A land without military heroes?

Does India have no military heroes to celebrate?

Nehru had a particularly important role in shaping a specific reading of India's history [AFP/Getty Images]

A few years ago,  writer, Justin Huggler, and I quarrelled over our favourite military heroes: in his case, Alexander the Great, in mine, Hannibal of Carthage. The conversation, though, made me wonder why we never considered talking of Indian military heroes, though our argument took place in New Delhi. In India, it seems, we do not really have any major military heroes to celebrate. Or if we do, they tend to be ones like Rani of Jhansi or Tipu Sultan, worsted by the evil British in their conquest of India.

And yet the scale of India, and its empires of the past, is such that the battles in this region would dwarf the little battles of Alexander and Hannibal. So, what happened, how is it that we generally only talk of military heroes such as Porus, proud in defeat in the face of Alexander, or Maharana Pratap, whose swift steed, Chetak, is celebrated for the speed with which he fled from the Mughal armies? These are not military heroes.

A peace-loving people?

One argument is that Indian culture is supine – the old Orientalist argument of the brown man so lazy and indolent, that he lets everybody conquer over him. This is the hot air that the British peddled in their day, while employing Indian troops to conquer and defend the greatest empire known to man. Certain Indian intellectuals have used a version of this by stating that Indians are, by their very nature, peace-loving, and this is proved by the fact that we did not invade others. This is simply not true.

The Mauryan empire, one of the greatest in its day, expanded through conquest, as did the Chola empire to the south, the Delhi Sultanate did so in its own day, as did the Jaunpur-based Sharqi dynasty, which fielded the largest armies in South Asia, five hundred miles east and west of its capital.

India, with its great diversity, could not afford such tales of subjugation and domination – at least not the India that Nehru hoped to govern. He wrote a story of liberation instead, and excised from it the tales of conquest, and with them, the military heroes we might have had.

Anyone who has read any real Indian history knows it to be incredibly violent, and even during the relative peace between 1857 and 1947, Indian soldiers were marching on Tibet, Afghanistan, and fighting in battlefields in many of the theatres of World War I and World War II.

My grandfather was an officer on the Burma front – one of the bloodiest of the war – between 1940 to 1945, and two of my great-uncles were deployed in North Africa against Rommel’s troops.

They all earned their share of medals, and in odd conversations here or there, I have run across Indian families with bucketloads of medals from foreign wars. If Indians are culturally peaceful, I can only say that most Indians do not really know that, their own family histories tell them otherwise.

Imagining a peaceful India

A second argument that is made is that the nature of India’s Independence movement, powered by Gandhian non-violence, has had such an impact that its values have been deeply ingrained, and military heroes became irrelevant to India.

This is a far more believable argument. Of all the great anti-colonial movements, India’s had the luck to be one won by the weakening of the British Empire, and a campaign that did not have to resort to war in order to displace the imperialist powers.

India’s slow route to freedom happened far more by negotiation than by violence, and it is striking how many of the most prominent leaders, from Motilal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, were lawyers. As such, they savoured the cutting edge of phrases rather than that of bayonets, and they, in the end wrote the history of their triumph, in which military power played no part.

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This last bit, though, is what is important in this argument. It is not just that India’s Independence movement was non-violent – in some ways, with Partition and its riots, it was as bloody as any other – what is important is how it was portrayed and received.

The victors write history, and the principal victor of India’s Independence movement – at least in India – was the Congress party, and its most important chronicler was India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Perhaps his most influential work was his tome, “The Discovery of India,” which was made into a monumental 53 episode television series by one of India’s foremost directors, Shyam Benegal, in 1988.

Written in jail, a few years before Independence, the book was an attempt to imagine India that the Congress would soon rule. In a sense, Nehru was writing history for his own purpose – as does every historian – and such a purpose did not include military heroes. Partially this may have been because Nehru was not a military man himself, nor did he come from such a family, and his most influential guru, Gandhi, had no appreciation of the military either.

But far more important was the fact that if a military hero is someone who triumphed over somebody else, there are countless such triumphs in Indian history, but they are largely triumphs over other people who are now also Indians. To valorise such leaders is, of necessity, to demean some other Indians.

In that sense, looking back at Justin and my conversation, I realise that in celebrating Alexander, Justin was also, whether he was aware of it or not, celebrating the subjugation of those that Alexander bested. My celebration of Hannibal was also, in part, a celebration of the terror of the Romans, cowed and fearful behind their walls, and the mourning of Roman widows and orphans.

India, with its great diversity, could not afford such tales of subjugation and domination – at least not the India that Nehru hoped to govern. He wrote a story of liberation instead, and excised from it the tales of conquest, and with them, the military heroes we might have had.  

Omair Ahmad is a Delhi based author. His last novel, “Jimmy the Terrorist” was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and won the Crossword Award. His latest book is called, “The Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys into Bhutan.”