Peace and Security in India: A Conversation with AVM Arjun Subramaniam

By: Gregory Niguidula, Reporter

Photo Credit: GoodReads

On October 27, 2017, the Mortara Center welcomed Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (ret). AVM Subramaniam gave a talk, hosted by the Georgetown India Initiative and moderated by Dr. C. Christine Fair of the Georgetown Security Studies Program. Dr. Fair introduced AVM Subramaniam as a rare individual who was both a fighter pilot and a scholar and compared him favorably to more established scholars. Recently, Subramaniam published his first book, titled India’s Wars: A Military History 1947-1971. Subramaniam discussed his book, its follow up, and the addition of a “strategic layer and narrative.”

Subramaniam started his talk with a discussion of his homeland. India’s goal, he said, is to be a “power of some consequence” seen by the international community as responsible and restrained. Since its development has not been peaceful, India’s military has been vital to its development as a nation. In the years since independence, India has fought a large number of conflicts and the Indian military has had to learn and relearn difficult lessons. As a result, Subramaniam said India has become more confident and competent in its use of military force as a tool of statecraft.

Subramaniam’s book is to be the first of two volumes. His hope in writing them is to bring India’s post-independence military history into the academic discourse, where he feels the topic has been largely ignored. This first volume charted India’s military history from its independence from Britain in 1947 to the Indo-Pakistani War in 1971.

Although presented as a history book, the first section is dedicated to Subramaniam’s “Personal Perspectives.” “Having spent 36 or 37 years in uniform, I think I’m entitled to express how I feel…I needed to tell people about friends who fought, about friends who took part in insurgencies…I needed to offer a personal perspective of war and conflict in contemporary India.”

In the subsequent chapters, however, Subramaniam does his best to remain objective while discussing India’s longtime adversary, Pakistan. “I haven’t engaged in any kind of adversary bashing in my book,” Subramaniam said. “The Pakistani army and air force have been given a lot of credit where they are due.”

Subramaniam is currently researching his for the next volume, which is to cover India’s military history from 1972 to the present. He would like the volume to track the buildup in Indian military capability, not just with facts and figures, but also with anecdotes from each branch of the Indian military.

After discussing his books, Subramaniam spoke more broadly about India’s perceptions of its own military. India is the second highest contributor of troops to the United Nations and consequently has lost many soldiers in foreign conflicts. However, the Indian public is largely unaware of this. He compared the outrage sparked in the United States by the recent deaths of four American soldiers on a mission in Niger to the apparent lack of concern Indians had for the deaths of their own soldiers. He felt that there was a serious need for Indians to understand the sacrifice of their military.

After Subramaniam was finished speaking, Dr. Fair asked for his opinion of the controversial incident involving Indian Army Major Gogoi using a man as a human shield. Details of the incident have been disputed, but what is known is that Gogoi, who was on a mission that required him to drive through a region of Jammu and Kashmir that is largely hostile to the Indian military, tied this man, Farooq Dar, to the hood of a Jeep to deter the locals from throwing rocks. Although not defending Gogoi’s actions, Subramaniam said that it was important to understand the situation. Gogoi, having received an SOS, had no choice but to traverse this dangerous territory and the nature of India’s military requires a certain level of autonomy from its officers. To Gogoi, using a human shield seemed like the best option, and the operation was otherwise successful with no loss of life. He concluded his answer with, “I am not for one moment…justifying what Major Gogoi did, but what I’m asking people to do is to reflect on the situation and the environment in which he did what he did. That’s a dilemma that soldiers in today’s battlefield go through all the time.”

The floor was then opened for questions from the audience. One attendee asked Subramaniam “Do you think that it’s in India’s best interest to become more involved in Afghanistan?” He responded by saying that putting boots on the ground was not the only way to support the Afghan cause. “The Indian approach in Afghanistan has always been capacity building” he explained, pointing to the hundreds of Afghan officers that train at India’s military academies, the Indian doctors supporting the Afghan healthcare system, and India’s support of the Afghan education system. India, Subramaniam said, has always been involved in Afghanistan, but he did not believe that boots on the ground would or should be committed. No matter the government in power, the Indian people will start questioning the purpose of the conflict the minute that body bags start coming back.

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