The Indian army is a much mythologised institution. Its general reputation still rests on the British imperial story of colourful Indian legions which proved their readiness to fight to the death for the British crown in many of Britain's wars over the past two centuries. Recruited from what the British portrayed as India's "martial races", and zealously upholding all the distinctions of creed and caste on which they were founded, these regiments were supposedly handed over to the Raj's successor states of India and Pakistan in 1947 with every button shining and every moustache waxed. In India, at least, according to the usual histories, the army chiefs and politicians sagely do not tamper with the military structure inherited from the British: the minority "martial races" continue to form the bulk of the troops, with the old caste-based regiments intact. The higher ranks retain an ethos based on the traditional British officer: parades and outdoor games, religiously observed mess rituals and, thank heaven, no politics.
This exceptional degree of separation of the army from society is commonly credited with keeping the Indian army largely uncontaminated by political passions and keeping Indian politics, however fraught and corrupt, at least civilian. As for battle worthiness, the army is generally held to have performed well in India's three wars with Pakistan, the sharp defeat at China's hands in 1962 being seen as exceptional.
So by consensus of both foreign and Indian observers, we have here an Indian institution that works well in a country where few institutions seem to. Or does it? Stephen Peter Rosen's study of India's military history leads to a far less favourable impression of the organisation of this army. Rosen's book is one of the most unillusioned and most illuminating histories of Indian military affairs that I have ever read. India is used as the central test case for a fascinating assessment, ranging through not only Indian but also world history, of the consequences for the military effectiveness of armies of the societal structures that underpin them. Rosen argues that, historically, in societies that are greatly fractured by linguistic, ethnic and/or religious diversities, armies with powerful offensive capability have had to be recruited and run in highly elitist ways, dividing them from their societies. For example, Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India both had highly Persianised ruling elites, but the Ottoman army showed far greater military capability than the Mughal forces ever did. The basic reason for this, says Rosen, is that the Ottoman army was largely insulated from society and its divisions, whereas the Mughal army was much closer to its society and reflected its fragmented structure.
The picture of Indian military history in Rosen's pages is that Indian armies prior to the British Raj were not separate from Indian society, with its uniquely deep fissures of caste and religion. These armies again and again proved inferior in battlefield coordination to invading foreign armies that were far more closely knit and specialised. The victorious foreigners were in turn sucked into the Indian morass of chronic social divisions, lost much of their military dynamism, and the political orders founded by them succumbed to native or new foreign challengers.
The British, by contrast, were extremely scrupulous in maintaining the separation of their forces from Indian society. Rosen notes that, contrary to what is often assumed, the weapons of Indian forces opposing the British, such as the Marathas, were by and large not inferior technologically. What enabled the British to win was greater internal unity and specialisation.
As for the modern Indian army, Rosen argues that segregation has indeed saved it so far from becoming political, but its peculiar British-derived internal organisation by caste and ethnicity means weak offensive capacity. Since units are deliberately maintained as separate worlds, in all the wars of independent India, they have repeatedly shown poor ability to coordinate.
India has an army which is suited neither for replacing politicians nor for sustaining any large-scale and prolonged war with its hostile neighbour China. That would demand radically new recruiting and organisational principles.
The book shows that constant awareness of ideological outlook is always present. This is in welcome contrast to nearly all works on the subject of the Indian army. However, Rosen never allows philosophical considerations to take over: his book belongs to a kind of academic study of history and society very unfashionable in this "postmodern" age, the kind that believes in treating the world as real rather than playfully dissolving it into a chaos of arcane philosophy. It will be of great interest to those who believe that the course of developments in India in the next few decades will be one of the vital factors affecting the shape of world politics.
Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.
Societies and Military Power: India and Its Armies
Author - Stephen Peter Rosen
ISBN - 0 8014 3210 3
Publisher - Cornell University Press
Price - £31.50
Pages - 280