Armed & Able

Written by Maroof Raza | Updated: Jun 28 2009, 07:08am hrs
Modern warfare, a subject of growing public interest even in India, is a complex affair. While Indias experience has been shaped by the fusion of indigenous imported military ideas, behind it lies a history that is fascinating that Kaushik Roy has researched thoroughly in his coffee table sized volume titled The Oxford Companion to Modern Warfare in India. This volume goes beyond cultural exotica and the historical debates of medieval India such as the caste system and looks instead at Indias military history and its evolution over 400 years, since 1600.

The debates on the evolution of warfare, which the author deliberates upon ranges from the European conquest of the Indian subcontinent (the author calls it South Asia, which as we know is more post colonial term), to current debate on the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). While the former helped in the military modernisation of Indias princely states and their military machines in an effort to resist the East India Company. The latter, evidently found support amongst Indias practitioners of warfare in India in the 18th century. But interestingly, Indian powers seemed to lack professional standing armies and were only able to indulge in disorganised skirmishes when one Indian state fought against other. Worse still, as William Irwin wrote in 1903 a natives army scarcely ever succeeded in taking a place, which attempted resistance: it was generally reduced to terms through the distress caused by the force lying around it.Pre-colonial Indian warfare was essentially a ritualised affair for taking trophies.

Moreover, there was no drill for Indian soldiers and no training in combined movement of any sort. But as individuals, each soldier paid the minutest attention to training his body and exercising himself with his weapons. Things are very different today, with professionalism almost an obsession.

But industrialisation in Europe brought with it technology that Indians had no answer to, for a long time. Moreover, 19th century Europe was gripped by militarisation fever by which military service was regarded as honourable and the maintenance of large armies as necessary. This led to several European military campaigns across Asia and Africa and eventually the British dominance of India was formalised after the 1857 Uprising. Part of the reason was that Indian rulers were unable to cope with the huge technological leaps that European nations and their armies brought to bare this included not just better handheld weaponry but the machine gun, the telegraph and the railways; all in all great force multipliers in those days. This book has great details of all that and more that make quasi-industrial warfare an important part of Indias history in the early 19th century. The chapters also cover the two world wars until Indias independence with political nuggets thrown in about the debate that led to the stand off between the Congress Party and the British Government before and after World War II.

However, from independence onwards, the author has clubbed Indias wars into two chapters: one on the return of limited war in the subcontinent, and the other on counter insurgency operations from the Raj to Swaraj. This makes sense considering the fact that the conventional wars that India has fought required a different approach from the unconventional counter insurgencies (or counter terrorism as is more the case now) operations.

Interestingly, the author has also dealt with the subject of naval warfare and its history from British days to the present, which is often overlooked in such writing. This is a matter that historians often tend to overlook but is crucial in understanding how the British retained the influence as a global power with India as a pivot for the British empire that stretches from Africa and the middle east to the Malayan Archipelago. More about the Indian Air Force would have been welcomed too.

The narrative, sometimes too detailed and tedious for a layman to follow, analyses the events that made up Indian history not just until independence to the post-independence era, until the recent Kargil conflict and events in Indias north east and Kashmir. The volume offers cross cultural investigation with well illustrated line drawings, maps, paintings photographs and supporting date.

The research at all stages has been enormous in the authors efforts to draw conclusions. This is reflected in the vast reading and footnotes that follow each chapter. This book is indeed a collectors item; but it is more likely that it will find a place in military libraries and not so much in the homes of individuals. But nevertheless it is strongly recommended as a welcome addition to the study of warfare in India.

The reviewer is an author, analyst and commentator on military affairs