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Little has changed in the mindset that keeps India’s contemporary history a secret

When histories are kept secret, not only are valuable lessons lost, they also create an environment when the wrong lessons are imbibed. The Indian military has always kept away from fully using special operations because of several historical reasons that remain buried.

ht view Updated: Jul 12, 2014 19:48 IST
Saikat Datta
Saikat Datta
Hindustan Times

“Are archival records are to be kept away from public gaze indefinitely. If the document pertains to internal security there may be some public interest served in keeping them a secret for some time. However, to keep these documents ‘top secret’ indefinitely may not be in larger public interest. Any Nation is entitled to learn from the mistakes of the past."

March 19, 2014
Arun Jaitley

As the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley was disappointed when the UPA government decided not to de-classify the Henderson Brooks report. A sharp and contemporary thinker, Mr. Jaitley understands the lessons of the past and the value of an open debate in forming current policy. A leak of the report by Australian journalist Neville Maxwell had given rise to a hope that India was finally ready to face the ghosts of its past and learn the terrible lessons of the ’62 conflict.

Last week, that hope was diminished when Mr. Jaitley, as the current defence minister, used the same arguments to keep the report classified. The deliberations and the advice rendered to Mr. Jaitley is not known to us, but it was proof that little had changed in cultural mindset that keeps India’s contemporary history secret from its citizens.

When histories are kept secret, not only are valuable lessons lost, they also create an environment when the wrong lessons are imbibed. The Indian military has always kept away from fully embracing its Special Forces or using special operations because of several historical reasons that remain buried.

Ever since independence, every Indian Army officer passing out of the military academy has to read Field Marshal William Slim’s account of the Burma campaign during the Second World War, ‘Defeat Into Victory'. Considered essential reading of great military leadership, it recounts how the Field Marshal took on an impossible task and turned an imminent defeat at the hands of the invading Japanese Imperial Army into an overwhelming victory.

Read:Henderson-Brooks report will remain top secret

However, most readers skip through the few unflattering references made to the Chindit operations in Burma, planned and executed by a British general whose legacy has been widely disputed for generations. Major General Orde Wingate was an odd man, understood by few, and yet worshipped fanatically by many who served with him. Fresh from his success in the British Mandate of Palestine, Wingate was flown into India to take on the might of the Japanese Imperial Army’s impending invasion.

Wingate planned to insert a small, secret band of guerillas into Japanese-occupied Burma and harass the enemy and bring their war machine to a grinding halt. For this, he was given nearly four brigades which were to be trained in central India and then inserted behind enemy lines to carry out spectacular raids and destroy Japanese preparations for their final push into India. Field Marshal Slim dismisses these operations very quickly in his memoirs, leaving Indian readers to assume that the Chindit operations were largely ineffective.

This version remain unchallenged for decades until a British historian, David Rooney, managed to access the declassified ‘Burma papers’ that gave a more frank assessment of the Chindit campaign. Rooney also accessed the interrogation reports of the Japanese Army Divisional commanders who had been captured by Field Marshal Slim’s army during the Burma campaign. Rooney’s discovery left him stunned.

In his book ‘Wingate and the Chindits, Rooney recounts how every captured Japanese divisional commander confessed that while they were prepared to launch a major offensive into British India at its most vulnerable hour, a mysterious force operating behind their lines began to make a significant impact. They had no clue about the size of the force, but a bulk of the Japanese army divisions poised to attack British India were diverted to hunt down this mysterious force. As a result, the planned assault was significantly delayed and gave Field Marshal the valuable time he needed to prepare his troops and take on the Japanese.

Rooney’s research also revealed why Slim’s chapters on the Chindit operations had changed so dramatically in his memoirs. Before sending his chapters to the publisher, Slim was sending them to Major General Stanley Woodburn Kirby, who had written the official history of the British military operations in South East Asia. Slim didn’t know that Kirby hated Wingate and was nursing an old grudge against him. For years, Wingate had several battles with Kirby over logistic support to the Chindits. Kirby nursed a grudge and was determined to wipe out Wingate’s legacy from the official history. His efforts were aided by the fact that Wingate would ride roughshod over his contemporaries and had very little patience with bureaucrats. When Slim sent his chapters to Kirby, he immediately re-wrote them to show that the Chindits had failed.

Kirby’s actions had an unintended effect on India’s young military leaders who continue to read a distorted view of the Chindit operations. What was never told to them was the fact that Wingate had helped another nation build its powerful military before he was posted to India. In the mid-1930s, as a young officer, Wingate befriended the Jewish leaders in Palestine and helped them build the Gideon Force. This force would be the nucleus of the Haganah, the Israeli para-military that would later on become the formidable Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

Wingate was also in the mould of another legendary British army officer, Captain David Stirling, who founded the British Special Forces, the SAS. In fact, when the SAS was all set to be disbanded after the Second World War, officers who had served in the Chindit operations took charge and battled the British bureaucracy to keep the SAS alive. This also ensured that Special Forces and special operations became an essential aspect achieving national strategic objectives. This also influenced the United States to evolve a robust strategy built around Special Forces that have produced spectacular successes over decades.

While India forgot its history, its neighbor, Pakistan remembered these lessons very well. Major General A O Mitha, who wrote about how the Pakistani Special Forces was born, maps the journey from the arrival of US Special Forces officers who helped them raise the SSG. Interestingly, right from 1947, when Pakistani tribesmen invaded Jammu & Kashmir, the Pakistani military establishment used the Chindit template to tie down a large and powerful neighbor like India. It kept repeating the same strategy in 1990 as well as in 1999 when intruders slipped into Kargil and surprised a clueless security establishment.

Ignoring history, they say, can condemn people to repeating it. Today, India is at a cusp when it needs to break from the mistakes of the past and embrace a new future. This can only happen when a new generation is exposed to the faults of the past so that they can chart a successful future. By denying them their history, the NDA government has fallen prey to the historical blunders of its predecessors.

(Views expressed by the author are personal)

First Published: Jul 12, 2014 19:35 IST