Military Literary Festival at Chandigarh ended earlier this month, a grand spectacle of military thought and action. It is for the first time that such an event on matters military has been held in Chandigarh, which is home to a very large number of veterans from the three services.

The idea was mooted by the Governor of Punjab,VPS Badnore. Both the Punjab government under Captain Amrinder Singh and GoC-in C, Western Command, Lt-Gen Surinder Singh, had chipped in to make the event a great success. Lt-Gen Shergill was instrumental in giving the festival the required impetus.

The involvement of children in the festival was well thought out and they displayed great enthusiasm in carrying out their assigned tasks. The spread and scope of presentations and discussion was indeed multidimensional. Senior military officers from outside Chandigarh, some eminent journalists and historians as well as those from the academia, had been co-opted to give their views on issues related to national security and battles fought by Indian troops in the past, military diplomacy, Chanakya’s expositions on military intelligence and warfare, military leadership as well as the changing nature of warfare.

The scope and spread of discussions was wide open, though the time available for views and inputs from the audience in almost all events was extremely limited and in some cases none at all. Since there were a very large number of senior veterans in the audience, some useful inputs and perhaps a different perspective could have been projected and the discussions would have been that much more enlightening. It some cases, certain details projected by those who spoke on various subjects, would have been disputed and that would have led to lively discussions, had enough time been made available to the audience. Though these were termed as panel discussions, but in reality were presentations with little discussion amongst the panelists and due to shortage of time, none with the audience.

As an example, take the case of presentation ( not a discussion ) of Anglo – Sikh wars, which is a very important and emotional subject for Punjab. It was necessary to tell the audience that some of the British historians have made an attempt to put the blame for initiating the First Anglo-Sikh war on Punjab Durbar, by contending that it was the Sikh army that first crossed the Sutlej River to wage war on the English. Though the reality was that the British had started the build-up of forces and stocking of military stores etc at Ambala , Ludhiana and Ferozepur, cantonments, starting from autumn of 1844. Moreover pontoon bridges for crossing Sutlej River were moved forward from Bombay. Sikh troops had crossed Sutlej into its own territory, but this had become the, Causa belli for declaring war on the Punjab Durbar. In fact Lord Hardinge had remarked to Robert Crust, “will the people of England consider this crossing of Sutlej by the Sikhs an actual invasion of our frontier and justification of war. “

It was indeed necessary to know more details of the famous battle of Ferozeshahar. Mudki was merely a screen position where due to some error, prematurely fire was opened whereby, little damage could be inflicted on the British army. The British launched their attack on defences at Ferozeshahar on the morning of December 21. They overcame stiff resistance, though at great cost and by the afternoon had over run better part of the defences. It is in the afternoon that the Sikhs launched one of the most fierce and full blooded counter attack, resulting in mass slaughter of British troops, where one of their colonel, as he ran back, was heard call out that ‘India is lost.’

This counter attack not only regained the ground lost, but had reduced the British army as a fighting force of no consequence and completely defeated. Unconditional surrender was the only option left and was so decided by the British commanders. Lord Harding gave his sword to his son along with some important papers and dispatched him to Mudhki for onward journey to England. This sword was not given to staff to clean it before presenting it to the Sikh army, as stated by Mandeep Rai, one of the panelist.

The sword was presented to Lord Hardinge by Duke of Wellington and belonged to Napoleon, taken from him after the battle of Waterloo. How could Mandeep Rai, misrepresent such an important point. It is not possible to talk of battle of Ferozeshahar, without referring to the bard, Shah Mohammad, where he tells us about the Punjabi spirit in stirring words-

Sons of Sardars - handsome dashing and debonair
Leapt into battle as loins leap out of their lair.

Or detailing on the counter attack he writes,

‘Shah Mohammda, singhian ne gorayan da wang nimbuan lahu nachod ditta,’ ( the Sikhs sequeezed blood out of British as one would sequeeze juice out of lemon ) and elsewhere he says, ‘ek sardar Bajhoon, faujan jit kay unth nu harian san’ ( for want of a leader Sikh army lost after winning the battle )

The commander of the Sikh forces, Lal Singh spent the day of the battle in the safety of a deep trench and at night ordered the troops to pull out, much to the dismay of troops who had already won the battle, even though of Sikh cavalry under Teja Singh did not join the battle inspite of one soldier urging him to do so.

One can hardly go over the battle of Ferozeshahar without recalling what that well known historian, Hari Ram Gupta, who in his seven volumes, magnum opus, ‘History of the Sikhs,’ writes. To quote him, “ had the Sikhs fired a single shot on the morning of 22 December, the British Empire would have vanished from India.”

William Dalrymple another panelist was wrong to contend that East India Company had vast resources, which would have come to their aid and thus the defeat at Ferozeshahar would not have been the end of British Empire in India. Never before the British had concentrated such a large body of troops as at Ferozeshahar not had they come up against such a formidable enemy, which even without deploying the cavalry arm of its army had so convincingly defeated the British.

Defeat and decimation this army would have resulted in revolt against other smaller detachments all over India. Hari Ram Gupta does make a telling observation. After the victory at Ferozeshahar, Sikh army would have marched on to Delhi with no opposition en-route!

At the battle of Chhillianwalla, Sikh army for the first time in the history of warfare brought a cavalry charge to an ignominious halt and captured standards of three regiments. This had resulted in investigations within the British army as to how a cavalry charge could be stemmed in its tracks!

Carrying this line of argument forward ( non participation of audience at reasonable scale due to limited time ) the contention put forward during the discussion on Siachen Glacier that if India were to vacate Saltaro Range ( and the Glacier ) Pakistan would occupy it and then threaten Leh across Ladakh Range. For any threat on these lines to materialize, the concerned force will have to first cross the Saltaro Range over one the passes ( Bilafondla, Siala etc ) then march over the glacier and across very narrow Nubra Valley ( where both shoulders would be occupied by India army ) and then face the Massive Ladakh Range.

What size force can possibly undertake such an arduous task and where from will the artillery support come! Equally can Pakistan bear the financial burden of installing troops on the Glacier! ( Rs 7 crores a day! ) At another stand, Vir Sanghvi, got away with his totally untenable observation that the Indian military is well paid! Equally at other venues such situations arose.

The point which needs to be taken note of is that in most other cases it was possible to project a counter narrative and that is the essence of informed and purposeful discussions.

The Festival was decidedly a great success and all those who made the administrative arrangements and those who made various presentations and others who participated in discussions needs to be complimented. Media too covered the event fully. May be the next Military Literary Festival will be tailored for greater participation by the audience. There is also the requirement to reduce the number of subjects for discussion ( in the present case there were more than 3 dozen subjects were taken up for discussion ) and each allotted more time to cater to larger participation.

This Festival at Chandigarh will perhaps set a trend for similar Military Literary Festivals in other locations where veterans and serving officers are in large numbers.