The bane of Indian authors writing on military and strategic affairs has been lack of research, bias and the habit of shying away from discussing uncomfortable questions regarding the failures of the government and the armed forces. Neo–nationalism and deification of the armed forces have led to critics being branded as anti-national. The fact that the majority of our think tanks are funded or sponsored by the government further compounds the problem. Most veteran military historians and analysts also get swayed by regimental and organisational loyalties and justification of their own conduct. Barring a few exceptions, all seminal writings on Indian strategic and military affairs are by foreign scholars.
Seen in light of this, India’s one-of-its-kind Military Literature Festival, the third edition of which was recently held in Chandigarh, is a welcome event. The presence of a fair number of independent scholars, both foreign and Indian, at the festival made the panel discussions a delight for the discerning audience. It was a rational give and take. We got to hear well–researched arguments that questioned the prevailing myths and narratives on past and current strategic/military subjects popular in India. The well–informed audience did not shy away from putting questions before the panellists and the moderators did a commendable job. This was the biggest takeaway from the festival.
The third edition of the Military Literature Festival, held from 13 to 15 December, was a resounding success on account of meticulous organisation, military pageantry and the intellectual fare it provided on strategic and military affairs. Organised jointly by the Punjab government, the Chandigarh administration and Western Command Headquarters, the Military Literature Festival is unmatched in scale by the few similar festivals held around the world. The combined footfall of 50,000 on the final day of the festival gives an idea of its increasing popularity.
The idea of the festival took shape on 8 April 2017 during the launch of Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s latest book – Saragarhi and the Defence of the Samana Forts: The 36th Sikhs in the Tirah Campaign 1897-98. Punjab governor V.P. Singh Badnore, noting the high presence of military veterans, talked about the need of holding a benchmark military event in Chandigarh. He floated the idea of a Military Literature Festival to be held annually in Chandigarh to motivate the youth and bring about public awareness on strategic and military matters. Capt Amrinder Singh, readily agreed, announcing the first edition of the festival that year itself – on Infantry Day, 27 October – the day 1 Sikh landed at Srinagar in 1947 to save the Valley.
A number of events were held this year as a prelude to the main Military Literature Festival. These included ‘shotgun shooting’ competition, marathon, golf tournament, archery competition, bird watching workshop and a military carnival. The main literature festival included 22 panel discussions on strategic/military affairs, 20 book launches/discussions, 48 motivational talks by decorated serving and veteran military personnel, 38 audiovisual presentations/documentaries, photo/military memorabilia exhibitions, and displaying of military equipment.
Organising committee chairman Lt Gen T.S. Shergill; festival director Mandeep Singh Bajwa; and coordinator Major R.S. Virk deserve full credit for the successful organisation of this benchmark event.
More festivals, run by autonomous bodies
Governments come and governments go, and so do the governors. It would be prudent for governor Badnore, CM Amarinder Singh and GOC in Western Command Lt Gen Ravendra Pal Singh to ensure that in future, the Military Literature Festival is run by an autonomous body of intellectuals with corpus fund created from public/corporate donations. This would ensure that the festival retains its intellectual independence and never falls prey to government interference, which compromises intellectual freedom.
The dividends of a festival are contingent on the quality of the panellists and moderators. Any compromise in this regard defeats the very purpose of a festival. There is certainly scope for improvement in this regard. I would also recommend more discussions on national security and reforms in the armed forces.
For posterity and research, the event report of the festival must be put up on the website, giving full details of the discussions held. Otherwise, the phenomenal effort will remain a one-time annual gala event.
One would like to see more such military festivals take place in India. The corporate world should come forward to donate generously to facilitate corpus–based autonomous military literary festivals. The armed forces, too, must become associated with these festivals without compromising security. This will go a long way in promoting an intellectual understanding of strategic and military affairs in India, which, at present, is driven by rhetoric and mediocracy.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.