Professor Wilkinson rebuts my review of his book, and I respond. - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 8 May 2015

Professor Wilkinson rebuts my review of his book, and I respond.

Professor Steven I Wilkinson's response to my review:-
I'm very happy to report that my book Army and Nation has had several more positive reviews.
First, Srinath Raghavan at CPR in New Delhi has given the book a very detailed and positive review in Kolkata's Telegraph (April 24, 2015) titled “At Arm’s Length.” I’m especially impressed by how carefully he has read the book, and how much he gets the main arguments correct. This is the best summary of the book I've seen so far. Raghavan certainly does not agree with everything I say, and in particular he differs over the extent to which, had political interference been less in the 1950s and 1960s, the army would have been able to come up with creative strategic policies on its own that would have countered the threats from China and elsewhere. But it’s a very generous review, and he concludes by calling it “a major contribution to the study of the Indian army and the making of India's democracy. Everyone should read it.” Thank you for giving the book such a careful reading!
Second, Sushant Singh has also given the book a warm review in Indian Express (March 14 2015), entitled “Standing at Ease.” The review focuses on the arguments I make about the importance of the Congress party in managing political conflict in the country at large after independence, and also the careful ethnic balancing that went on inside the army in the 1950s and 1960s. Thanks also to you Sushant!
There’s also a short but good review by Siddharth Singh in this week’s Livemint (May 2 2015) that calls Army and Nation an “important comparison” and a “believable story.”
I should probably also take the time here to respond to Ajai Shukla's somewhat critical review in Business Standard (April 14 2015), titled “That Meddlesome Punjabi Army.” Col. Shukla (rtd.) whose website and email use the nom de plume “broadsword,” is generally appreciative of the book's data and comparison of the Indian civil-military case experience with Pakistan's. He terms it a “riveting, well-written book, which will undoubtedly be a reference work for future scholars....” So many thanks for that.
But at the end of the review Col. Shukla complains about what he says are a number of "glaring inaccuracies" that ought to be corrected in future editions. These are: 1) he claims that I am unaware that officers are selected through interview and exam; 2) that "in recounting the names of army chiefs “side-lined” as envoys after retirement, the author does not explain why so many chiefs were not sent abroad, but retired quietly in India”; 3) that I have relied too heavily in parts on the work of Neville Maxwell; 4) "that the number of Punjabis [in the army] at any time is purely coincidental, not a reflection of policy"; 5) and that in fact senior army chiefs are selected through seniority, rather than the more political process of manipulation of promotions that I describe in the book.
Lets readers assume these are in fact errors, let me respond to these specific criticisms here. I should point out first that 1) and 2) are things I am aware of, but have either not commented on, or that I could or should have commented on more. These are not however errors, which would be things I had actually said. I am sure that I could also think of many things Col. Shukla has not said which would be wrong. But that would hardly be fair.
On number 3) the argument seems to be that Neville Maxwell is wrong on everything and therefore that a book which cites him is also flawed. I dispute that, as have various Indian scholars. But even so Shukla provides no justification or evidence at all for why Maxwell might be wrong on the few areas where I do cite him. Those areas are also not very many: Maxwell is listed 7 times in the index, far fewer for instance than former Chiefs Generals Cariappa and Chaudhuri, recent Defence Minister A.K. Anthony, 1950s Defence Secretary H.M. Patel, or the respected historians of the Indian Army Stephen P. Cohen or Daniel Marston.
On points number 4) on the Punjabi proportion in the army and 5) on seniority, these are not errors; Shukla and I simply disagree. I provide a lot of evidence for my arguments in the book, and if he disagrees Col. Shukla should provide evidence for his. On 4) I show, in detail, how the class composition policies of individual regiments and battalions since independence have kept the Punjabi proportion of the enlisted ranks high, using memoirs, battalion and regimental histories, and systematic data provided in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha proceedings. As I show (see the chart below) the Sikh and Jat proportion in the Infantry and Armored Corps remains high.
EthnicGroup-19472012-Proportion-Color with bookmark
Overall there are more than fifty references to these data and examples in the index, as well as the many charts. I also provide detailed evidence, including interviews and quotes, for the apparent policy of limiting Punjabi representation at the very highest ranks in the decades after independence. There were several protests from Sikh leaders in the 1950s when very able Sikh Major Generals and Lieutenant Generals were not promoted (Wilkinson, 2015, pp.109-10). As I show, it is very hard to conclude that this policy was an accident, given the overall number of Sikh senior officers in the army, and Surjit Singh Majithia, for instance, the Dy. Defence Minister 1952-1962, told Stephen P. Cohen in an interview in 1964 that Krishna Menon “did attempts to cut down the number of Punjabis in the military, [he] felt that there were too many of them.”(Wilkinson, 2015, 109)
On 5) the seniority issue, this is again a disagreement. While it may be factually true that the chief is selected from the most senior candidates, the key question, of course, is how and why some candidates get to be the most senior and therefore at the head of the queue when the top generals are chosen? I cite both individual cases - the supersessions of Lt. Gen. Sant Singh, Lt. Gen. S.D. Verma and Lt. Gen. S.P.P. Thorat and the recent Gen. V.K. Singh controversy—as well as such sources as R.K. Anand’s 2012 book Assault on Merit: The Untold Story of Civil Military Relations on all the promotion and seniority manipulations in the army to show that this is very far from the neutral seniority-led process Shukla claims. In fact, in a recent post of his own, Col. Shukla himself highlights the various ways in which “meritocracy has been insidiously undermined over decades,” and new promotion policies are making things even worse.
So all in all then, I think there is a little too much ‘broadsword’ and not enough careful reading or presentation of evidence in Shukla's review.
My response to Professor Wilkinson:
I’m a bit surprised at Professor Steve Wilkinson’s irate response to my review of his book, “Army and Nation”. My review largely praises the book, noting that it “breaks fresh ground”; “no earlier scholar has gone into the detail that Wilkinson presents”; that he “overcomes government opaqueness… provid(ing) an object lesson to Indian researchers and academics”.

I also note, as Wilkinson acknowledges, that “this riveting, well-written book… will undoubtedly be a reference work for future scholars…”.

Only in the last two paragraphs of an eleven-paragraph review do I point out factual and methodological problems in Wilkinson’s book. On the basis of this, he terms my review “somewhat critical”, and rejects my observations as having “a little too much ‘broadsword’ and not enough careful reading or presentation of evidence.”

Wilkinson presents a lengthy rebuttal of the points I have raised. The substance of his defence only suggests that he has not understood the issues I have underlined. So let me simplify it for him because I continue to believe this is an important book, the next edition of which should not be marred by these errors.

One criticism is as follows. The central logic of Wilkinson’s book is that the pre-independence government of India, as also the post-independence governments of India and Pakistan, ensured --- for various reasons --- that Punjabis (along with other “martial races”) were a large majority in their respective militaries. Wilkinson proves this for the army as a whole. But his argument is invalid when it comes to commissioned Indian/Pakistani officers. This is because officers were (and are) chosen through an open competitive selection process in which young men from all over the country are free to participate. The number of officers from the Punjab, or Himachal, or any area for that matter is not a function of government quotas, but of the variable merit of candidates from those regions, which changes from batch to batch. Officer numbers, therefore, do not reflect government policy, unlike recruitment to the ranks, which is a function of government quotas.

Therefore, the fact (discussed on pages 178-180) that 27 per cent of all officer cadets were from the former undivided Punjab between 1983-1987 is irrelevant to the central argument. It might well have been that, in the succeeding five years, the majority were from the southern states. This would depend entirely on the relative merit of candidates who chose to appear for selection in those years.

If Wilkinson were aware of this, why is he discussing the officer composition at all, making it appear as if government policy had a hand in shaping the ethnic balance amongst officers?

It is clear that Wilkinson has not differentiated in his own mind between the officer cadre and the rank and file. He quotes me out of context as saying " the number of Punjabis [in the army] at any time is purely coincidental, not a reflection of policy".

In fact I had written the number of Punjabi OFFICERS is coincidental. My words in the review were: “The author is apparently unaware that officers are selected through competitive examinations and interviews, and that the number of Punjabis at any time is purely coincidental, not a reflection of policy.”

Furthermore, in dealing with officer promotions and the selection of army chiefs Wilkinson’s otherwise admirable book is on very shaky ground. There are numerous factual inaccuracies, only some of which I will enumerate here:

1.              In arguing that Sikhs and Punjabis were blocked from the top job, the author claims that Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh “looked to be in line” to succeed Gen Kumaramangalam as army chief in 1969, when the defence ministry restored Lt Gen Manekshaw’s seniority (allegedly forfeited earlier in a witch-hunt by Krishna Menon) pushing him ahead of Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh. In fact, Manekshaw never lost any seniority and, therefore, none could ever have been restored.
2.              While correctly noting that Lt Gen PS Bhagat was denied the top job by an extension given to Gen GG Bewoor, Wilkinson admits that this might have been because he was too outspoken, not because he was a Sikh.
3.              Where a Punjabi was appointed chief --- General Thapar, to succeed Gen Thimayya --- the author claims this was done to block Gen Thimayya’s pick for the top job! In fact, General Thapar, like EVERY SINGLE army chief except for Gen Vaidya, was appointed because he was the senior-most serving lt gen.

Besides these errors, my review did not mention several other mistakes that suggest unfamiliarity with the subject, and also poor editing. An example is the statement in the book: “When (someone was) asking about the possibility of a coup in India, (he) was told by one officer that if the COAS (chief of army staff) and Fourth Corps commanders all coordinated the army would follow”.

I presume Wilkinson was referring to “the COAS and four army commanders”.

Professor Wilkinson, you’ve written a book that is a valuable addition to the existing literature. I have acknowledged that. Are you only going to be satisfied only with a uniformly complimentary review that contains not a single observation or suggestion for change? That bespeaks an unseemly academic arrogance.

With good wishes,
 Ajai Shukla


  1. Well rebutted like a gentleman and an officer, Col. Shukla.

  2. how and why some candidates get to be the most senior and therefore at the head of the queue when the top generals are chosen?

    This question needs an answer from Shukla and it is somehow deeply connected to his notions of merit ... which he has inadequately debated in his another blog on cultivating Warior culture (without having seen a war).

    The merit that starts with and is influenced by the mind phenomenon called typification or association of week minds ( as explained in "On the Psychology of Military Incompetence" -Norman Dixon) looking solace in "types" such as place type, squadron type, train types and continues to look for types like Kunjpura types or Chittorgarh types or Rimcolian types even when one is a Chief or a high ranking general. The same weakness of mind then goes on to categorise officers as Mud Corps and Infantry. The system has not been able to find to balance such influences in making merit. Hence one needs to have clear idea of the drum called "merit" which one loudly beats.

    So there is a point in the question as to how a general is made to reach a particular seniority and then make a virtue out of that mechanism.

    Why there is no midcourse appraisal of merit and fixing of seniority ? Is the merit specifically defined for specific rank and an officer judged as per that? For example an officer who has not seen a field till ten years of service what is he worth? The qualities written in APAR forms and their numerical value can hardly be the sole criteria of merit for the profession of Arms.

    Gen VK Singh's case was the best example to exhibit how merit can be schemed and manufactured.

    So will Shukla define his concept of merit or remain vague in defining as all others.

    1. Go ahead and define your ideas of how merit ought to be judged instead of waiting for manna from heaven!
      A Mud Corps only peace area service type

  3. The Indian Army selection is heavily biased as recruiting officers happen to be from a particular region who favor candidates from their regions. This is the reason why even today, Indian Army composition be it number of jawans or officers is pretty much the same as that of Indian Colonial Army. It's high time such glaring imbalances need to be addressed. The Indian Army needs restructuring big time.

  4. Being politically correct is one thing but being academically arrogant quite another.
    More Punjabis Officers rise to higher ranks or lets say even make good soldiers is because of the fact that as a race they are more suited to the profession ...just as Gujaratis /Jews are to business or finance or Menons/Tam-Brams are to Bureaucracy ! I am saying this with is with malice to none please!

    Such public banter about who said what should best be avoided as long as the point has been made that the criticism is well intentioned and the overall effort of Wilkinson genuinely praiseworthy!

    Deepak Das


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