Mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence

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

Business Standard - - ISSUES AND INSIGHTS - SRI­NATH RAGHA­VAN, AU­THOR A longer ver­sion ap­pears on www.busi­ness-stan­

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.


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