“Anyone who believes you can’t change history has never tried to write his memoirs.”

— David Ben Gurion

One of the best memoirs I have read is Robert Kennedy’s insider view, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the USA and USSR came eyeball to eyeball with their nuclear arms unsheathed. In this unique account, he describes each of the participants during the sometimes hour-to-hour negotiations, with particular attention to the actions and views of his brother, President John F Kennedy.

Do we have any memoirs like this about our recent confrontations with Pakistan at Kargil and 26/11? Sadly, the answer is a big no.

It’s ironic that in a country with a long history and an all pervasive imprint of the government on the everyday lives of people, so little is recorded and hence known about how the state actually functions. Whatever we know about our past is mostly derived from the recordings of foreign travellers like Xuanzang, Faxian, Ibn Batuta or Fernao Nunez, or from the intellectual curiosity and perspicacity of British administrators, archeologists and scholars who recreated India’s history for Indians and the world at large. It is not surprising that our histories and mythologies intermingle, and what we like to believe is considered to be our history.

No inside stories in India

Our public servants are mostly known for their loquaciousness after they demit office, but very few actually record their experiences. Writing seems to be difficult for them as it requires clarity of mind, an ability to articulate, accuracy and honesty, and, above all, leaves a trail. What we mostly get from them in seminar rooms all over Delhi and elsewhere are oral retellings and their vital role or vantage positions when historical events were unfolding. Like all oral history these get embellished with every retelling and retailing.

India has made lifetime course choices and lived through tumultuous times, but very little is known about how choices about central planning, reorganization of states, the structure of government, external relations with China and Pakistan, or the Cold War were made. We never hear about the processes and the exchanges involved.

We ascribe the Five Year Plans to Jawaharlal Nehru and his interest in Marxism. There must have been discussions and internal processes, but of these we know very little. What we mostly know about India’s two major foreign bugbears, China and Pakistan, is derived more from foreign writers and Indian military narrators.

We don’t have political and bureaucratic insider versions to give us an all-round perspective. Military men are apt to write more frequently, but more often than not their writings tend to be exculpations or embellishments of their roles in recent events. Thus, we have many such books not only on the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars, but also on more recent conflicts like the Siachen and Kargil wars.

But even they steer clear of the less glorious wars in Nagaland, Mizoram, Jammu and Kashmir and Sri Lanka. This is unfortunate, because for the best account of the Kargil war we have to rely on a foreigner’s account: Airpower at 18000’: The Indian Air Force in the Kargil War by Ben Lambeth of Rand Corporation, published as a monograph by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC.

A lost opportunity

I was hence very excited when I began to read Shivshankar Menon’s Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy. He was not just an insider to India’s foreign policy making structure for a good part of his distinguished career in the Indian Foreign Service, he was also at the heart of it for almost a decade as the Foreign Secretary and the National Security Advisor.

But the frisson of excitement didn’t last long, for the book is not so much of an account of policy-making, as it is a set of brilliant and masterful essays on the six major foreign policy issues of his tenure. The origins and even some of the conclusions of these issues are well known. These essays are large sweeps of historical issues from a high perch, but Menon gives away little.

What, for instance, happened in the PMO when the Pakistani terrorists struck Bombay on November 26, 2008 in a daring and brazen attack which took the lives of 166 people in a few frenzied hours, and then held on to India’s most famous luxury hotel, the Taj Mahal, for three long days as the world watched the helplessness and even ineptness of India’s security forces in hunting down the last holdouts. 26/11 became India’s 9/11?

Was this ever discussed in a formal way? What were the military’s views on this? We get no sense of what exactly transpired, maybe out of Menon’s loyalty to Manmohan Singh, or because of the restrictions placed by the Official Secrets Act of 1923 and the oath of secrecy. Unlike one other who served in the Singh PMO, Menon is a through gentleman and by nature extremely reticent. Both very admirable qualities and for which he is held in high esteem. Understandably, the other fellow’s books have sold many times more.

The only account we have of this, and that too a very partial account, is from a report in The Indian Express, which doesn’t show the Indian security establishment in a good light. This report states that when retaliatory options were considered, the Army asked for three weeks’ time for a strike, the IAF said it didn’t have any co-ordinates for surgical strike targets from RAW, and the silent service kept silent as the terrorists slipped in through their exercise area.

The PM seemed only to want an assurance that it would not escalate into a Pakistani nuclear attack. Since no assurances were forthcoming, to do nothing was the preferred option. How far this is true is anybody’s guess. But Menon could have given us details of the options discussed as he was there. But he doesn’t tell us who played with what sort of bat.

A fine model

Some years ago I read the memoirs of Justice Pingle Jaganmohan Reddy, Down Memory Lane. It was a badly printed book that I found in the Secunderabad Club library, but a superb journey in time. It described in detail the Hyderabad he grew up in and the Hyderabad state where he began his career. The judge not only described people and events of the time as he saw them, but also filled his account with local colour and flavours.

My immediate thought: this is the kind of book every important person who has held high office must write. Almost every page was a picture painted with a fine brush. Reading it was almost like living in those times. It was not self-serving; nor was there any self-glorification. Less distinguished people who have held important positions have also written their memoirs, but more out of vanity than to leave a record of the times and their perceptions of them.