Col Ajay Singh, author of India’s Battlefields from Kurukshetra to Balakot
What was it that made you write this book?
The book came about when I was reading up on Indian warfare and realised how little material existed on India’s battles. Most of the material came from outside sources and presented a very blinkered vision. As I delved deeper, I discovered different interpretations. I also visited the sites of the battles to get a feel of what happened there and used my military experience to interpret what could have really happened. My aim was to present an authentic, but objective version of India’s battles from an Indian perspective—warts and all.
The common refrain running through your book is that in spite of individual courage and valour, Indian armies often came out second best because of poor leadership and outdated concepts of war.
This is true. Indian armies lost most of their major battles after the first battle of Tarain in 1191. We fought the same style of static, attritional warfare of the Mahabharata even 1500 years later. We did not understand concepts of manoeuvre and firepower, didn’t embrace new technology like gunpowder and our armies lacked a cohesive organisation. Thus, though the Indian soldier was always courageous and skilled at arms, the results were rarely in our favour.
Why is it that India repeatedly lost from within?
That is an unfortunate thread that runs through our history. Right from the time when Alexander invaded India and was aided by local chieftains, foreigners have been exploiting local differences and dissensions. Treachery from within was something repeatedly exploited by the Mohammed Ghori, Mahmud Ghazni and the Mughals. The British were masters at turning Indians against Indians and finding those who could be willingly bribed. They used one local ruler against the other and took over the nation. The inability to unite against an outsider has cost us dear and unfortunately is visible even today.
Of the 42 battles you covered, which one do you feel has had the strongest impact on the nation?
No one battle can be singled out, but the major moments were the Second Battle of Tarain in 1192 which saw the defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan and the entry of the Muslim Sultanate in India. The First Battle of Panipat is equally significant. It got in 300 years of Mughal rule. Buxar and Plassey ushered in the British and their presence in India was perhaps the worst period in our history. But the most significant would be the Third Battle of Panipat, for the very scale of losses, and its impact on the Maratha Empire which was emerging as a true indigenous power. Post-independence, the 1971 war has special significance not only because of the complete victory achieved, but because it changed our mindset thereafter.
In the light of the current tensions with China how do you view the 1962 India-China war? Could it have been better handled?
Of course. The 1962 war was a disaster at every level. It was a war that could have been foretold two years earlier, but the signs were ignored. The Forward Policy was pushed through without realising the consequences, the military was weak and unprepared. In fact, the war was decided in just the first few hours with the defeat at Namka Chu. After that it was panic and a rout. Today of course, things are much better. The proactiveness shown by the army and the refusal to budge are good indicators.
Are there any changes to Indian strategic thought that could have been applied?
India does lack a strategic culture. Had we been more proactive, and our rulers shown a willingness to counter threats at a distance, our history might have been different. The lack of a maritime tradition and the complete neglect of the navy by all rulers (less Shivaji) after the Cholas cost us dear, both against the Arabs and the British.
Do you see any changes in recent times?
Yes. There is a welcome pro-activeness now. We are willing to move beyond our own frontiers—both militarily and politically—to safeguard our interests. There is also an influx of military and strategic thinking. It is a little delayed, but the process has started.
You say ‘those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to relive them’. What is the message you want to drive home on the lessons of history?
The underlying theme of my book is that our battles have been lost from within. And we have paid a very heavy price for it. We have been ruled by outsiders for centuries who looted and exploited us. That divisiveness exists even now. We have to come together else this fatal flaw would be once again exploited, and we may pay a heavy price for it. Not just as a nation, but as a civilization.