Military history can be a tricky terrain as historians often have to grapple with choices—should the focus be academic or adapt a more popular narrative while telling an informed tale of bravery and valour. There are very few books that manage to combine these aspects and offer a well-researched, detailed account that is both technical as well as engaging for the non-military reader. In a country such as India, the lack of well-documented military history, both in an official capacity as well as in popular culture, has limited the genre for a long time, but this is fast-changing.
Besides a bevy of reasons, the 50th anniversary of the Bangladesh Liberation War has also added to the piqued interest in India’s military history. Air Vice-Marshal Arjun Subramaniam’s Full Spectrum picks up from his previous book India’s Wars and offers an all-encompassing account of India’s military histories and strategies in the decades after its greatest hour.
AVM Subramaniam is a rare breed of historian as he happens to be a great storyteller who also donned the uniform. This singular aspect places him in a unique league as he understands the impact of strategy on any campaign and the role of individuals in various capacities. This is the reason why Full Spectrum manages to give the larger picture of India’s military engagements, be it conventional war or sub-conventional conflicts, such as low-intensity conflict, terrorism, armed rebellion, covert, proxy and hybrid wars. Subramaniam’s exhaustive and in-depth account covering wars, military involvements in the Naga rebellion, Operation Blue Star, Siachen, overseas engagements in Sri Lanka, Maldives and Kargil war rarely has a moment where the narrative takes the foot off the accelerator.
When one thinks of the wars India has fought, the focus usually tends to be on the engagements with China and Pakistan, but with Full Spectrum, one realises this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reader gets excellent historical insight and perspective into proxy wars in Jammu and Kashmir, separatist violence in Punjab, the IPKF intervention in Sri Lanka, and the continued stress along the LoC and LAC. In addition to the campaigns that were reported in mainstream media, Subramaniam presents a riveting account of those that are relegated to be in the shadows, or in some cases, forgotten.
Reading about India’s UN Peacekeeping missions—from Korea, where doctors and personnel of the 60th Para Field Ambulance led by Lt Col Rangaraj treated an estimated 2.2 lakh during the 1950-53 Korean War to IAF Canberra pilots flying dangerous missions against the Katanga rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo—shows the long tradition of the world’s largest troop contributor to UN missions since inception.
The book is an excellent read for anyone with the slightest interest in India’s armed forces. As someone who understands the world well, Subramaniam tells the story without undue criticism or singling out anyone both in victory and loss. In addition to being a sweeping account of war and conflict in contemporary India over the past five decades, the book is a singular experience in terms of understanding military leadership and the part it plays in leading the ones committed to protecting India’s sovereignty. Not to be missed.