One of the things that we lack as a people is a sense of history and more specifically of the campaigns that our armed forces have been involved in. And though there is much greater interest in matters military across India now, the lack of access for our public to Museums, etc (as also to those outside the active service fraternity) is quite annoying to those who wish to learn or to create greater awareness, like myself. And though our military has copied almost everything from the British – from ranks to regimentation – we have failed to learn how the Brits keep their military and its history in full public glare – from the Guards marching on the Mall leading to Buckingham palace in London to their vast number of museums – but still ensure their military gives no fear to politicians.
Let us take the case of London. It is a city strewn with fabulous museums of all sorts, and also on the British Armed Forces and the conflicts they were engaged in the world over such as, the impressive Imperial War Museum. This museum, where entry at least in the evening is free, has a superb collection of military material and records, mostly over the last 100 years – from the years preceding World War I to both the World Wars and until the current date – and these are not only divided into various sections such as the European Theatre between the World wars but also British Operations in the Middle East and beyond. In India on the other hand, many in our younger generations, know little even about our post-independence wars but for the Kargil conflict (perhaps as it was our first and only televised conflict), besides the fact that Indian troops made up the most significant contributions in World Wars I & II. In fact, historian and ex-army officer, Srinath Raghavan, calls World War-II, India’s war.
Some years ago, we saw a fabulous depiction of Indian effort in World War-I at an exhibition at the Manekshaw centre in Delhi. It was to mark the Great War’s centenary. But soon was shifted out of Delhi, to be housed in Mhow, I was told, to convert those already converted! And who else may I ask would view this display in Mhow? And even though many of our Regimental centres (specially of Infantry regiments) have impressive museums, I’m not sure if they allow school children and adults in the towns they are based, to make organised visits to them. If they don’t, they should. Even Washington, Paris and Moscow among many other cities, display the deeds of their soldiers. The Germans have gone a step further, by displaying the acts of Hitler and the Nazis in Berlin. It is done – despite the fact that they were Germans too – so that Germans don’t go on that path again.
With India’s armed forces having fought half a dozen wars since our independence, and battled several insurgencies within, plus their participation in operations in UN missions, there is a wealth of information that can be shared with our public, without compromising national security. It is this obsession with ‘security’ a byword for holding onto our narrative versus that of the other side, that hasn’t given our Ministry of Defence the moral courage to publish the history of India’s wars. We have one the most secretive systems, despite us boasting of being the largest democracy in the world. Even the Henderson Brooks Report, the essence of which is known to some of us, is kept a secret. It is time, we move out of our Cantonement mind set, and at least selectively show off the deeds of our glorious past. The Military Lit Fest in Chandigarh is a fine initiative – though too much has is clubbed into into its programme – and let’s hope there are more such events across India.