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,