Pardesi on Subramaniam, 'India's Wars: A Military History, 1947-1971'

Arjun Subramaniam
Manjeet S. Pardesi

Arjun Subramaniam. India's Wars: A Military History, 1947-1971. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2017. 576 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-68247-241-5.

Reviewed by Manjeet S. Pardesi (Victoria University of Wellington) Published on H-Asia (July, 2018) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version:

India’s Wars is an eminently readable work on the Indian military and India’s experiences with wars over a period of roughly twenty-five years after independence. Given the serious neglect of military history in the understanding of India’s contemporary history (post-1947), this is a notable contribution. Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam recently retired from the Indian air force after more than thirty-six years in service. He is an experienced fighter pilot and pilot instructor who has flown MiG-21s and Mirage-2000s and has had wide-ranging professional experiences, from commanding a MiG-21 squadron and a large flying base to being involved with military education. Indeed, he is one of those rare military professionals who have a scholarly background. Dr. Subramaniam holds a PhD in defense and strategic studies from the University of Madras and thus brings the insights of “a practitioner-scholar” (p. 7) as he analyzes India’s higher strategy and diplomacy.

While the book is a product of Subramaniam’s scholarly pursuits, his aim is to reach a wider audience, as he wants India’s “growing number of informed and literate youth to read more about war and conflict in the subcontinent after Independence” (p. 4). One wishes him success in this endeavor, as his book is highly accessible (and avoids academic jargon). Subramaniam also makes an important, albeit modest contribution in trying to integrate the military history of independent India with its general history since 1947. It is important because such an endeavor is missing in Indian historiography (post-1947), although it is modest because, in his own words, “the book is drawn mostly from secondary sources” (p. 7). Therefore, while the book breaks no new ground in our understanding of post-1947 military events and processes, it does give us Subramaniam’s interpretation of India’s military history.

There are two important contributions that Subramaniam hopes to make with this book. First, he challenges the idea that “the DNA of India’s Armed Forces” (the title of part 2 of his book) owes entirely to the British colonial legacy. In particular he credits the military ethos of two “martial communities” (p. 30), the Marathas and the Sikhs, forged in their conflicts with the Mughal Empire, with having informed India’s military traditions. (Since his is not a social or political history, I will ignore the designation of “martial communities” applied to certain groups.)

Looking beyond the influence of the British Raj in understanding the Indian military’s origins and ethos is a welcome development and a useful scholarly enterprise. However, Subramaniam is only partially successful in this endeavor. His conscious decision to ignore the Mughal legacy is puzzling (pp. 31-32). The notable British historian of early modern and modern India Percival Spear had argued that “British India was deeply indebted to Mughal India,” and in many ways, “British India saw the development of trends already existing in Mughal India and it is certain that British India would have been a very different place had the Mughals never ruled before them.”[2]

The second significant contribution that Subramaniam aims to make is to narrate Indian military history “from a joint war-fighting perspective” (p. 4). He is far more successful and erudite in this second task. Parts 3 and 4 of his book provide detailed narratives of the 1947-48 India-Pakistan War, the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the 1965 India-Pakistan War, and the 1971 Bangladesh War in addition to the political and military analysis of the 1948 “military action” in Hyderabad and the 1961 “liberation” of Goa (as these two episodes are usually described). The theme of “jointness” runs through all of these chapters. Not only are these chapters detailed and incisive, but they are also full of very useful vignettes. For example, Subramaniam tells us that Exercise Peace, the October 1947 operation to “liberate” the princely state of Junagadh, involved the air force and the navy along with the Indian army as an exercise in coercive diplomacy: “This operation was actually the first joint operation launched by independent India’s armed forces and the first time a RIN [Royal Indian Navy] task force had sailed for a mission that was not in the furtherance of the British Empire’s operational or strategic objectives” (p. 168).

Parts 3 and 4 are organized chronologically. These are the strongest parts of the book and provide very useful political and especially military details of all major events, operations, and battles. Subramaniam also provides his analysis of the strategic and military decision-making, the role of diplomacy and leadership, and the lessons learned in all of the above-mentioned wars and conflicts. Of particular note is a series of “what if” questions that he asks (and attempts to answer) in the context of the politics and military operations associated with these wars and conflicts.

Although these two parts are well worth reading at length, some examples will illustrate the point. Subramaniam is puzzled by the fact that even as Pakistan’s strategy of “proxy war and asymmetric tactics against India emerged during the 1947-48 conflict,” India chose to ignore these in its strategic response until the 1990s (p. 158). For him, the explanation lies (at least partly) in Jawaharlal Nehru’s ambivalent attitude toward the use of force. In the case of the 1961 Goa operation, Subramaniam argues that Nehru’s India lost the opportunity to use “calibrated, state-sponsored coercion” using land, air, and naval harassment against the Portuguese. He believes that “it is more than likely that the Portuguese would have folded up without a fight” had Nehru done so (p. 192).

Given his own air force background, it is not surprising that he feels that India’s decision to not use “its superior aerial reconnaissance and offensive air power” was one of the “biggest blunders” of the 1962 Sino-Indian War (p. 256). However, he cautions against simply believing that air power would have changed the game against China. Instead, he believes that the use of air power “would certainly have been a face-saver” that would have allowed India to come out “bruised, but not beaten and humiliated” (p. 258). Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, Subramaniam’s views in these chapters are based on the thorough analysis of a practitioner-scholar, and he needs to be widely read and engaged with on these issues.

Subramaniam notes that India did not engage in significant diplomacy (except in the context of pressure from the United Nations Security Council) during the 1965 India-Pakistan War. By contrast, India was diplomatically active with Russia, Western Europe, and the United States during the 1971 Bangladesh War. Whether this was peculiar to the leaderships in 1965 and 1971 or whether diplomacy was consciously pursued in 1971 as a result of the lessons of 1965 remains unclear. Subramaniam is also critical of the lack of “jointness” in the Indian response in 1965 and 1971. While he certainly sees more “synergy” in 1971 compared to 1965, he believes that this jointness between the army, navy, and air force in 1971 was “‘personality driven’ and not ‘institutionally driven,’” and that things are not much different even today (p. 390).

Subramaniam concludes his book by briefly analyzing the strategic behavior of the Indian state during these decades “against some of the principles and templates of war” (p. 441) postulated by Kautilya, the presumed author of the Arthaśāstra, the ancient Indian text on statecraft completed about two thousand years ago.[1] He argues that India’s “rather pacifist strategic orientation” meant that “war as a proactive tool of statecraft remained a peripheral tool for decades until Indira Gandhi discovered its importance in 1971” (p. 442). Subramaniam has provided us with a useful and thought-provoking book on India’s wars until 1971, and one hopes that the next volume on the period after the Bangladesh War will be equally engaging.    


[1]. Percival Spear, A History of India, Volume 2: From the Sixteenth Century to the Twentieth Century (New Delhi: Penguin, 1990), 13.

[2]. For a recent assessment of this text, see King, Governance, and Law in Ancient India: Kauṫilya’s Arthaśāstra—A New Annotated Translation by Patrick Olivelle (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Citation: Manjeet S. Pardesi. Review of Subramaniam, Arjun, India's Wars: A Military History, 1947-1971. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL:

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