The landscape of India’s military history in the late modern and contemporary eras stretches across battlegrounds from Europe, West Asia and Africa to the jungles of Southeast Asia in the First World War and the Second World War. After independence, India’s Armed Forces have fought conventional wars across varied terrain against China and Pakistan. They have crossed the near seas to aid neighbours in distress and engaged in counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir and the northeast. Despite these prolonged and near-continuous military operations, military history, both in its academic form and storytelling narratives, has rarely been part of India’s mainstream historical discourse.

Like his earlier book, Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China, Probal Dasgupta has come up with another page-turner, this time in the form of a collection of accounts of military courage, heroism, resilience, and empathy on the part of Indian soldiers over the last century. Packaged well as Camouflage: Forgotten Stories From Battlefields, the book includes some stories that have been told earlier, and some that have been unearthed by Dasgupta, whose curiosity and remarkable ability to build on chance acquaintances and fleeting conversations is quite evident in several of them.

The inclusion of two stories of the exploits of pilots from the Indian Air Force is a laudable attempt to add diversity to the anthology. A story from the Navy would have completed a tri-service collection. However, this does not in any way diminish the variety of the stories and the uniqueness and ease in their style of narration.

The many lives of Indian soldiers

The first section on the First World War has an Indian cavalryman, Lance Daffadar Gobind Singh, fighting for the Crown and charging across the cold, wet and slushy plains of Europe on his steed to deliver operational messages. Dodging vicious German fire and demonstrating courage well beyond the call of duty on more than one occasion, he was the first Indian to be awarded a Victoria Cross in the War. Dasgupta brings his story alive.

The narrative takes to the skies and weaves the saga of two intrepid aviators, Lieutenants Indra Lal “Laddie” Roy and Hardit Singh Malik, who took on the Germans and engaged in numerous dogfights over France. While Roy was killed in a dogfight after downing eleven German fighters in less than two weeks, Malik, also an ace with eight kills, survived a crash after he was shot down and lived to be a diplomat in later years. Roy was the first Indian to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

A fascinating story emerges from the Second World War. Captured by the Germans in Africa, surviving a sinking by a submarine in the Mediterranean, and attempting multiple but unsuccessful escapes from POW camps in Italy and Germany, Naik Chanan Singh Dhillon survived the war and returned to India to gain his commission in the Indian Army and retired as a Lt Col.

An iconic Ladakhi officer, an infantryman cum hockey Olympian, and ace fighter pilots make up the next section, which takes the reader through one outstanding new narrative and two stories that have been told before. Colonel Chhewang Rinchen is a legend in Ladakh and played a prominent role in the defence of Ladakh in 1948 and subsequently as a founder member of the Nubra Guards and Ladakh Scouts. Back in action in the 1971 War, this time in an offensive role that led to the capture of Chalunkha, he is among the few officers to have been awarded the Maha Vir Chakra twice in his career.

Colonel Haripal Kaushik’s story is a captivating one that has not been written about in detail so far. Part of the Indian Olympic hockey team that lost the Gold Medal to Pakistan in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Kaushik was thrust into battle in the Tawang Sector as a Lieutenant during the early days of the India-China conflict of 1962. Escaping from a Chinese ambush near Sela after a fighting retreat from near the Bumla Pass, he was among the few from his battalion who escaped and made it back to Tezpur. Awarded a Vir Chakra for his sustained courage and resilience in trying conditions, Kaushik’s final redemption arrived in the form of an Olympic Gold Medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and several others in the following years.

From 1962, the narrative shifts to November 1971 and the skies over East Pakistan, a few days before a full-fledged war broke out between India and Pakistan. It was here that four fighter pilots of the IAF in their Gnat fighters covered themselves in glory as between them, they shot down two Sabres and damaged another one in a dogfight over Boyra that saw a future PAF air chief being among those shot down and taken POW by the Indian Army. Three of the four IAF pilots, Flight Lieutenant Massey and Flying Officers Ganapathy and Lazarus were the first IAF “Top Guns” of the 1971 war and were awarded Vir Chakras.

The last section of the book has four stories, one from Kargil, two from counterinsurgency operations in Assam and Jammu and Kashmir respectively, and the last one from the exploits of the National Security Guard (NSG) during the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008. Whether it is a twist in the tale or the human factor of empathy for an adversary, this section highlights the difficulties of being a soldier in situations “short of war.” This is a fine anthology written with the deft touch of a practitioner and the flair of a consummate storyteller.

Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (Retd) is a military historian and the author of India’s Wars and Full Spectrum.

Camouflaged: Forgotten Stories from Battlefields, Probal Dasgupta, Juggernaut.