Book Review: ‘India’s Battles from Kurukshetra to Balakot’

May 12, 2021 5:30 PM

Each battle comes alive as an individual story, complete with maps and pictures.

This book can be read at various levels, the first naturally being an account of the battles and the next more importantly is the thread that runs through these battles drawing out lessons which are relevant even today.This book can be read at various levels, the first naturally being an account of the battles and the next more importantly is the thread that runs through these battles drawing out lessons which are relevant even today.

By Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh (RETD)

Colonel Ajay Singh and his wife Monisha Naik Singh have written what can be considered as the most comprehensive account of India’s Battles covering 42 of India’s most significant battles over five thousand years right from the epic battle at Kurukshetra to Balakot in 2019. Each battle comes alive as an individual story, complete with maps and pictures.

This book can be read at various levels, the first naturally being an account of the battles and the next more importantly is the thread that runs through these battles drawing out lessons which are relevant even today. That will help in understanding both the character and nature of conflict and provide guidance for the future.

Ajay makes it clear in the preface itself, “Indian warriors were invariably skilful and individually very brave and courageous. But military leaders neglected the organisational structure of their armies. They did not adapt to new concepts of warfare and often remained rooted in the past. Nor did they embrace technology…. They were always too busy battling each other instead of an outsider. And that was the cause of their defeat and for the centuries of subjugation that followed.”

Most of the battles described in the book give out one singular message: victory favours the one who employs mobility in warfare and innovates concepts. That was the secret behind the successes of Indian armed forces in the post -independence era. Employment of tanks at Zoji-la in 1948, the swift move towards Dhaka – correctly identified as the centre of gravity – using airborne troops – and recently in the surgical strike at Balakot—all contributed to victory after victory.

In Kurukshetra, the two supreme commanders met and framed “rules of ethical conduct”, ‘Dharmayuddha’, for an eighteen day war of great death and destruction. Yet, all the participants broke the rules of dharma, and twisted it to suit their ends. However the “the concept of dharma and of fighting only righteous wars” remained in the Indian psyche for centuries thereafter.

Alexander faced his most formidable foe Porus in 326 BC, the first recorded fight between an Indian ruler and foreign invader. The book talks about a dangerous gamble that Alexander took by crossing the Jhelum River at Adnana. Yet, he brings out the Indians actually broke the formidable Greek phalanx and fought them to a standstill. The Greeks recorded them as ‘the most courageous foe that we have faced’.

The defeat at Tarain in 1192, regarded as the ‘turning point in Indian history’ took place, because Prithviraj Chauhan became so overconfident after his victory in the first battle. Just a year later, the Rajputs were simply swamped by fast moving fire and manouvre. They were still rooted in the conventional concepts and India paid a terrible price for that.

Babur too used manouvre and the technology of gunpowder to carve a 300 year empire. In six hours of battle he defeated Ibrahim Lodhis’s vast force at Panipat and established Mughal rule in India. Even more significant was the defeat of the Rajput confederacy under Rana Sanga, in 1527. Mughal cannons and mortars countered Rajput charge “with a storm of fire that valour and individual skill could do little against”. The Rajput’s continued to hold on to their kingdoms but could never present a unified front again.

Turning points also play a great part in the outcome of a battle; in the Second ‘Battle of Panipat’ in 1556, Hemu’s army was “on the cusp of victory” when an arrow hit him in the eye, leading to panic in the leaderless army. An arrow changed the course of the history. The sudden rainfall during the Battle of Palashi in June 1757, wet the gunpowder of Siraj-ud-Daulah’s guns (which were not covered by tarpaulins) and rendered them ineffective, led to a stunning British victory. The role of weather in battles provides important lessons which were not lost on Field Marshal Manekshaw when he rightly chose to launch the offensive into East Pakistan after the monsoons in 1971.

Treachery is another aspect which has been highlighted. In 1565 the ‘Battle of Talikota’ on the Krishna river , brought down Hindu rule in South India, the betrayal by the Gilani brothers Noor Khan and Bijli Khan cost Rama Raya of Vijayanagara his kingdom against the Deccan Sultanates. This was repeated by Khalil Ullah Khan a trusted general of Dara in “Samugarh” in 1658, resulting in Aurungzeb ascending the throne and unleashing a wave of bigotry and divide in society which exists even today. In ‘Palashi’ the traitor was Mir Jaffer, in the ‘Third Battle of Panipat’; the Holkars and Scindias “melted away from the battlefield”. Mir Sadiq, Tipu Sultan’s Chief Minister was in communication with the British in 1799 and in the “Anglo Sikh Wars’ in 1846 it was Lal Singh and Tej Singh two trusted generals of Rani Jindan who conspired to defeat the Sikh Army. The weakness within has always been exploited by the adversary with devastating consequences.

The Battle of Haldighati in 1576; stands out as a tale of valour is an interesting study. Why Rana Pratap chose to leave the strong defensive positions of Haldighati to fight in the plains has yet to find a satisfactory answer. The bravery of Rana Pratap and his exploits on Chetak are now folklore. But who really won? Tactically Rana Pratap had lost but Akbar was unable to achieve any of his strategic goals. His guerrilla war continued till his death in1597- “unbowed and undefeated”.

Use of an unexpected approach always reaps rich dividends. This has been demonstrated during the capture of Sinhgarh Fort in 1670 by Tanaji and his troops. They scaled the walls from the unexpected Dongri Cliff and captured the fort. Many years later in 1965, Major Ranjit Singh Dayal would do the same in the audacious capture Haji Pir Pass and in 1987 Naib Subedar Bana Singh would scale a vertical ice wall to capture the impregnable Quaid post in Siachen at a height of 21,153 feet, “the highest spot in the world to have seen combat.”

Manoeuvre Warfare enabled the Marathas under Peshwa Baji Rao I to overcome an enemy much greater in size through a series of manoeuvres. The Marathas travelled light, with no excess baggage whatsoever. It was ironic that they would forget these very tenants of mobility and speed, which contributed to their defeat at Panipat in 1761.

‘Unrestricted Warfare’ a book by two Chinese Colonels; ‘where there are no rules and nothing is forbidden ‘sums up the years of British rule. They entered by sea, posed as traders, refused to pay taxes, got troops of a Company to protect their factories and then plundered and ruled India by treachery , deceit, loot, exploitation, induced famines and left after dividing it. Ajay has covered some of their major battles; Palashi, Buxar in 1763, Srirangapatnam, Bhima Koregaon in 1888, Anglo- Sikh Wars 1846 and The First War of Independence in 1857.

In Saragarhi in 1897, 36 SIKH, in collective valour against impossible odds every man met his death and the last cries heard were ‘bole so nihal’. In 1947, 1 SIKH under Col Ranjit Rai, shaped the map of India and his gallant leadership prevented the fall of Srinagar. The valiant stand and bravery of Major Somnath Sharma of 4 KUMAON at Badgam and Major Shaitan Singh of 13 KUMAON at Rezeng La in 1962 again illustrated the ethos of ‘fighting till the last man and last round’.

The first use of all three mediums; land, sea and air was in the ‘Liberation of Goa’ in 1961.But this easy victory gave India an ‘ inflated sense of its capabilities’ and we suffered a humiliating defeat in 1962 against the Chinese. Even in our darkest hour individual bravery and determination against insurmountable odds stood out while the blame lay at higher leadership.

1965, saw the Pakistani offensive coming to a grinding halt after the resolute defence at Asal Uttar and also witnessed the largest tank battle after World War II, when the First Armoured Division under General Sparrow advanced towards Shakargarh. “However, in spite of this titanic clash neither side could attain its aim”. The book lays great emphasis on the 1971 War – covering not only the overall War, but also individual actions like Longewal, Basantar, Garibpur, the naval raid on Karachi and the Air War. It was a complete victory with perfect synergy between all three Services which was perhaps the watershed moment of Indian history.

The book brings out the premise that “Those who do not learn from the lessons of History are condemned to relive it.” And with reason. The divisiveness that led to centuries of subjugation, should not be allowed to creep up again. We must learn from the lessons of history and not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Well written, and researched, ‘India’s Battlefields’ is an excellent book which whets the appetite for detailed study of these battles. It’s readable, educative and interesting. The viewing of the battles through an Indian perspective – is what gives them a different outlook. He is scathing in criticism and warm in praise and still brings out the battle in an objective and unbiased manner. Clearly national security is of vital importance, the whole of nations approach is the only path to be taken for the future.

(The reviewer is Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Email:

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