THE BOOK REVIEW
Vipul Dutta, Making Officers out of Gentlemen: Military Institution Building in India, c. 1900-1960, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2021, pp. 233, ISBN-13 (print edition): 978-0-19-013022-0
Vipul Dutta is assistant professor of history at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, where he combines research and teaching interests in South Asian diplomatic, military, and economic history of the twentieth century. The book is an outcome of his doctorate from King’s College London.
In his dissertation, Dutta set out to plug the gap in knowledge in India’s civil-military relations between the demands for Indianisation (spelt Indianization in the book), or the displacement of British officers with Indian officers in the army, and the institutional development in terms of training institutions such demands entailed. Whereas there is enough spotlight on the former, with the contribution of stalwarts from the freedom struggle as Motilal Nehru and Jinnah finding mention, little is known of the manner their vision was materialized in the setting up of the Indian Sandhurst, the Indian Military Academy (IMA), at Dehra Dun in 1932, and the Indian West Point, its National Defence Academy (NDA), at Khadakvasla in 1954. He goes on to explore how post independence, the process of Indianisation culminated in the establishment of the National Defence College (NDC) at New Delhi in 1960.
A missing piece in his narrative is the pre-independence thinking that went into sending Indian officers to the Staff College at Quetta. By mid thirties, the pioneer generation of Indian commissioned officers from Sandhurst became of the service bracket to proceed to Staff College. Besides, state forces officers were also to be accommodated. This reviewer’s grandfather was the first state forces’ officer to be nominated for the first War course in 1939, three years after the first Indian army officers began attending. His proceeding for the Staff Course required prior upgrade-in-skills training in the constantly militarily-hyperactive North West Frontier Province including attachments with the 2nd Battalion (Berar) of the 19 Hyderabad Regiment (rechristened Kumaon Regiment in 1945), today’s 2 Kumaon, the Peshawar brigade headquarters and the Royal Indian Air Force’s oldest outfit, No. 1 “The Tigers” Squadron, in Peshawar. Mention of the institutional churning that went on in Quetta, London and New Delhi on this aspect of Indians proceeding to Quetta would have completed his story.
Outside his periodisation, but relevant to his project on institutional development of officer training institutions, is a similar colossal collaboration between the ministry and the military to set up the senior colonel officer level training establishments such as the College of Combat, now Army War College and sister service equivalents. Whereas the wealth of information he has from archival sources for the four institutions he set out to explore – the feeder schools and colleges to officer commission academies, the IMA, the NDA and NDC – the files would unlikely be available for this in light of India’s deplorable policy on information preservation and sharing, even so it is a line of investigation the author could be prompted towards sometime in future.
The author has admirably succeeded in fulfilling what he set out to do. He has brought us the behind-the-scenes consideration and decision making that goes on within the government and military prior to setting up officer academies and institutions of higher professional learning, including nuances that would have otherwise been lost to history such as the place of Anglo Indians in the pre-independence scheme of things. He rightly ends on the note that the process of consideration of factors informing further institutional variegation is never at an end, pointing to the entry of women into higher officer ranks through the combat support and combat arms route as a pending issue. Likewise is the never ending saga of the National Defence University that will surely merit inclusion in a follow-up book by the author when he ventures beyond 1960, the limit he set himself in the book under review.
The book written for academics by an academic can be expected to have difficult-to-plumb writing for ordinary folk, but if they trudge past or skip the introduction entire, military buffs might find it a profitable read. It tends to broaden horizons in getting past the superficial that appear on the history pages of institution websites. It thus fleshes out what ‘Indianisation’ once meant and what is being taken to mean these days.
The latter takes us to the present day when reports have it that military music is to be indigenized, with the iconic tunes ‘Abide with me’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ being excised from the two major ceremonies, Beating Retreat and the passing out parades, respectively. This follows the prime minister’s direction at the last combined commanders’ conference held at Kevadia that the military must adopt and adapt to Indian customs and traditions. The policy makers making such input to the prime minister’s office will be well advised to peruse this book to learn of the continuity in Indianisation for over over 150 years (and incidentally with active participation of our British minders once) so the Indian military is Indian already and does not need to be pushed back into the Vedic age to ‘Indianise’.
The book details forming of the infrastructure in preparation for the induction of Indians into officer ranks beginning with the establishing of two sets of feeder colleges/schools: the initial lot of Chief’s colleges at Rajkot, Ajmer, Indore and Lahore catering for princely classes from the regions and the less military oriented Lawrence school network, followed by the King George’s Military Schools. The preeminent feeder institution, the Prince of Wales’ Royal Indian Military College, now Rashtriya Indian Military College, came up in Dehra Dun at the site of the Imperial Defence College, exactly a century back. The book will certainly of interest to a wide constituency of readers who are products of these institutions and now populate important segments of national sinews, giving them a fragrance of where their alma mater comes from as it did this reviewer, a Rimco from the last mentioned school. That the process was taken forward in independent India is a good thing, with the setting up of 33 Sainik Schools across the country in a center-state partnership. However, the idea in the last budget that another 100 such schools will be set up in partnership interalia with NGOs – euphemism for right wing affiliated formations – is taking this mite too far.
It would interest the military, bringing to it facets of its past dup up from archives ranging from Delhi to Manchester and vignettes from personal papers of the likes of generals Auchinleck to Thorat. This has been possible due to earlier respect for history and its preservation, which along with most colonial legacy we seem to have dispatched to the dustbin of history unthinking of what this spells for us as a people. This is best exemplified by the manner the Central Vista project unfolds, even as I write, and envelops in its dust, the National Archives, where the author spent some productive time writing up this book. Endangered by being treated on par with mythology these days, we can be thankful to him, as expected from a military ‘brat’, for devoting his youth to showcasing military history and his mentors, among others Srinath Raghavan and Rudra Chaudhuri, for their continuing academic interest in and pursuit of military studies, thereby keeping up a rear guard action against unscientific encroachment.