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Publishing Official Military Histories

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • October 16, 2015

    This commentary seeks to bring to attention a peculiar and undesirable practice being adopted by the Ministry of Defence in the writing and publication of official war histories.

    Offices of government are created not to satisfy the whims of bureaucracy but to fulfill official requirements. The Indian defence establishment has one of the oldest history divisions in any ministry of the Government of India. The reason is simple. It has long been known that the armed forces have a closer and stronger relationship with history than almost any other state institution. Not only do military institutions use history as a means of building up morale and esprit de corps, it is also commonly used as a tool for instruction and analyses to educate officers in the intricacies of their profession.

    The paradigm of official military history has shifted considerably since the days when its objectives and methodology were mainly geared to meet the needs of the General Staff and its outlook was primarily focused on the didactic study of military operations with a view to facilitate future staff planning. It is now recognised that the complexity of history demands not merely portrayal of events, but also analyses, often employing a multi-disciplinary approach to construct a narrative that caters to a broad readership spectrum. An official history also provides a rationale for the use of state power in defence or offence. It is for this very reason that official war histories are written by professional historians at the behest of the government. The intent is to present an official account of the state’s involvement in a conflict in which it was engaged. The military is normally, and quite naturally, the largest client and most concerned party in any such official narrative dealing with a war history. However, the skewed higher defence organisation in India ensures that the Service Headquarters remain peripheral to the outcome of these endeavours and have very little say in determining when the histories will either be written or published.

    In India the task of compiling official war histories is assigned to the History Division (HD) of the Ministry of Defence (MOD). The HD came into existence in October 1953. It was established, in its own words, “to compile the histories of the military operations conducted by the Indian Armed Forces since the (sic) independence.”1 Till now, it has compiled and published 20 volumes like Operation Polo – The Police Action Against Hyderabad, 1948; Operation Vijay – The Liberation of Goa and other Portuguese Colonies in India, 1961; The Congo Operation, 1960-63; History of Operations in Jammu & Kashmir 1947-48; Military Costumes of India; Stories of Heroism, etc.2 This information is contained in the official MoD website, in the section where it elaborates on the functions of the HD. However, the website fails to note that the latest books in the HD’s impressive range of publications are not accorded the status of “official” histories.

    In a commentary published in this forum in July 2011, Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar had made a strong case for the publication of official war histories by the Government of India.3 He observed that despite being “works undertaken by historians at the instance of the History Division of the Ministry of Defence, Government of India, sections of the civilian bureaucracy continue to obstruct publication of these documents.” Further, the publication of war histories, recommended by both the Kargil Review Committee and the Group of Ministers Report, had been held up due to lethargy and bureaucratic indifference. Nambiar was eminently qualified to make these observations, having been a part of the Vohra Committee constituted by the MoD to look into the publication of official war histories.4

    Since the time Nambiar’s commentary was published, the HD has indeed published two histories dealing with the India-Pakistan Wars of 1965 and 1971. The writing and publication of these two books – S.N. Prasad (Chief Editor) and U.P. Thapliyal (General Editor), The India-Pakistan War of 1965: A History (New Delhi: Natraj Publishers, 2011) and The India-Pakistan War of 1971: A History (New Delhi: Natraj Publishers, 2014) have been sponsored by the MoD as acknowledged by the general editor in his introduction to each of the volumes. Should there be any doubt about the pedigree or ownership of these volumes, the publisher’s page of each states that the books have been published “on behalf of Ministry of Defence, Government of India”. It also indicates that the copyright is vested with the “Ministry of Defence, Government of India”.

    However, in a significant departure from earlier practice, neither of these books bears the familiar header Armed Forces of the Indian Union5 or the footer Historical Section/History Division, Ministry of Defence on the cover/title page. Whereas earlier histories carried the Ashoka emblem to signify their official status, this is also prominently missing from the new publications. The list of official publications was earlier to be found printed on the dust jacket under the heading Official History of the Armed Forces of the Indian Union – Post-Partition Series. This has now been changed to Other Publications of the Ministry of Defence, Government of India. All these changes would appear to point to a deliberate attempt to disassociate the volumes from any ‘official’ tag. Why this should be so is inexplicable unless seen in the context of the initial inordinate delay in publishing these volumes in the first place.

    This delay has never been satisfactorily explained but can only point towards an attitudinal deficiency, which prevents the nation from having its own official account and explanation of the very important conflicts it has engaged in since independence. This attitude is manifest in the lack of transparency and flow of information into the public domain through timely declassification and transfer of official records to the National Archives, despite being a statutory requirement under the Public Records Act 1993. As a consequence, India has a huge human resource deficit in terms of scholars who engage with military subjects. We have to rely more often than not on foreign scholars who have better academic grounding in the study of military affairs. Such a state of affairs is deplorable in a democracy. The efforts to officially publish unofficial histories must be seen in this context and the practice must not be allowed to take root as it amounts to an obfuscation of history. The country and the armed forces deserve better.

    A positive outcome of these recently published ‘unofficial’ histories of the 1965 and 1971 Wars has been the resultant official declassification of records pertaining to these conflicts. These records, maintained by the History Division, were declassified in January 2005 and “These records are now available in the History Division for consultations”.6 It implies that for the first time scholars in Indian Universities can now pursue research and doctoral work on modern India’s military history. The lack of primary source material has been one of the major obstacles faced by historians and other academics who wish to work on various aspects of the history or sociology of the Indian armed forces.

    We recommend that the histories of the 1965 and 1971 wars be revised, updated and reprinted as proper official versions with the correct title and logo. In addition, two other issues require serious policy consideration.

    The historical recording of events, its communication and its archival storage must be made more thorough. The destruction, wilful or otherwise, of records in the past, has resulted in major gaps in our understanding of the historical processes involved in important military events. For example, Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar has mentioned that the documents pertaining to the 1971 operations at Headquarters Eastern Command had been destroyed.7 A rigorous military record management policy needs to be formulated and implemented to ensure that the nation does not lose large quantities of its military records through ignorance or apathy.

    Unfortunately, the statute that governs the transfer of records to the public domain, the Public Records Act 1993, is in serious need of revision. Owing to the failure of most governmental agencies to implement the provisions of this Act, the transfer of records to the National Archives by the various record creating agencies of government has been far from satisfactory. This has led to unnecessary reliance by the public on the Right to Information Act 2005 (RTI) as a means of acquiring information from official bodies. That, in turn, places an uncalled for burden on government departments, which would not be necessary if they only adhered to the statutory requirements enjoined upon them under the 1993 Act.

    A major impediment to the transfer process in the Ministry of Defence and its Integrated Service Headquarters has been the colonial-era Official Secrets Act 1923, as many records remain classified and locked away long after the relevance of the original classification has faded away.

    In cognizance of the problem, attempts are being made to effect a review of the Public Records Act by the Ministry of Culture. These are, however, unlikely to be effective unless accompanied by a systemic change in government offices. The official attitude, which often displays a contemptuous disregard for public opinion, is exemplified by the response of the Ministry of Defence and Army Headquarters to an RTI petition filed by the veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar requesting access to the much politicised Henderson-Brooks report on the military failings of the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. The response by Colonel Raj Shukla, Director in the Military Operations Directorate, stated that the report “was a part of internal review conducted on the orders of the then Chief of Army Staff Gen. Choudhary. Reports of internal review are not even submitted to Govt. let alone placed in the public domain. Disclosure of this information will amount to disclosure of the army’s operational strategy in the North-East.” That a report dealing with the greatest military setback the country has ever faced should be labelled an “internal review” not open to scrutiny shows a near-unbelievable lack of accountability and arrogance.

    Finally, other official war histories such as those pertaining to the history of the Indian National Army, written many decades ago, but inexplicably still not published, the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, written in 1992, along with the history of more recent operations in Kargil, Siachen and the IPKF, should now be released after incorporating a peer review process to ensure historical authenticity. A leaked draft of the ‘Restricted’ version of the 1962 history has been available on the internet for over a decade.

    If we are to prevent hagiography and myth from usurping the place of history, as a recent commentator on the compilation of the official histories has pointed out,8 it is incumbent upon scholars, think tanks and research institutions to continue to bring pressure to bear upon record creating agencies of the government to act in a responsible manner to fulfil their statutory obligations under the Public Records Act and ensure timely declassification and transfer of records into the public domain.

    Col. (Retd.) P.K. Gautam is Research Fellow at IDSA. Sqn. Ldr. (Retd.) R.T.S. Chhina is Secretary, Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research, USI of India.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. http://mod.nic.in/forms/List.aspx?lid=1601&Id=61, accessed 2 May 2015.
    • 2. Ibid.
    • 3. Satish Nambiar, The Need for Declassification of War Histories and other Documents, 6 July 2011, accessed on 02 May 2015.
    • 4. Others have also similarly commented upon the sorry state of affairs concerning the recording of official military history. See Maj. Gen. V.K. Singh, “An Elegy for India’s Military History,” Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXLI, No. 585, July-September 2011, http://bit.ly/1GGE684, accessed on 11 October 2015.
    • 5. This was the HD’s new series of official histories, which commenced with Operation Polo: The Police Action against Hyderabad 1948 published in 1972 and under which it was intended to cover all subsequent military operations undertaken by the armed forces since independence.
    • 6. S.N. Prasad and U.P. Thapliyal, The India-Pakistan War of 1971: A History (New Delhi: Natraj Publishers, 2014), p. xx.
    • 7. Nambiar, The Need for Declassification of War Histories and other Documents, op. cit.
    • 8. See S. Kalyanaraman, “The Context of the Cease-Fire Decision in the 1965 India-Pakistan War,” IDSA Special Feature, http://bit.ly/1Pfjzj8, accessed 25 September 2015.
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