Why is India obsessed with a lily-livered culture?

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The other day, I witnessed an event that filled me with immense joy and inspired me to write this. The occasion was a quiz on India’s military history that we, Colours of Glory Foundation, held for school children. The auditorium, where it was being held, was packed with 200 children in 100 teams. The event began with a written preliminary round where students had to write down their answers to twenty-five questions that were displayed as a PowerPoint presentation in twenty-five minutes. After the answer sheets were collected, the PowerPoint was run again, this time the correct answers appearing on a slide after every question. The interior of the auditorium reverberated with shouts of joy from the children as the answers popped up on the screen, high-pitched when most had got it correct, but not quite so when only a few had got it right. One could easily discern from the level of noise whether a question was an easy one or tough.

The selection of six finalist teams from the hundred participant teams turned into a heated contest, as we had to do more than one tiebreaker to decide on the sixth team. The finals of 36 questions also ended up in a tiebreaker with two teams vying for the third position. Interestingly, the sixth team that had clawed their way through multiple tiebreakers to get to the finals walked away with the top honours. Through all the cliff-hangers and the nail-biting finish, the entire assembly of children remained fully absorbed and excited, enjoying the contest with applauses and bonhomie, as if they were watching a football or cricket match. We had provided a list of keywords before the contest, and it was evident that the students had done their research on the Internet. Nevertheless, we found their involvement and excitement astounding.

If the children are finding military history such fun, we wondered watching their enthusiasm, why was it not a part of their curriculum? Are our educationalists of a mindset that the children should learn nothing that they find interesting? India is one of the handful of countries in the world that does not teach their military history in schools. It is ironical, because it is one country in the world with a military past that surpasses most others. It has the unique distinction of having fielded the largest volunteer armies in the two World Wars, which are considered to have been hugely instrumental in achieving the Allied victories in both. Post-independence, notwithstanding the political mess-up of 1962, when the Indian Army was made to look like it lost a war, when it was not even given a chance to fight, the armed forces of the country have won every war they fought creditably, and there were too many of those. It is not that no one has ever thought about the anomaly of India’s military history not being taught in our schools. At least, we, Colours of Glory Foundation, has represented the matter to the Government of India forcefully, and mounted a vigorous online campaign drawing support from thousands of our citizens. All this, of course, have fallen on deaf ears.

Essentially, the Indian political class, irrespective of the dispensation in power, suffers from a terrible sense of insecurity when it comes to the armed forces. This had its genesis in the deep mistrust of the armed forces among the political leadership at the time of independence, which was inevitable since the armed forces were the pillars on which the British imperialism rested. Unfortunately for the nation, the political leaders of the times lacked the wisdom to view matters in the right perspective. They didn’t recognize the crucial role the armed forces of India played in precipitating the end of the British rule. By admission of the British themselves, they chose to leave India when they found the Indian Army to have turned into their Frankenstein’s Monster in the aftermath of the Second World War, deeply influenced by the patriotic surge in the country that the INA trials and Royal Indian Navy Mutiny inflamed. The Indian politicians also conveniently forgot that it was the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 that ended the rapacious hold of the English East India Company over the Indian Subcontinent and brought it directly under the British Crown, opening vistas of constitutional rights that paved the way for the nationalist movement in the country to take roots. They should have had the maturity to absorb the grand irony of India’s colonial narrative that, in a manner of speaking, the Indian Soldiery that had built an empire for Britain in India, had also dismantled it. And the whole exercise had united the land as one entity for the first time in history. The political leadership failed to hold it together and split it into three nation-states is altogether a different story. I would argue that the Indian armed forces deserved unfeigned respect for their historical role, when India became independent. The politicians did not think so.

The political leadership, wickedly assisted by an unscrupulous bureaucracy, went on systematically destroying and deriding the armed forces, withdrawing their privileges and status and most criminal of all, starving them of funds. Shocked out of their wits by the debacle of 1962, they made attempts to rebuild the armed forces, but invariably going about it half-heartedly. It does tremendous credit to our armed forces that despite inadequate support from successive governments and humiliations heaped on them, they have remained staunchly loyal to the country’s people and its constitution in the finest traditions of democracy, thwarting every attempt by our hostile neighbours to infringe upon our sovereignty and integrity, against formidable odds. The whole country loves its armed forces. They have come to symbolize the noblest values people cherish. The Indian soldier enjoys the exalted status of being the most dependable individual in common man’s perception. Rain or shine, the people know that the soldier will always be there to protect or rescue them, whether it is a natural disaster or enemy aggression. To top it all, in a country fractured by religious and regional animosities, the armed forces remain the sole institutions of robust secularism and harmony, and are staunchly apolitical. The Indian soldier represents everything that is good about India, notwithstanding every effort by the wily politicians to play him down. In stark contrast, the political and bureaucratic classes of the country continue to excel in their chicanery, singing the glory of the armed forces for political gains on one hand, and undermining them on the other. No wonder, educating the country’s children about our armed forces is anathema to both.

The Nehruvian philosophy that dictated the foreign and defence policies in our beginning years as a free country, found its ideal icon in Ashoka, and the pacifism he propagated was upheld as virtuous and the best way for the country to move on, little realising that it was Ashoka’s pacifism that had robbed the land of its martial instincts and reduced its people to a docile and shamefully submissive lot. It is this docility of its people that rendered the country vulnerable to repeated foreign invasions and subjugation.

Regardless, India’s independence in 1947 was a moment in history, when we should have rededicated ourselves to thrive as a strong and united country. Instead, we chose to follow a hypocritical path of trying to put the world right, while the focus should have been to put our own house in order. Consequently, the much-touted rhetoric the politicians of all hues revel in that “India has never invaded any other country in its history, but only been invaded by others”, implying that we have always been a punching bag for all and sundry, gradually permeated the psyche of the common man, turning us into a country of week-kneed citizenry (In a weird interpretation by the Anglophile historians that the government favoured, the Indian history was distorted to carve out such a blatant lie, as if the Maurya Empire that extended all the way up to Afghanistan and Iran and the Chola Empire that extended its power all over Southeast Asia never existed, complementing the version of their colonial masters; those achievements surely couldn’t have come for a song). The spineless attitude of our successive governments, failing to stand up to the belligerence of our neighbours and stoutly call their bluff during every crisis, has made us the laughing stock of the world, looked down up on as a soft state, despite our armed forces being among the finest in the world. During the Galwan Valley clashes of 2020, I was truly dismayed to find palpable fear among many of my fellow countrymen, about a probable war with China. Isn’t that pathetic?

Take the instance of IC-814 hijack of 1999. We witnessed the disgraceful sight of grown-up men beating their chests like nannies in front of the Prime Minister’s residence, wailing for their relatives held hostages to be saved at any cost, and those images were being gleefully flashed to the entire world by our TV Channels, rivalling each other in their idiocy. How could a chief executive ever take a balanced decision, with people breathing down his neck like that? When the Israelis faced a similar situation, the relatives of the hostages quietly prayed, holding a candlelight vigil, leaving the government to do what was required. When would we demonstrate such resilience and dignity? We, as a nation, has a lot to learn from smaller countries like Vietnam and Israel; one defeated two super powers, the other lives surrounded by hordes of enemy, but beats them back at every instance. I am not a war monger and suggesting that we go to war with our neighbours. Universal peace that we profess is a wonderful idea, except that it remains a chimera. As long as there are countries that mean harm to ours, we have to be prepared to defend ourselves. And for a country like India, with a sizeable percentage of the population still below poverty line, it is not pragmatic to spend disproportionately large amounts on defence and compete in an arms race with belligerent dictatorships in our neighbourhood, wherein welfare of the people is of no concern. This puts us in an unenviable situation, when our military might may not always match the threat perceptions we have to deal with. However, wars are always not won by the superiority of arms alone. As the adage goes, it is not how much of a dog is in the fight, but how much of fight is in the dog that matters. We need to build up a resolute national character that would turn us into a people who are willing to live with blood, sweat and tears. What pervades our society today, is a lily-livered culture, promoted by gutless politicians and bureaucrats over the last three quarters of a century. Our so-called ‘intelligentsia’ is so obsessed with pacifism that even our art and literature have succumbed to the idea. Far would be the day when we would have a best-selling book or genuinely realistic movie on our men and women in arms.

When we call for military history to be taught in schools, we are not promoting militarism. No one imagines or expects every child growing up to become a soldier; there is no need for it either. Educating children in military history is a character-building exercise, with the objective of instilling soldierly ethos in their young minds. Our soldiers excel in their profession because their call of duty comes first to them always and every time. If every adult in the country is driven by such an ideal, we will have doctors for whom the treatment of their patients would come first and foremost and teachers for whom the development of their wards would be the prime concern. Children imbued with soldierly values would grow up into responsible, socially and nationally conscious citizens. Whatever profession they may choose when they grow up, if they follow the ideals the soldiers do, this country would be a better place to live in. Would that be too much to ask for?

Capt. D P Ramachandran
Capt D P Ramachandran is a war veteran and military history enthusiast, who writes about battles of the Indian Army and India’s martial heritage. He can be reached at captdpr@gmail.com
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