If wars are great levelers, recounting them is even more so. Historians in the subcontinent are realising this to their horror, the way controversy swirls around what was described as the Indian Army’s ‘historic’ victory at Laungewala, in 1971. The battle was fought between a small Indian force of around 100 men and a Pakistani brigade of 2,800 soldiers, supported by an armoured regiment of 45 tanks. Decades down the line, several men who took part in the fighting are questioning the veracity of its official interpretation. The most disquieting statements come from Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Atma Singh, who went on to win the Vir Chakra for his gallantry at Laungewala. As reported in this paper, the much-decorated war hero doesn’t believe that any ground battle was ever even fought at Laungewala. On the contrary, it turns out, the army merely carried out a simulated operation using a sand model — ostensibly ‘to cover up for its senior commanders’ incompetence’. With many retired generals vigorously disputing this, we may never really know what happened at Laungewala.
How a battle is fought seldom remains non-controversial, and wartime debates invariably influence the post-war memoirs of politicians and generals alike. With many key participants no longer around, accounts of battles sometimes become more strident — or sensational, as with Laungewala. This has happened many times in countries like the US, Russia and Britain after World War II, when access to most government files remained restricted under the so-called ‘Fifty Year Rule’. As a result, military historians were often forced to rely on controversial sources, which kicked up a lot of unwanted dust and debate. Newly declassified British intelligence documents, for instance, have revealed that the hijacking of an Israel-bound plane in 1976 by Palestinian militants was masterminded by Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency, to criminalise the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
But military authorities in India should be concerned that such intrigues like Laungewala reflect badly on the image of one of the most respected armed forces in the world. The best they can do about it is to make the country’s official war records accessible to the public to provide a more honest account of our military victories — and reverses.