Forces of history

The Armed Forces in India continue to show a reluctance to declassify official army histories, writes ex-soldier Sushant Singh in Mission Overseas


There needs to be both institutional willingness and political pressure on the armed forces. Photo: AP
There needs to be both institutional willingness and political pressure on the armed forces. Photo: AP

One of the historian’s many jobs is to find patterns in the ebb and flow of human affairs. These patterns are useful and illuminating. But also ridiculously easy to knock together depending on your political persuasion. And therefore always best treated with some scepticism.

As I hope you will when I say that there are some interesting patterns in the way many Donald Trump voters in the US, many Brexit voters in the UK and many Bharatiya Janata Party voters in India regard various institutions in their democracy. In all three cases, there appears to be a great yearning for disintermediation: for leaders to communicate and legislate without intermediaries of various kinds diluting their vision.

So in the US, and to a lesser extent in India, there is great distrust in mainstream media. And in both cases, heads of state/government have taken to communicating directly through social media and other means, bypassing conventional channels. Similarly, in India and in the UK, there is tremendous impatience with some or all of the bureaucracy. And finally, in all three countries there is widespread derision for an entire section of society: “experts”, “intellectuals”, “academia”. In general these institutions are seen to represent bias, opacity, and vested interests.

An equally interesting pattern, almost a corollary to the ones mentioned above, is in the one institution that enjoys widespread support among these same voters in at least two of the three countries: the military.

Both Trump and Narendra Modi, and their respective supporters, appear to be ardent, vocal fans of the men and women in uniform (other people are too, of course). As we see on Indian social media, in almost six-monthly cycles of nastiness, trolling and abuse, criticism of the Armed Forces is not something that lends itself to much civilized discussion. All this usually does is end in television news debates that make me want to rip my TV off the wall and mercy-kill it with a claw hammer before setting fire to the remains and myself.

This adoration of the forces, especially when set next to the institutions listed above, is somewhat incongruent. The Armed Forces are almost always more opaque than the bureaucracy, the media and academia. They are generally less susceptible to civilian oversight or intervention. And much of this opacity is codified, either formally or informally, in the vast array of powers granted to the forces. Some of this, of course, is justified for reasons of national security.

But a lot of it is not. As Sushant Singh, an ex-soldier and editor with The Indian Express, writes in Mission Overseas, the Armed Forces in India continue to show a reluctance to declassify official army histories. Singh’s excellent new book, which released on 1 March, tells the stories of three major Indian Army operations overseas: the triumphant Operation Cactus in Maldives in 1988, the disastrous Operation Pawan in Jaffna in 1987, and the much more recent Operation Khukri in Sierra Leone from 2000.

In each case, Singh told me on the phone earlier this week, official army histories have not been declassified. Not even serving soldiers, he told me, could access those documents. Instead, Singh painstakingly put together narratives of those operations through dozens of interviews with the soldiers involved in these three missions.

The stories, the broad contours of which are well known to the public, come alive in minute detail in Singh’s compact but powerful telling (the book will take you no more than an evening to read). If the daring operation in the Maldives to stave off a coup is the stuff of matinee blockbusters, the disaster in Jaffna—a cascade of bad decisions, bad luck and bad leadership—is alternatingly infuriating and heartbreaking. Several civilians, including a small child, are mowed down in the course of hostilities between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). I had to put the book down for several minutes as the scene played over and over again in my head.

But these are stories that need to be told, warts and all. Singh has an interesting question: “Why did it take so many years for someone to write this?”

Why indeed. Why is there a culture of secrecy? In some cases, Singh said, this culture is borne out of irrational fears. Fears of giving away information and, at least in the case of the IPKF, fear of admitting that mistakes were made. “That history is probably quite dark,” Singh told me. But what about the Maldives operation? Surely there is nothing sensitive or negative about that? Maybe nobody cares to writes its history, Singh reckons. In the case of other histories, such as that of the Kargil war, or the Henderson-Brooks report that successive governments have kept under wraps, Singh thinks there may be several operational details that are still relevant today.

Regardless, there needs to be both institutional willingness and political pressure on the forces, Singh says, to get over these fears. Singh’s book, one hopes, will be a key step towards this change.

There is no doubt that our soldiers carry out very important work in unfathomably difficult situations at great peril to life and limb. Singh’s book makes this clear. It is for this very reason that their institutions must also work with as much transparency and openness to criticism as possible. The republic trusts the military to guard its welfare. This feeling must be mutual.

(Disclaimer: This writer has also recently published a book with Singh’s publishers, Juggernaut Books. That relationship has not influenced this column.)

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview.

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