Military Lit Festival: An Experience from Literary to Personal 

Chandigarh’s Military Literature Festival was a unique effort to showcase literary works by Army personnel.

5 min read

One can be cynical about literary festivals. They are creeping out of the woodwork every day. And to yoke together the military and literature might sound like an oxymoron, but it is a fact that the Army has had a long tradition of writing.

So it is all too well that the Army’s connection with literature has been highlighted through India’s first Military Literature Festival, which was held at the Lake Club, Chandigarh from 7 December to 9 December.


Historically for India, nowhere has this connection been more pronounced than through the accounts of scores of British officers who landed here to conquer new territories and doubled up as writers, cartographers, scientists, linguists, anthropologists, botanists and what have you. Bastions of knowledge opened up with new territories.

“Soldier scholar” is a concept that held sway in colonial times and the idea that conquest and knowledge must align – that all conquest is eventually that of knowledge, has been a seductive one.

Therefore, the idea of combining the Army and literature might be scoffed at by some but it has an affinity which might not be in immediate popular recall.

The Idea of ‘Soldier Scholar’

The effort of the Punjab government towards organising this three-day extravaganza has obvious rationale in the Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh himself being a ‘soldier scholar’, having authored several books on military history and strategy. He belongs to the Patiala Royal family, that has traditionally and symbolically donned the uniform

Further, there is a political and strategic effort to emphasise this affinity for the defence forces who have been his traditional vote bank.

It might be Captain Amarinder Singh’s way of giving back to the military community which has helped catapult him into the hot seat.

If the Badals traditionally have had a claim to the kisan, Amarinder Singh has had one to the jawan.

Chandigarh as the venue is befitting for the large numbers of military personnel, their families who are residents and its proximity to Chandimandir, the headquarters of the Western Command.

Impassioned Speeches

Punjab’s Finance Minister Manpreet Badal delivered a charged speech on the spirit of sacrifice amongst the people of Punjab in the inaugural session. In the same vein, Punjab Governor VPS Badnore and Lt General Surinder Singh, GOC-in-C Western Command, focussed on the contribution of Punjab to the defence forces.

The three-day affair had an elaborate lineup of 44 plenary and parallel sessions, and a full house with 260-plus participants. The sessions covered the role of Indian troops in the World Wars, the domestic battles fought since 1947 till the contemporary insidious problem of insurgency, issues of military leadership, diplomacy and strategy.

Snippets of Military History

Captain Amarinder Singh was on two panels – one on the First Kashmir War, which was the first session after the inauguration, and then on the Sino-Indian Conflict. Historian William Dalrymple had a session later in the day on ‘1857 – The First War of Independence’.

Eminent historians Thomas Fraser, Alan Jefferys and Ed Haynes were other prominent speakers the organisers have managed to rope in from overseas. Colonel Jasbir Bhullar, a prominent Punjabi writer and recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award for children’s writing, was also part of a panel on military writing in Punjabi.

The panels also encompass memoir writing and intimate experiences of the spouses and children who experience a unique way of life in quaint cantonments. The literature festival organisers have been trying to beat the drums for a fortnight to attract the general public. A “parley” was earlier held at the Government Museum and Art Gallery as a precursor to the festival.

Daredevil Sports & Revelry

A motorcycle rally in support of the Armed Forces and a daredevil motorcycle display, where the soldiers put up acts for a cheering crowd were big draws. The mela feel was complete with stalls featuring Punjab handicrafts, books and products made at the Army Vocational Training Centres.

The air was festive and for those who had had their fill of dialogue across the conference halls, there was a pleasure stroll available along the banks of the Sukhna, with stately eucalyptus trees and a little fete in the garden. The Military band was in attendance, perched on the terrace of the main club building, breaking into a cheerful tune every now and then.

Scores of school children filled up the venue as volunteers on 8 December. There was a special interactive session for them lined up with gallantry award winners in the afternoon. Special invitees included Param Vir Chakra awardees among them Sanjay Kumar, Yogendra Singh Yadav and Honorary Captain Bana Singh.

The scale was ambitious, the scope was expansive, and the state patronage, effusive – the idea of the literature festival itself broadening to include military experience – from the literary to the personal.

(The author currently teaches literature at a college under Panjab University in Chandigarh. She is a Fulbright scholar and is currently working on her debut novel. She tweets at @SakoonSingh.)

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