Humility has to be the hallmark of any commemoration – not just in the face of the extraordinary sacrifices made by soldiers and citizens, but also of our always imperfect understanding of the past
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the India-Pakistan war of 1965. Fought in the middle of a period bookended by the humiliating defeat against China in 1962 and decisive victory against Pakistan in 1971, the 1965 war has had little resonance in our collective memory or written history. It is interesting, therefore, that the government has announced almost a month-long “commemoration and celebration” of the war, starting on 28 August. A series of events have been planned: conferences and seminars, an exhibition, and a “victory carnival” – in official usage – on 20 September.
These plans have drawn criticism on several counts. For one thing, it has been pointed out that the 1965 war was not really a “victory”. The current scholarly consensus is that the war was a stalemate, owing considerably to shortcomings at various levels on the Indian side. Even the Official History published by the Ministry of Defence a couple of years ago arrives at this conclusion. For another, none of the wars fought by India—including the Bangladesh war of 1971—has ever been commemorated on such a scale. The choice of 1965, it has been argued, seems motivated by political considerations—a desire to co-opt another leading Congress figure who did not belong to the Nehru-Gandhi family. For a third, there are concerns about the idea of “celebration” as well as commemoration. Is there a danger of creeping jingoism?
These arguments are well taken, but they are not unassailable. Historical consensus on any subject is open to challenge and revision based on new sources, arguments and perspectives. There is no reason to believe that the verdict of stalemate can never be overturned. By the same token, however, there is little reason for any of us to swallow the claim that this was a “grand victory”. The causes, conduct and consequences of the war must be revisited—not least because of the paucity of good scholarly work on this subject. And the passage of five decades can open up a range of new questions on and approaches to the war. Beyond seminars and workshops involving experts, this anniversary could also be used to begin a wider public debate on the various controversial aspects of this conflict.
Similarly, the fact that we have never commemorated our wars on such a scale does not mean that we should not do so. I was a very junior infantry officer in the Indian army during the Kargil War of 1999. Some of those who died in action were my friends; several others were colleagues and acquaintances. They were professional soldiers—ordinary in many ways, but with an extraordinary sense of duty in the most adverse circumstances. Whatever one’s views about war and violence or nationalism and jingoism, remembering such citizens does not seem problematic.
As a historian, I am of course aware that all acts of commemoration are projects of political elites that carry the danger of deliberate misrepresentation. The idea of commemoration was originally a religious one, especially practiced in the monotheistic faiths and embraced by elites that sought divine sanction for their rule. With the advent of modernity, nationalism and secularization as well as mass warfare in the industrial age, ruling elites chose commemoration of the war dead as a useful substitute for public religious rituals. It is hardly surprising that the government may want to give a particular slant to this anniversary, but there is little reason to believe that this will go uncontested. Indeed, the criticisms already levelled at these plans could foreshadow the debates that lie ahead.
Whether or not there is a political agenda, the move to raise awareness about our military history should be welcomed. The wars fought by India in the twentieth century have been significant motors of political, social and economic change. Yet the history of war, in this large sense, has been almost entirely neglected by professional historians of all stripes: nationalists, Marxists and post-colonialists alike. The planned commemoration could be an occasion to increase our knowledge and understanding of this war—and indeed of war more generally.
Open the archives
From this standpoint, the government’s plans could be faulted not for going overboard but for not doing enough. The seminars that have been planned will undoubtedly provide interesting insights, especially from the veterans. I recall attending a similar seminar on the 40th anniversary of the 1971 war, where the contributions of the veterans in the audience lit up the discussion. Yet memory can be no substitute for proper historical research. Memories of events that occurred so long ago are invariably shaped by hindsight and even wishful thinking. Moreover, certain questions simply cannot be answered by relying on oral testimonies. During the 1971 conference, for instance, a simple but crucial issue proved contentious: did India plan to capture Dhaka when the war broke out or did the drive to Dhaka take shape during the course of the war? In principle such a question should be easy to answer; but in practice it was not—merely because the government’s documents pertaining to this war had not been declassified and made available to researchers in the National Archives.
So, if the government is desirous of promoting better understanding of the 1965 war, it should promptly declassify all military, political and diplomatic documents relating to it. Indeed, it could go further and make the most important of these digitally available for wider public dissemination. It is not the government’s job to tell us what to think of the war, but rather to create an enabling environment for informed discussion. Even if this cannot be done in time for the commemoration, it can still be done over the course of the year ahead.
An absurd idea
Finally, it is worth emphasizing the point that notions of commemoration and celebration sit awkwardly together. The proposed “carnival”, in particular, seems an absurd idea. A commemoration should be a solemn occasion, where we not only think of the soldiers who died but also of civilians along the border who bore the brunt of violence and displacement. Any attempt to celebrate the war would be insensitive to the differing experiences and memories of the conflict. Apart from audiences at home, we also need to be mindful of the impact on our relations with Pakistan. For all its problems, the India-Pakistan relationship has not been haunted by “history wars”, an intoxicant in several other conflictual relationships. At a time when the Prime Minister has reached out to Pakistan, we could do without an unnecessarily jarring note in bilateral relations.
Humility has to be the hallmark of any commemoration—not just in the face of the extraordinary sacrifices made by soldiers and citizens, but also of our always imperfect understanding of the past.
Srinath Raghavan, is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.