waged by the armed forces. The only published histories are those of the 1947-48 operations in Kashmir; the operations against Hyderabad in 1948 and Goa in 1961. The history of the first Kashmir war was written but not published for many decades. The histories of the subsequent wars with Pakistan and China remain formally under the wraps. Fortunately, an enterprising newspaper leaked them into the public domain some years back. It is not clear whether histories of the intervention in Sri Lanka and the Kargil conflict have been prepared yet.
What is more, the official histories that have been written leave a great deal to be desired. They fall squarely within an older tradition of narrow, desiccated operational histories — devoid of a wider framework of political, economic and social aspects of the wars. This is the kind of history pioneered by the Prussian General Staff in the mid-19th century and culminating in hundreds of volumes of official histories produced by Britain and France after World War I. After World War II, though, the countries involved took a conscious decision to break out of the straitjacket of operational histories and look at the wider dimensions of the war. This also implied a decision to move away from “official” historians and bring in scholars from the academia. Some of the best volumes of the British official history were written by gifted historians such as Michael Howard and Betty Behrens. Similarly, the American naval history of the war was written by that brilliant maritime historian, Samuel Eliot Morison. The Germans produced 10 outstanding volumes with contributions from a set of first-rate historians. More recently, the British official history of the Falklands War was written by Lawrence Freedman, the leading historian of contemporary warfare. Against such standards, the Indian official histories barely get off the blocks.
This neglect of serious historical writing is complemented by whittling down of history in our military education system. The military looks at history as an academic encumbrance on the real business of soldiering. As taught in training establishments it is formulaic: “campaigns” are studied for the right “lessons”. The idea that history is more about training judgment than drawing lessons, about debates rather than dogma, is alien to our military education system. The texts and sources used would not make the cut in any half-way decent undergraduate reading list. Major advances in the study of military history over the last 50 years — such as the war and society approach, or the focus on individual combat experience — are blissfully bypassed. In any case, the officers spend rather little time on military history compared with other administrative and operational modules.
As a consequence, the Indian military is turning increasingly ahistorical. To be sure, books on military history by retired or serving officers routinely pour of the presses. But the quality of the bulk of these is a good index of the deplorable state of historical studies in the military. It is perhaps unsurprising that such an institution permitted large-scale destruction of records. But it should certainly be unacceptable. The MoD should look into the matter and make public all the facts. More importantly, the military should undertake a critical examination of its attitude towards history. This will be an essential prelude to any meaningful engagement with its own past.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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