Skip to main content
Updated date:

The State at War in South Asia Review

the-state-at-war-in-south-asia-review

India is an ancient civilization, and hence it is entirely unsurprising that it has an equally ancient military history - war has been one of the trademarks of human civilization after all. Trying to write a military history for this great span of time, for its thousand of years, is a hard task, but Pradeep P. Barua manages it with reasonable aplomb, in his book The State at War in South Asia which attempts to both cover the history of armies but even more importantly their relationship to state and society. Armies in India were influenced not just by their position and relationship to the militaries of the rest of the world, but also by the particular structure of Indian society and state-building, and had their own impact on them.

Andreep's book traces India's military history chronologically, starting from the Indus valley, through the classical period with the fights with Alexander and into the Medieval age. It comes of age however, in the immediate centuries before the colonial era, tracking the development of various pre-colonial Indian states such as the Mysoreans, Marathas, and Sikhs, in their development of modern armies and militaries to compete with the British, noting the state structures and training regimes required to support them - as well as the limitations of Indian states which undermined them, such as a tendency to factionalism. After this it covers the Indian military under the Raj, particularly in the First and Second World Wars, and its history since independence and future prospects.

War elephants were a stable of Indian militaries up until the 16th century, despite arguably increasingly limited military effectiveness

War elephants were a stable of Indian militaries up until the 16th century, despite arguably increasingly limited military effectiveness

The State at War in South Asia is a superb military history of India, showing the competence, capabilities, trends, and history of Indian armies from ancient times to the present (or well, around twenty years ago when the book was written). It both gives a good understanding of Indian armies as far as their tactical capabilities went, and their relationship to broader Indian society and politics, showing in particular the limitations of early modern states in regards to the stability, effectiveness, and utility of Indian armies.

The book’s main interest is principally with tactical matters, the cutting edge of the sword, in battles and fights. It shows the way in which Indian armies fought, with their long interest in elephant actions and then later on in cavalry warfare, before under the Raj and then today ultimately developing a strain of battle-thought focusing on careful preparation, positional warfare, and an infantry-centric notion of combat. It tends to focus directly on the soldiers themselves and how they fought, and does an admirable job of this.

Such a focus on tactical operations however, does obscure the historical, pre-colonial, operational and strategic capabilities of Indian armies. Most of the campaigns which it covers are focused on battles, and not on the operational and planning capabilities of Indian forces, the relative importance of siege and positional warfare (Europe for much of its history has been heavily defined by siege warfare, and this was particularly the case in a period of significant importance for the book, the 17th and 18th centuries), and campaign objectives of Indian armies. How ambitious were Indian campaigns? Did they normally aim to capture entire regions? A fort? Knock the enemy out of the war? How much in the way of strategic mobility was there? And what peace did Indian armies attempt to impose on the enemy? For the armies themselves - how was training and leadership found? These questions are answered reasonably well for post-independence Indian military performance, after 1947 - but not for pre-colonial India.

There could also have been additional attention paid to Indian sepoy units in the 19th century under the Raj. The role of the Raj’s army in public order, its overseas deployments, particularly in China or during the Crimean War, the Anglo-Burmese War, or above all else the Sepoy Rebellion is not discussed. The role of Indian forces other than the Western Front in WW1 is truly left unexplored, although the discussion of the critical role of white British officers in their role of intermediaries and enabling Indian soldiers to understand the incomprehensible world and war environment of the Western front is fascinating.

Furthermore explanation could have been advanced about why the Indian military after independence has proven proficient at positional warfare, carefully planning advances, and eschewing maneuver warfare. The difficulties which the Indian military experienced when it abandoned this, such as during fighting with China in 1962, as well as some of the interwar routes of the doctrinal development of the Indian military, showing how Indian officers preferred a balanced, equilibrated development, of armored and infantry forces instead of embracing more radical, armored doctrines as espoused by British military reformers at the time show some of the reasons behind the development, and how things have gone badly wrong at other periods, but not the whole story. Is it a legacy of the colonial period with a devaluing of Indian initiative? The relative comparative advantage of India for infantry in light of its huge population? Its fundamentally principally defensive strategy? Is this why Pakistan chose for a more armored-centric doctrine during its wars with India? And is the Indian military changing its perspective, as the book mentions its planning for deep armored strikes to the Indus in a future war?

Despite these limitations, the book delivers a strong history of Indian military performance, particularly in the centuries preceding colonization where alternate material is difficult to find, and helps give one a good understanding of the relationship between armies and state structures throughout the history of the subcontinent.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Related Articles