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  • The State at War in South Asia
  • Douglas M. Peers
The State at War in South Asia. By Pradeep P. Barua. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8032-1344-1. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xvi, 437. $65.00.

The State at War in South Asia offers a timely, ambitious, and occasionally provocative account of the interplay between political and military developments in the Indian subcontinent over the past four millennia. In just over three hundred pages of text, Barua, at times breathlessly, goes from speculating about whether the walls that archaeologists have uncovered at Mohenjadaro and Harappa served a defensive purpose to itemizing recent purchases by the Indian Army, Navy, and Air Force at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In between, he makes brief forays into the nature of military power in medieval India, deploys the Anglo-Maratha, Anglo-Mysore, and Anglo-Sikh campaigns as examples of colonial warfare in India, jumps to [End Page 566] India's participation in World War II and its legacies for developments in post-independence India and Pakistan, and ends with capsule histories of recent clashes between India and Pakistan. This somewhat idiosyncratic approach is matched by an eclectic selection of sources, ranging from well-worn classical histories, a smattering of colonial records, published memoirs, to journalistic exposés and published assessments of recent developments in the Indian armed forces, all of which are intended to provide an assessment of how well South Asian states have managed their military affairs over a huge sweep of time. In his own words, he has written a study "not on warfare's role in state building but on how the state from prehistory to modern times has managed to wage war" (p. xi). Moreover, his intention, a wholly laudable one, is to unshackle South Asian military history from the constraints imposed by deeply-ingrained Eurocentric traditions of reading and assessing military history.

In tackling four thousand years in three hundred pages, it comes as no surprise that Barua has had to be selective, and for the most part he has chosen his case studies well. Experts in particular epochs will no doubt quibble over why he chose to look at some states and their armies and not others, but readers will nevertheless be treated to many fascinating observations and vignettes. But there is little here on the Afghan Wars and Frontier Wars of the nineteenth century which were so instrumental in determining the tactical orientation not to mention the culture of the Indian Army, and which have been so ably dissected by Tim Moreman and others. I was also surprised that a number of other key studies were missing from the bibliography. Books and articles by Jos Gommans on warfare in the Mughal era were apparently not consulted, nor was Apurba Kundu on civil-military relations, which can shed further light on the command and control issues that Barua highlights in his chapter on the Indo-China and Indo-Pakistan wars. More curiously, given his scrutiny of the military history of the Marathas, there is no discussion of or engagement with the debate between John Pemble and Randolf Cooper over possible explanations for the deterioration in the military efficiency of the Marathas. And in his discussions of the apparent combat superiority of the East India Company and British armies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, his reliance upon contemporary chronicles written by the likes of G. B. Malleson and others leads him into using their estimates of the numbers of combatants as well as assuming some of their prejudices, both of which are fraught with peril as James Belich and others have shown.

Of more significance, however, is that Barua is confronted with a paradox that has and will continue to bedevil writing the military history of South Asia, and that is once you have identified military effectiveness as the chief criteria, some kind of metric is required to perform the analysis, and that often leads back into the assumption that European military history is the norm against which others are assessed. Consequently, in places the differences between European and Indian ways of warfare are overdrawn as for example when...


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pp. 566-568
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2010
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