Recently, the Defence Minister made an announcement on archiving, declassifying and compiling war histories.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS ANNOUNCEMENT
- Largely conforming to global practices, the policy has the potential to kick-start multiple initiatives within the MoD and the three services.
- Also, the policy will offer researchers, analysts and historians an easy lens into studying military operations in the post-Independence period.
- Decisions to go to war and wage conflict in democracies are largely political decisions and it is important that such decisions are fused into compilations of war histories.
- The conversion of this policy into deliverables will be a tough and unglamorous grind. The four biggest challenges facing this initiative will be:
- the fusion of political directives and strategic decision making with the operational and tactical happenings on ground;
- compilation and reconciling and analysis of events at multiple levels (headquarters, commands and field formations);
- putting together a team of dedicated researchers and historians with a mix of academics and practitioners with access to records and files;
- putting together a concurrent oral history and digitisation of all archival compilations associated with this initiative.
THE RIGHT APPROACH IS NEEDED
- Present historical texts of Indian military are considered as safe histories that only scratch the surface of strategic decision making, operational analyses, leadership and lessons for the future.
- The reason for this is the absence of robust multi-disciplinary teams that are required to put together each such history and the desire to bring out non-controversial documents.
- Hence, a robust academic-cum-practitioner flavour accompanied by good and contemporary writing will lend weight to such histories.
- Unlike the Ministry of External Affairs which has stolen a march over other ministries in declassifying files, the three service headquarters and MoD have been slow in initiating this.
- Now, it is not only difficult to trace files from eras gone, it is also highly possible that in the absence of digital conversion, several priceless discussions have been destroyed in the periodic discarding of files.
- Even if such files are available, long hours have to be spent trying to identify elements that remain historically relevant.
- Though digitisation and creation of oral histories will form a critical component of this transformation, both of them are either unfolding at a snail’s pace or are absent in our existing official repositories of history at the service headquarters or war colleges.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?
- A software major must be roped- in for this transformation.
- Also an outreach must be made to individual historians, think tanks and global repositories to share their oral history collections on contemporary Indian military history.
- Considering the timeline of 25 years, a suggested list of declassifications to trigger this transformative initiative are the Nathu La skirmish of 1967, ‘The Lightning, Operation Meghdoot (Siachen), Exercise Brasstacks and its subsidiary operations, and Operation Falcon (Sumdorong Chu).
- In order to avoid the initiative being accused of only showcasing successes, Operation Pawan (Indian Peace Keeping Force; picture) too needs to be officially written, with due sensitivity.
- This transformation is necessary, as one of the hallmarks of a leading power/emerging power/power of consequence and a leading military is the ability to take criticism, tackle institutional reluctance to expose faultlines and push forward with reform with the big picture in mind.
History does not offer a blueprint for the future, but it is certainly instructive in building on successes and not repeating the follies of the past. That proposition must be the bedrock on which this initiative takes off.