New policy to declassify documents relating to military history: A welcome move

A much-awaited welcome decision on the declassification of documents pertaining to military operations of the Indian Armed Forces has been taken by the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Now the documents including war dairies could be made available to the scholars of military history and general public interested in the subject earlier than 25 years. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has approved the policy on archiving, declassification and compilation or publication of war or operations histories by the Ministry of Defence.

While the new policy is for internal use only, certain aspects of operations can be made available to public. The publication of war histories was strongly supported by the Kargil Review Committee under Late Sri K. Subrahmanyam and the Group of Ministers formed in 2000 under Sri L K Advani. Subsequently, official accounts of the operations were published. Though the edited version of 1971 War published did not contain the intellectual analysis what the original group had wanted according to a top journalist cum military historian. This underlines the need for genuine editing of histories by a group of top military historians before publication.

The History Division of the Ministry of Defence would be responsible for coordinating while compiling, seeking approval and publishing official accounts of military operations and wars. The History Division has a long experience in preparing authentic official accounts that included the Second World War, J&K operations, Liberation of Goa, 1962, 1965, 1971 wars as also other operations. While some have been made available for the public, a few remain for internal use. Initially it was known as the Historical Section but later when operational account of 1971 War was taken, the History Division was created in early 1980s under Late Dr. S.N. Prasad, who had worked earlier as the Director of the Historical Section for a number of years and later as the Director of the National Archives. He formed a high-level team that included Service officers and scholars from Historical Section and universities/ research organisations. The History Division prepared official accounts of 1962, 1965 and 1971 Wars as also some other operations. Subsequently, the History Division was wound up and the Historical Section was renamed as the History Division.

A survey of history reveals that the written history of the world is largely the history of warfare. In recorded history, no profession is as ancient as the profession of soldiery. War is such a dominant feature of human history that most modern nation-states and the nation-state system itself came into existence either through or because of war. Wars are the permanent dimension of our evolution. Clausewitz’s famous Formula – “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means”- aptly explains it. While the Second World War bought the end of highly destructive violence for some time, it was followed by the Cold War with disastrous implications. In ‘On War’, Clausewitz perceives all wars as the sum of decisions, actions, and reactions in an uncertain and dangerous context, and also as a socio-political phenomenon. He also stressed the complex nature of war, which encompasses both the socio-political and the operational and stresses the primacy of state policy.

Given the role war and conflict has played and continues to play in modern human civilization, it is hard to understate the value of studying military history. While there are practical applications of studying wars and warfare such as understanding the fundamental principles of warfare, the value of joint operations, impact of technology and the new frontiers of wars like cyber space, the purpose of studying wars in wider context through the prism of history in the words of Sir Michael Howard is not to make us “make us cleverer for the next time,” but instead to help make manoeuvre leaders “wise forever.”

Hence, studying past battles and operations helps leaders both civil and military understand their responsibilities. Two examples of leaders who immensely learnt from the study of warfare are relevant. It is well-known that when George Washington of US was asked to take over command of the Continental Army, he did not have sufficient experience for the task but he made up through self-study in the art of general ship. Washington took his military education seriously, grasping every opportunity to increase his knowledge in the art of war and succeeded in achieving his objective.

Similarly, President Xi of China, though he is the only civilian in the Central Military Commission, his order of 4th January 2019, reflected his depth of understanding of complexities of the military operations and strategies. Xi made suggestions to his commanders to study the needs of the country and apply the principles within a particular operational scenario. His knowledge of principles of wars like ‘selection and maintenance of objective’, ‘offensive action’, ‘surprise’, ‘flexibility’, ‘concentration of force’ and ‘coordination’ etc. is simply remarkable. Xi has reorganised the PLA and introduced theatre command system in the PLA that significantly multiplied its capabilities. Notwithstanding the fact that his policies are causing problems for his neighbours and other powers, it cannot be denied that he has the ability to combine political, economic and military capabilities for the objectives he is trying to achieve.
This brings us to the conclusion that military history should be available in readable language for our policy makers, opinion shapers and common citizens so that the current challenges may be understood better the complexities of making of wars and the elements that are utilised by opposing parties during pre-war, during war and in post war periods and facilitate an informed debate.

One lacuna needs to be addressed immediately. While the History Division would play an important role in coordination and preparation of official accounts of operations, it needs to be significantly upgraded to attract talent and retain them. Currently even the head of the Division holds a fairly low position in the hierarchy in the government service. The positions here must be comparable with the rank and status of university professors. While Dr B Prasad held simultaneously the post of Professor of History in the Delhi University and as the head of the Division that prepared the History of the Second World War, his successors did not enjoy that status. The upgradation of all positions to the level of those in the universities is imperative. The head of the division should be at least at the level of Joint Secretary to the Govt of India, though it is desirable to have him in the rank of Special Secretary. Only then it can attract sufficiently qualified historian from the academic world. The Ministry of External Affairs had one time head of its History Division in that rank. Alongside, the system of having young scholars as Research Fellows to do Ph. D in military history should be given a greater push. Of late, this system is not working efficiently. The author of this article had a long association with the History Division starting as the Research Fellow and later serving in the History Division for writing official accounts of military operations.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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