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MoD’s History Division should stick to archiving facts and data. Leave history to historians

History shows militaries are guilty of not honestly recording accounts of wars/operations. India’s armed forces are no exception.

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In a welcome move, the Indian Army commenced work on two projects to archive historical military records and write its military history. The projects have been initiated by the Army Training Command with the Mhow-based Army War College acting as the nodal agency and India’s oldest military think tank, the United Services Institute, providing expert support for research work.

Quoting government sources, News18 reported that the first project to digitise and archive both unclassified and declassified historical military records began in May this year and is scheduled to be completed by April next year. The second project, writing the military history of the Army and designing a web page for it, is currently underway and is likely to be completed by the “end of this month”. In my view, the term ‘military history’ has been loosely used in the second project. The Army is probably making a website with declassified military documents/accounts related to its operations/wars and lessons learnt, which, by no yardstick, qualifies to be called military history.

The responsibility for writing official military history lies with the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which issued a new policy in June 2021 on archiving, declassification, compilation and publication of war histories. The new projects of the Army seem to be under the framework of this policy. Similar projects are probably being undertaken by the other two services—Air Force and Navy—and other ministries that contribute toward India’s war effort.

It is heartening to note that the MoD has adopted a formalised approach to maintaining military archives and writing military history. I examine the new policy against the backdrop of our poor track record and recommend measures to improve our approach to writing authentic military history.

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Policy on writing military history

The defence ministry’s new policy is not in the public domain. As per the PIB press release, the policy encompasses archiving, declassification and compilation/publication of war/operations histories. It envisages that all organisations under the MoD will transfer their records, “including war diaries, letters of proceedings and operational record books” to the History Division of the ministry for proper upkeep, archiving and writing of military history. These records would be vetted by the organisations to ascertain if they were fit for declassification.

The History Division would use these declassified records to publish authoritative compilations and war histories. This process would be done in a time-bound manner – five years after the completion of war/operations. The policy mandates the constitution of a committee headed by the MoD Joint Secretary and comprising representatives of the Services, MEA, MHA and other organisations and prominent military historians (if required), for compilation of war/ operations histories.

Also read: Govt and military owe India an authentic history of the 1971 Bangladesh War. Rest is mythology

What the new policy means

The MoD has always had a comprehensive policy on maintaining military historical records and publishing official military histories. The History Division of the MoD, established in 1953, functioned under Joint Secretary (Training) and was responsible for the execution of the policy. It received records from the Ministry of Defence and the three Services, including war diaries of units/formations and after-action reports, on a regular basis for preservation and use. Over the years

Only 20 historical accounts have been formally published. Apart from the 1947-48 Jammu and Kashmir Operations, Operation Polo – the liberation of Hyderabad, Operation Vijay – the liberation of Goa, Indian armed forces in UN Operations in Congo (1960-63), and Indian Custodian Force in Korea in 1953-4, no official war histories have been published. Histories of 1962, 1965, and 1971 Wars were written, but got mired in security and diplomatic controversies and have been published by former officials of the History Division as unofficial military histories.

The division’s work is contingent upon the declassified records it receives from the MoD and the Services. The Public Records Act 1993 and Public Records Rules 1997 have a well-established procedure for reviewing classified documents every five years and transferring them to the National Archives after 25 years. However, the act and the rules have not kept pace with the volume of work in the digital era. And the obsession with security based on the archaic Official Secrets Act of 1923 further compounds the problem. Consequently, very few documents are declassified and sent to the History Division and the National Archives for research. The new policy has emphasised but not adequately addressed the issue of declassification of records.

The new policy repeatedly emphasises the compilation of military history by the History Division. This is a fundamental flaw. Military history is not a mere compilation of facts gleaned from documents related to war/operations, it is a deeper analysis of political, social, and military conduct of a nation in times of war or crisis. There is no dearth of facts. It is the sifting, interpretation and analysis of the facts through expert research that lead to objective military history.

The current permanent staff of six scholars and three research assistants can only undertake compilation of facts and no more. As a result, all official/unofficial accounts published so far are mere compilations of facts and not really military histories. There is a need for the MoD to make a distinction between the compilation of facts and writing of military history. Compilation must be left to the History Division and professional military historians must be employed for writing the history part. This task can also be given to universities.

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The problem with our military records

History shows that militaries are guilty of not honestly recording accounts of wars/operations. Our armed forces are no exception. Unit/formation war diaries and after-action reports are doctored to safeguard/enhance regimental reputation and earn more rewards. Even “lessons learnt” are doctored to justify failures. Intensity of combat is exaggerated even when the mission is accomplished at minimal cost, which is the acme of military skill. Due to modern technology, individual gallantry has become rare in battle, but the criterion of gallantry awards is contingent on the same. Hence, units write an imaginary account, which rather than being critically evaluated by higher headquarters, is willingly endorsed for the glory of the formation s or reputation of commanders.

At the highest level, governments and the military are paranoid about failures and being held accountable for them. Military successes are exaggerated for political advantage too. Consequently, in any war/crisis, there is cooperative silence, obfuscation, bluff and bluster. No formal political directives are issued to the armed forces. Under the cover of security, ever higher headquarters have stopped issuing formal operation orders.

A military historian has to sift through exaggeration, distortion, and coverups to arrive at objective conclusions.

Also read: ‘Indians never invaded’ is a myth. Guptas, Cholas, Lalitaditya Muktapida were conquerors

Way forward

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has done well to issue a new policy on writing of war histories. There is a need to review the classification and declassification procedures in the armed forces to ensure that data is available for research and writing of military history.

The organisation and functioning of the History Division must be overhauled. A distinction must be made between compilation of facts/data and writing of military history. The former is merely a tool for the latter. It may be prudent to restrict the functions of the History Division to archiving and compilation of facts and data. A military history board should be set up at the National Defence University. Eminent military historians must be hired to write the history.

Last but not the least, unless the politico-military culture of building false narratives to exaggerate minor successes and cover-up failures changes, India will remain saddled with a glorified but distorted version of its military history.

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. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.

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