The infantry officer-turned-academic discusses why the Indian Army’s role in the world wars is under-studied and the importance of scrapping AFSPA, over mushroom soup and salad with Kanika Datta
Most people who leave the military make lucrative careers as one or all of the following: defence contractors/consultants/proprietors of security service businesses. Srinath Raghavan is an outlier in that he made the transition from army to academia, and went on to author three well-received books.
His first two — a counter-intuitive analysis of Nehru’s foreign policy and the 1971 Bangladesh War from an international perspective — had tangential connections to his military career. It is the scholarly but readable India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia 1939-45, published this year, that combines his former and current jobs. It is the first detailed history of the major World War II battles involving the Indian Army.
The jump from infantry to international relations was not planned nor a reflection of family professions, since his father was in the Railways. Having read physics at university, he had considered a PhD; by his third year he dropped the idea. “It’s the kind of subject at which you are really good or no good at all,” he explains in the elegantly sylvan setting of Olive Bar and Kitchen.
I am delighted with his choice of restaurant but not his frugal appetite. He chooses a Light Mushroom Veloute soup and salad, saying he has a wedding to attend later, though his lean frame does not suggest habitual gluttony. I glumly pass over the Belgian Pork Belly and Australian Lamb Shank, both too much for one person, for a Three Grain Risotto (“Our signature!” the menu enthuses) and console myself with a glass of Rose.
For Raghavan, a short service commission in the army was an extended break while he figured out his future. Commissioned in 1997 into the Rajputana Rifles — “that’s why you’ll find it gets more play in the book!” — he served in Sikkim, Rajasthan and Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). Towards the end of his six-year stint, he had decided that he wanted to focus on international relations and military history.
By “a stroke of luck, honestly”, he won an Inlaks scholarship to King’s College, London. “I had no social sciences background, but maybe they were impressed that I was a serving officer,” he laughs. After his Master’s degree and a PhD, under Lawrence Freedman, the iconic professor of war studies, he joined King’s as a lecturer.
His army stint proved part inspiration for India’s War. “When you go to army messes and see the regimental banners and honours, you realise that many of the place names are not in India — from El Alamein in North Africa to Meiktila in Burma. That piqued my curiosity.”
But the book had a long gestation. Having come to King’s after a stint in J&K with the counter-insurgency force Rashtriya Rifles, his first serious research was into the Indian Army’s internal security doctrines between the two world wars, a period of massive communal rioting, and insurgency like the Mappila rebellion. “Then it struck me that the ‘Indian dimension’ of the war had been hugely neglected.”
The soup is served as he explains why he got side-tracked, describing with an academic’s excitement being one of the first to see the papers of P N Haksar, Indira Gandhi’s powerful principal secretary, when they arrived at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. “There was a huge amount on 1971, including RAW [Research and Analysis Wing] assessments, that suggested broader questions on the war.”
The soup is light but full-bodied, I note appreciatively as I ask why Indian historians have largely neglected the study of the Indian Army in the world wars, considering the magnitude of the contribution. That’s because of our colonial inheritance, he explains. First, the major strands of history — nationalist, Marxist, subaltern — focus on some sort of resistance to the British rather than studying a “bunch of collaborators”.
Second, most South Asian historians have a “general self-identification with being radical and progressive”, so issues pertaining to military power strike them as fundamentally conservative. He quickly clarifies: “My politics is very much left of centre but I think these are important issues for historians to be looking at.”
The salad, a forgettable melange of greens, offers some utility as Raghavan forks broccoli, mushroom and beans around his plate to explain the location of his J&K posting: a Muslim-majority district south of the Valley but north of the Chenab. Which gives me a chance to ask him about the contentious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Should it be scrapped?
He pauses and prefaces a careful answer with a caveat: “My views are a function of where I am today. Obviously, like many army officers, I did not have a reflective attitude when I was serving.” The army, he begins, has legitimate concerns. “If you are an officer on patrol and you kill someone intelligence tells you is an insurgent, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life answering a murder charge in court. So the fundamental principle is fine.”
The basic problem with AFSPA is that the Indian government has seldom given permission for prosecution in civilian courts, even when a prima facie case has been established that the person was not operating in a bona fide manner. As a result, there is a perception that AFSPA confers a degree of impunity on the army.
The other problem is the wide latitude given to those below officer rank. “When I researching some years ago I was struck by the fact that AFSPA comes from a special powers ordinance issued during the Quit India movement in 1942 and, interestingly, the colonial state gave such powers to the rank of captain and above. Let’s not forget that the AFSPA was brought in by Nehru, whom we idolise in some ways. But the way in which the Act is defined and the way it operates vitiates it.”
This is clearly an issue that concerns him. He distractedly declines the risotto, fat-grained Arborio slow-cooked in a delicious porcini stock, to explain why scrapping AFSPA is fundamentally a political question. “I am getting into controversial terrain,” he hedges, “but the problem we have today is that a particular political view is being stymied by the Indian Army.” In 2005, the Jeevan Reddy Commission suggested repealing AFSPA and incorporating legal protections into the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. “That way, you solve the political problem and give the military some protection.”
What happens? “Some senior army officers go on record and say, ‘we cannot operate without AFSPA’. It’s a travesty. It is not for the military to decide where it will operate, that’s the political leadership’s job. That is how democratic control of the armed forces works. By putting a veto on what the political leadership can do, this is one of the issues in which, sadly, the Indian Army is acting like the Pakistani Army.”
Now back in India and after a recent shift of base to Mumbai, where his wife, a development economist, has started a new job, Raghavan has a commuter career with Delhibased Centre for Policy Research and lecturer at Ashoka University in Sonepat. He also has a busy publishing schedule with three books in the works.
His first is a history of American involvement in South Asia from the late 19th century to the present. Did we have American involvement in the 19th century? A little, he says; for instance, when Tata set up its first steel plant, it was an American engineer who helped. The second is a history of India from the mid-1960s to the 1970s. Our lost decade? A crucial decade, he counters, because many of the unintended consequences of Indira Gandhi’s first term are playing out now.
The third is one he’s less keen to discuss because of the challenging nature of the assignment: an official history of the Kargil war. It’s a tantalising subject to pursue but we’ve finished the meal with a wholly unsatisfactory coffee — Macchiato, an espresso with lots of foam — and a silent resolve from me to return and taste more of Olive’s delights.