The fourth edition of the Welham Boys’ Military History Seminar was conducted on 24 and 25 November 2020. This year the seminar was conducted virtually in view of the restrictions that have curtailed social movement due to COVID 19. In was indeed a tribute to the immense popularity of the movement, dubbed as the ‘Welham Initiative’, that students from 33 prestigious schools across the length and breadth of the country attended what was indeed an extremely educative and engaging seminar. This is a wonderful initiative undertaken to impart knowledge on a subject which is extremely relevant but sadly neglected in all school curriculums.
In 2016 the highly acclaimed book authored by Shiv Kunal Verma, “1962: The War That Wasn’t” had hit the stands and in many ways, taken the country by storm as it received almost unprecedented coverage in the media (including G-Files). The book was a watershed of sorts, for it was not only published by David Davidar’s prestigious publishing house Aleph, it also looked at a major military failure that had psychologically crippled India for almost half a century. The book’s success was an indication that audiences in India were today quite open to look at and analyze issues that hitherto were buried in the closet as has been the case with the much talked about Henderson-Brookes Report .Being from the Doon School, it was but natural for Kunal to speak to the boys from his alma mater and other schools in Dehradun about the 1962 conflict.
The response to his talks in school after school was excellent, with students asking searching questions and wanting to know more. ‘Until then, there was this belief that school children were not really interested in matters military… that history was a drag and their attention span would not hold beyond a point. Boy, were people wrong in making that assumption,’ says Dr Gunmeet Bindra, the former principal of Welham Boys’ School; ‘
when Kunal started to paint scenario after scenario of what had happened in not just Ladakh and NEFA but New Delhi as well, I don’t think there was a single boy or girl who wasn’t completely riveted. His final words that we hadn’t lost to the Chinese but to ourselves continued to echo in my ears for days.’
The Chairman of Welham Boys’, Mr Darshan Singh, then rose to the task of educating the youth. His grandfather was a product of the Imperial Cadet Corps (the forebear of the Rashtriya Indian Military College) and his father too was from the RIMC after which he served as a gunner rising to the rank of a Major General. All set to join the Armed Forces himself after passing out of the Doon School, fate had instead sent him to BITS Pillani from where he went on to become an extremely successful industrialist and subsequently an educationist. ‘There is this huge misconception that boys from public schools are not drawn to the forces. Unfortunately, the spotlight has always been on those like Rajiv Gandhi who went into politics. The Doon School by itself has more gallantry awards than any other school–at least one Kirti Chakra and quite a few MVCs and has many highly respected officers including some very illustrious generals, Air Marshals and Admirals.
When Shiv Kunal came along, I felt we had in him not only an outstandingly objective military historian but a person whose depth of knowledge was quite incredible, I thought why not expand the horizon of our own boys. Last four years have been quite a journey for us all,’ he says while eschewing ideas on how to take the movement forward next year. ‘Maybe we’ll invite speakers from neighbouring countries as well’, he muses.
Accordingly, Welham Boys’ School then decided to shoulder the responsibility of introducing military history to their students as also students of some other schools. There were of course skeptics questioning both the relevance of this subject as well as its acceptance by students. They have all been proved wrong not only in view of the interest generated in the subject by the manner in which the speakers have been able to explain the subject to the students as also due to the ongoing issues in Eastern Ladakh, but mainly by the feedback of the students and the quality of their questions. ‘One thing we were very clear about,’ says Shiv Kunal Verma, ‘there was no place for any jingoism. In fact, I see this as a platform to create informed individuals who understand the implications of military conflicts. The subject and our approach to it encourages critical thinking, something that helps students when they go to universities.’
Military history’s value is hard to understate. The history of warfare is the oldest of histories and is vitally important in order to understand the world we inhabit. It has an impact on societies, the way people and countries behave and act, and the lessons drawn continue to remain relevant. Military history is also important to understand some of the unresolved issues that continue to plague us even today. Students also need to be aware of the sacrifices made by our brave hearts, who ‘gave their today for our tomorrow’.
‘It was an eye-opener for us,’ says Abhay Singh Dhillon, a former school captain of Welham Boys’. ‘In fact, end of the day, I think we all realized how each soldier has so many stories for us to learn from… and also how each one of us, whatever our subsequent profession may be, is a cog in the overall web of National Security.’
While it can be safely said that history is made up people, military history tells us how and why some individuals behave the way they do, invariably under extreme pressure. Often in the face of insurmountable odds, soldiers and sometimes even civilians, under circumstances of extreme danger, choose to act in a manner which is completely unmindful of the sacrifices they had to make. Despite the chaos and the fog of war which creates its own environment humans have time and again risen to the occasion. At the end of the day, these flesh and blood stories of men and women who are no different from you and me and are often products of the same system in which we are also growing up together, are the ultimate in inspiring us to put our best foot forward- each and every time regardless of what we may be doing.
This year including the opening and closing sessions, there were a total of six different capsules. The chief guest for the opening ceremony was General Ved Prakash Malik, who led the Indian Army during the Kargil conflict. Joining him were Mr Darshan Singh and Kunal Verma, the latter having observed the General closely while filming the Kargil War.
The former Army Chief’s recent comments in the media pertaining to the border situation also generated a lot of interest with students asking him pertinent questions. General Malik’s frank and candid address underlined the need for people, especially students, to be fully aware of where we had gone wrong over the years in our policies.
On the other end of the spectrum, during the closing address, Admiral Sunil Lanba talked in detail about the Navy and he too underlined the need for the nation to expand its mindset to include the Indian Ocean Theatre of operations. From the deployment of aircraft carriers and submarines to the building of various types of ships and other fighting platforms, the former Naval Chief, himself alumni of Mayo College, Ajmer, addressed the large number of students extolling them to work selflessly for the nation regardless of what field they chose to follow. Admiral Lanba presented a fairly optimistic picture and repeatedly underlined the fact that the Indian Navy was up to any challenge, being perhaps the formidable naval power in the region.
I was fortunate to moderate three sessions. The first session was Dragon at Our Doorstep (Army) covering our present problem with China in Eastern Ladakh, in which the speakers were Lieutenant Generals KJ Singh, who retired as the Western Army Commander and had commanded a Corps in the Northeast, PJS Pannu, who had commanded 14 Corps and a Division in Western Arunachal Pradesh and finally Balbir Singh Sandhu who retired as the Director General of Supplies and Transport. All of them had a vast amount of experience, tremendous knowledge and are highly respected for their views and of course it goes without saying they are very articulate speakers. They covered a vast canvas including certain aspects not openly talked about namely the types of borders, challenges of defence, role of mechanised forces, border management, and problems of sustaining troops at these altitudes.Reflecting the mood of the session, one of the students wanted to know if India does withdraw from the Kailash feature in Ladakh, would it be akin to what the political leadership had done with Haji Pir in 1965.
The next session I moderated took us back in time to examine a different perspective of the 1947-48 conflict in Kashmir. The speakers were Colonel Ajay Raina, a highly acclaimed author whose recent book ‘In the Nick of Time ‘, raises several issues not talked about earlier; Brigadier Rajender Singh, who has written extensively about the problems in Gilgit- Baltistan and finally Mr Pankaj P Singh, who runs ‘Browser’, undoubtedly the best bookshop in Chandigarh and has co-authored a wonderful book titled ‘Sher kaBachha’ that covers the role of Brigadier Pritam Singh in the siege of Poonch. The discussions were indeed very detailed and the depth of knowledge of the speakers was evident as they took the audience through the nuances of the time. Interestingly, the wave of nationalism here was directed against Maharaja Hari Singh and not the British.The duplicity of the British particularly in the Gilgit Agency was discussed at length and the actual date of commencement of hostilities was covered wonderfully by the Speakers. Even the nuances of the Standstill Agreement were explained. The students asked very relevant questions regarding the role played by the State Forces units and the reason for going to the United Nations–both subjects which have not really been looked at in detail by analysts.
The last session which was also moderated by me took one into the maritime domain focusing on the future and covering the QUAD. The speakers, Commodore Srikant Kesnur, who is the Director of the Maritime Warfare Centre and Dr Kajari Kamal–yet again an alumni of yet another participating school, the Welham Girls’ School–who is on the faculty of the Takshashila Institute, Bangalore, once again were outstanding, extremely knowledgeable and were able to put across their views in a manner that enabled us to understand the complexities of this particular grouping. They navigated the students with ease explaining the importance of the Indo-Pacific, our maritime strategy and the role of the Indian Navy.
They also touched upon how maritime power is an effective instrument of diplomacy, and tackled the criticism being leveled at the QUAD for its lack of strategic clarity and talked about the security of this region especially in the Biden Presidency. The students on their part wanted to know how India who is averse to alliance making can walk the tightrope between strategic autonomy and participation in the QUAD.
The session titled The Dragon at the Door (Air Force) was moderated by Air Marshal Anil Chopra, one of India’s finest test pilots who also commanded the famed No. 1 Squadron (Tigers) which was equipped with the Mirage 2000. Joining him on the panel were Air Vice Marshal Bahadur Manmohan, a helicopter pilot who probably knew Ladakh like the back of his hand and Air Marshal Ramesh Rai, a Jaguar pilot. The three IAF stalwarts were a treat to hear as they came up with what was perhaps the most lucid and clear analysis of the role which the IAF and PLAAF would play in the event of hostilities. Listening to them one could only wish that the air force had been used in an offensive role by Prime Minister Nehru in 1962. The ifs and buts of history apart, the outcome of the Sino-Indian War more than half a century ago would almost certainly have been very very different.
India has a very rich military history and it is therefore important that today’s youth are aware of this and know the work the Armed Forces of our nation has done especially in the post-Independence period. The students who were exposed to the proceedings, may not opt for a career in the Services but irrespective of the career choices, they will be the opinion and decision makers of the future and their informed voices will carry weight. Hence it is important that their wisdom is supported by the knowledge they have gained by being part of this Military History movement. As a participant who was fortunate to witness the seamless working of what was a complex task, I can only congratulate the Principal of Welham Boys’ School, Mrs Sangeeta Kain whose attention to detail gave the entire proceedings a quasi-military feel.
Seminars such as this and the Military Literature Festival in Chandigarh will help our students in schools across the country become better informed citizens and think critically about issues of war and peace.Hopefully, the seeds sown by such initiatives will bear fruit across the country. Military history gives the tool needed to understand the past, dominate the present narrative and visualize the future.