India’s Wars (HarperCollins; 2016) is available for purchase here.

REVIEW By Selma Carvalho

India’s Wars (HarperCollins; 2016) is a book written entirely from a military point of view and is unnervingly masculine in its interpretation of history. This is hardly surprising since its author Arjun Subramaniam is a serving Air Vice Marshal in the Indian Air Force and an alumnus of the Rashtriya Indian Military College, Dehradun.

The chapter on Goa (pp 180-194) has a brief recounting of its colonial history which I found wanting. There are sweeping statements such as, ‘The Portuguese ruled Goa with an iron hand for over 400 years with the Catholic Church embarking on a ruthless conversion programme, even going to the extent of condoning large-scale extermination of local males and granting incentives for Portuguese nationals to set up home in Goa.’ Where did Subramaniam unearth this rare gem of information that the Catholic Church condoned large-scale extermination of local males? Even a cursory study of colonialism will reveal that outside of wars and reprisals, large-scale ‘extermination’ of men didn't make for good colonial policy. Men were the work force that allowed colonialism to be profitable and the driving intent behind colonial policy was how to get them to work or trade. Portuguese colonialism particularly was one of enculturation and the creation of a society which mirrored Portugal. This meant cultivating dominant elite males and ensuring their fealty to Portugal. To reduce ‘over 400 years’ of Church history in Goa to abetting mass murder shows perhaps, on the part of the author, a certain bias.

Subramaniam then compounds irony with: ‘The mere fact that almost 28% was Catholic at the time of India’s independence reflected the domination of the church over the years.’ Surely, Subramaniam’s ability to discern from statistics is skewed. The mere fact that only 28% of the population was Catholic, proves perhaps that after the Pombaline reforms, with the Jesuits dispersed and the Inquisition dismantled, the policy of forced conversions was largely abandoned. And that the nova conquistas were spared conversions altogether. Subramaniam should be aware that writing the history of a small state is a delicate affair and to approach the task without bringing to it any depth of investigation leaves minorities vulnerable in the precarious times that we live in.

Subramaniam ponders over the seeming enigma of India’s inability ‘to evict an insignificant and militarily weak colonial power for almost fifteen years after having forced the world’s mightiest colonial power to leave’. He offers the most plausible explanation as Nehru’s reluctance to engage in military action, noting : ‘Once the guns fell silent in Kashmir and Hyderabad, Nehru went on a diplomatic offensive for the next decade, championing peaceful resolution of conflicts’. This would be an accurate assessment. Edila Gaitonde wife of prominent Goan freedom fighter Pundalik Gaitonde in taped interviews with me talked of how disinclined Nehru was right up to the end to use military force. But had Subramaniam interviewed Goans of a certain generation he would have also come to the conclusion that there was never a groundswell movement within Goa for Liberation. Much of the impetus came from Bombay where Goan populations had started to align with the idea of nationhood, where exiled Goan dissidents resided, set up underground presses and held the occasional public meeting calling for independence. In this respect, it is odd that Subramanian mentions Dr Ram Manohar Lohia as the initiator of the freedom struggle in Goa while entirely omitting to mention T. B. Cunha or even Dr Juliao Menezes who had invited Lohia to Goa. Was Subramaniam unaware of Cunha’s activism or merely chose to dismiss it in the interest of political expediency? Cunha had founded the Comissão de Congresso de Goa (Goa Congress Committee) as early as 1928, later affiliated to the Indian National Congress. Subramaniam also states somewhat puzzlingly that the freedom movement fizzled out ‘once he [Lohia] left the Congress party in 1948’, once again blithely dismissing Cunha’s long struggle in exile and then in Bombay against the Portuguese.  

In the end, Subramanian states, ‘politics scored over nationalist aspirations and resulted in more than a decade of procrastination on Goa.’ Subramanian should be careful when bandying about words like nationalist aspirations. In an era where definitions of nationalism are used to constantly create unrest, it begs the question whose ‘nationalist aspirations’ is he referring to? Did the nationalist aspirations of local Goans have any agency in what happened to Goa? Or were Goans expected to cohere with the larger narrative which India had framed by then?

The rest of the pages are devoted to details of strategy and the scale of Operation Vijay which ended colonial rule in Goa. These are certainly of interest. For instance: ‘The broad military plan was to launch a division-sized force with limited armour and artillery supported by fighters and bombers operating from the airfields of Pune and Belgaum against Goa, and a smaller force of approximately two battalions supported by fighters operating from Jamnagar airfield against the fortified island of Diu.’

Portugal no doubt expected assistance from NATO. Certainly it had requested Britain for assistance referring to the Agreement of 1899. But public opinion in Britain was against any such intervention and Britain declined. As a result Portugal stood alone, and Goa remained undefended. Subramanian notes: ‘By noon on 19 December, Panjim and Mapuca, the two primary objectives, were captured as Chaudhuri made his way to Panjim along with Air Marshal Pinto and an intelligence officer B. N. Mullick.’ The Indian armed forces lost twenty-two men; Portual lost thirty men, had another fifty-seven wounded and 3,000 taken prisoner.

The author is clearly an expert in his chosen field of military history and brings to his writing a wealth of military experience as well as solid archival research. The chapter on Goa should be of interest to military enthusiasts, historians and researchers but its appeal doesn’t widen beyond that narrow perspective.