Ramachandra Guha On The Lack Of Modern Indian Histories

In India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (HarperCollins, New York, 2007), Ramachandra Guha writes:

Of his recent history of postwar Europe, Tony Judt writes that ‘a book of this kind rests, in the first instance, on the shoulders of other books’. He notes that ‘for the brief sixty-year period of Europe’s history since the end of the Second World War – indeed, for this period above all – the secondary literature in English is inexhaustible’. The situation in India is all too different. Here the gaps in our knowledge are colossal. The Republic of India is a union of twenty-eight states, some larger than France. Yet not even the bigger or more important of these states have had their histories written. In the 1950s and 60s India pioneered a new approach to foreign policy, and to economic policy and planning as well. Authoritative or even adequate accounts of these experiments remain to be written. India has produced entrepreneurs of great vision and dynamism – but the stories of the institutions they built and the wealth they created are mostly unwritten. Again, there are no proper biographies of some of the key figures in our modern history: such as Sheikh Abdullah or Master Tara Singh or M. G. Ramachandran, ‘provincial’ leaders each of whose province is the size of a large European country. [p. 13; links added]

Guha’s analysis here is, sadly enough, almost wholly correct. Guha’s own ‘opus,’ cited above, runs to over 800 pages, and yet it is barely more than a sampler, an appetizer, a pointer to the many corners of modern Indian history that remain unexplored: in the face of a historical project as imposing as that of modern India’s, even such large works can do little more than gesture at their own insignificance. I’m not a historian by trade (and professional historians have accused me of being an amateur) but even my ‘casual’ efforts have resulted in my encountering the lacunae in historical scholarship that Guha writes about. In the realm of military history, for instance, my co-author Jagan Mohan and I found–while working on our books on the 1965 and 1971 air wars  between India and Pakistan–few to none published works on Indian military history, and had to rely largely on personal accounts–autobiographical and biographical–with all of their inherent frailties as sources of information. Official archival stores were hard to access, their points of entry blocked sometimes by official legal strictures, sometimes by bureaucratic inflexibility. Moreover, to add final insult to injury, there simply wasn’t the readership–the all-critical market for publishers–for such historical works as ours. Quite simply, the failure that Guha speaks of was manifest at every level of the historical enterprise: actual histories were hard come by; historical sources were meager; interest in histories and antiquities was only marginal.  Under these conditions, the production of written history seemed intractable at best.

This state of affairs is especially peculiar in the context of the Indian popular imagination–one which finds its national pride grounded in tremendous antiquity of India’s civilizations and cultures. It offers a stark reminder that the nationalist imagination all too often outruns the actual national enterprise.

Nixon, Kissinger, And The 1971 Genocide In Bangladesh

This evening, Jagan Pillarisetti and will be speaking at the New York Military Affairs Symposium on ‘Indian Air Force Operations in the 1971 Liberation War.’ Our talk will be based on our book Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War (Harper Collins, 2013). Here is the jacket description:

In December 1971 Bangladesh was born. Its birthing was painful: it had suffered a brutal genocide conducted by its former countrymen from West Pakistan, and a war between the indigenous Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) and the Indian Armed Forces on one side, and the West Pakistani Armed Forces on the other. War broke out on the Western and Eastern fronts in December 1971 and ended quickly; the West Pakistani Army surrendered in Dacca two weeks later. A significant factor in facilitating the Indian Army’s progress to Dacca was the IAF, which neutralized the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), and provided deadly, timely and accurate firepower to support the Indian Army. The IAF flew a variety of missions: counter-air raids on airfields, steep glide dive-bombing attacks on runways, aircombat with PAF Sabres, helicopter borne operations, paradropping, and shipping attacks. Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War, provides a day by day recounting of the IAF’s activities, commencing with raids on Dacca on the first day of the war, and moving on to the final coup de grace delivered on the Governor’s House, all the while bolstered by first-person descriptions from IAF pilots. [links added]

I’ve been warming up for the talk by reading Gary BassThe Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide and I’m reminded, yet again, of what total and utter shits and moral reprobates those two were. There is little I can say to lengthen the already existent and damning charge sheets against Henry Kissinger (the approval of whom by Hillary Clinton was one of the many reasons why I could not bring myself to vote for her.) Let me instead, quote the always eloquent and erudite Patrick S. O’Donnell on the subject:

Henry Kissinger, a moral monster who exemplified the dark arts of immoral and amoral Realpolitik while at the pinnacle of political power in the United States, is a living reminder of why we established (several ad hoc and hybrid, as well as one permanent) international criminal tribunals and need universal jurisdiction in the quest for international criminal justice. If you’re not well acquainted with the precise reasons why Kissinger is rightly referred to in some quarters as a “war criminal” (although one could plausibly argue he is also guilty of crimes against humanity and complicity in genocide, among other crimes), see the first and still best summary of the particulars of this searing public indictment in Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Twelve, 2012; first edition, Verso, 2001, 2002 with new preface).

Bass’ book notes that despite a series of anguished reports emanating from US diplomatic staff in Dacca–headed by Archer Blood–who bore witness to the Pakistani Army genocide in Bangladesh, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger not only ignored these pleas to publicly condemn these atrocities, they refused to bring any pressure to bear on the Pakistani military administration–including but not limited to, not allowing American arms to be used in the massacres. Worse, they remained actively hostile to the Indian government, which was then dealing with an influx of ten million refugees fleeing the killings in East Pakistan. As Bass notes:

Nixon and Kissinger bear responsibility for a significant complicity in the slaughter of the Bengalis. This overlooked episode deserves to be a defining part of their historical reputations. But although Nixon and Kissinger have hardly been neglected by history, this major incident has largely been whitewashed out of their legacy—and not by accident. Kissinger began telling demonstrable falsehoods about the administration’s record just two weeks into the crisis, and has not stopped distorting since.

My father fought in the 1971 war as a pilot in the Indian Air Force; I’m glad he did.

Satadru Sen on Eagles Over Bangladesh

Satadru Sen has written a very thoughtful and engaged review of Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War. His generally positive review also strikes some critical notes in it, and I’d like to respond to those. These critical points are all largely concerned with how well the book succeeds as (generally) military history and as (particularly) a history of the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh, and about how the narrowness of our focus in the book detracts from that task.

A couple of preliminary remarks. My co-author, PVS Jagan Mohan, and I self-consciously restricted ourselves to documenting the air operations in our book. We chose this narrow perspective for two reasons: a) to make our task manageable and b) to not obscure the treatment of the air operations. The definitive history of the Bangladesh Liberation War and especially the conflicts that preceded it might yet have to be written, but attempts have been made and we did not intend to try doing so ourselves. There has been no history attempted though of exclusively the air component of the war. (Incidentally, our book is only the first volume of an intended two-volume project; the second will cover air operations in the Western Sector; this should give you some indication of the magnitude of the task at hand.) We took our contribution to be toward filling the gap in the aviation history literature and not necessarily to contribute to the very interesting debates that surround the genesis of the Bangladesh war, its conduct, and so on.

Now, in general, air war histories and naval warfare histories are more specialized in their focus than the conventional war history. Books on the Battle of Britain, for instance, detail the air operations–the dogfights, the bombing etc–in far more detail than anything else; what they primarily focus on, which we do as well, is the operational context: the aircraft used, the decisions that led to the planning of air campaigns as they proceeded, the technical infrastructure, some detail on combat tactics and so on. We do not expect these kinds of histories to provide the kind of political histories or context that Sen finds missing. In large part, this is because, prior to the First Gulf War and the 1999 NATO Kosovo campaign air power, despite what its most enthusiastic proponents might say, has not been the primary weapon of choice in accomplishing tactical or strategic objectives; it has supported boots on the ground. Given this, it is only natural that histories of air campaigns are largely operational histories, with some strategic and planning detail provided to make sense of operations.

Now, on to Sen’s more specific critiques.

Continue reading

The Burdens of Proofreading and Copy-Editing

There must be some sort of writer’s law out there that captures the sensation I am about to describe: as your book approaches the finish line, and as the final proofreadings, corrections, indexing queries, and debates about jacket and cover compositions pile up, the author’s nausea at the sight of his former ‘dearly beloved’ increases in direct proportion.

I have described this sensation before:

[W]eary and exhausted by the endless redrafting, polishing and proof-reading, I want only to be done with the damn thing. It’s not as if I’ve considered the ‘product’ then to be complete; rather, it is that I cannot summon up the energy for another painfully close and exacting edit. (Months later, when I look at the submitted version, I’m astonished by how much dross I let get by me.)


[C]opy-editing is hard, tedious work, of course, leaving behind many a scar worn in by memories of endless, iterative checks.

That moment is upon me again. My co-author, PVS Jagan Mohan, and I are now getting close to the final production stages of the first volume of our history of the air war component of the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh. (This is the second book we have worked on together; the first was a one-volume history of the 1965 air war between India and Pakistan). The book has been eight years in the making and I can’t wait for it to be over. The lion’s share of the work has been done by Jagan, but I’m still exhausted. I can’t imagine how he feels.

As is evident, I do not enjoy this process of ‘finishing’ a book, so much so that in the past, I have suffered from anxiety-ridden dreams about it. There is always, in these closing stages, a particularly insidious fear: that the process of revisions will never end, that I will be stuck, making revisions and emendations, caught in a perpetual loop of sorts, never seeing a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a manuscript come to fruition. Writing is a series of hurdles; this last stage, just like the first one, feels like the hardest. (Well, there’s those middle stages too, when you doubt the wisdom of ever having started the journey.)

Nothing makes copy-editing and proofreading less tedious. This morning, I have played classical music and electronica as sonic accompaniment; they offer only partial solace; they won’t do the reading and corrections for me; they won’t make the act of reading these four hundred odd pages for the umpteenth time any easier. I have, of course, sought relief in distraction: perhaps Facebook, perhaps Twitter, perhaps more sensibly, a little play-time with my little daughter.

Somewhere in the distance, because of the presence of the PDF file of the final proofs resident on my desktop, I can sense the final finished product: a slick paperback with an artfully designed cover, my name on its spine. But it’s still distant, and I feel overcome, again, by a curious mix of tedium and anxiety.

This thing, this beast, is supposedly a virtual intangible thing, an electronic file. But as I crawl toward the finish, it weighs on me like something far more corporeal.

Flying Solo, As Author, For a Change

Sometime this week or the next, my fourth book, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket (HarperCollins India 2012), will make its way to bookstores and online book-sellers. My fourth book differs in one crucial regard from those that have preceded it: I have not co-authored it with anyone; its jacket lists but one name, mine, as the author. (Summing up, the blurb says: ‘In Brave New Pitch, Samir Chopra takes a hard look at cricket’s tumultuous present, and considers what could and should lie ahead.’)

This is a novel feeling, a journey to a strange land. Flying solo?

I like collaborators. Not dastardly Vichy-types but the diverse set of co-authors that have brought my writing projects,  thus far, before Brave New Pitch, to fruition. While working on my doctorate I carefully managed my awe of my Putnam Prize-winning adviser while drawing upon his genius to help me navigate the complexities of mathematical logic. My dissertation–on new models of belief revision that accommodated inconsistent beliefs and relevance-sensitivity–bore my name on its spine but the stamp of his exacting attention to detail.

And then there was the military aviation historian whom I did not meet until after the publication of our book (a history, the first, of the India-Pakistan air war of 1965).  We talked on the phone and generated a blizzard of emails (he lived in India, I in the US and Australia); his presence was always palpable in constantly redefining my notion of good history. We used no sophisticated file sharing software; we simply maintained a repository of book chapters, and sent the other an email when we edited a file. It worked; somehow, at the end of it all, we had a book, a good one.

Later, while working on a book about the liberatory potential of that gigantic collaboration called the ‘free software phenomenon’,  I found a co-author four floors down from me; we went biking, drank beers, went on double-dates, and squabbled endlessly over writing. Every single sentence was negotiated, an exhausting experience essential to the form and content of the final work. We stored our files online, worked on them together. And I mean ‘together’; we put four hands on the keyboard, and miraculously, managed to write that way.

Later, while working on a book on how current legal theory could and should accommodate artificial agents, I negotiated with a collaborator who often preferred long periods of autonomous activity in isolation. For the first time, I used software for writing collaboration; it wasn’t perfect but it introduced some much-needed structure to the writing process. I became an expert at change-tracking software; I became used to repeated iterations and pass-throughs of chapters in response to close readings by my co-author.

I’ve negotiated many power relationships in these partnerships; from dissertation advisers to good friends (deleting either’s sentences requires sensitivity and tact). Each collaborator has enriched and complemented me, and, in becoming part of my cognitive resources, has been an essential agent in my self-realization. The muses only visit while we work; mine include my collaborators.