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Major-Gen Palit, the soldier who thought ahead

April 08, 2008 13:17 IST

Major General D K Palit, who died in Delhi on April 3, at the old age of 89, was an exception to the adage that old soldiers never die, they just fade away.

General Palit was possibly more active in retirement than in service. A prolific writer and original thinker, he has had a profound influence on the strategic thinking and polices in the last two to three decades. He was indeed an exception to the general drought of military intellectuals that India has always suffered from.

But Palit was no armchair thinker, and his exploits in the first Jammu Kashmir War of 1947-48 are proof of that.

In command of the famed 3-battalion 9 Gorkha Rifles (which was part of the Chindits force in Burma in the Second World War) , he fought in the Poonch sector. Under his inspiring leadership, the battalion attacked and captured the 10,000-foot-high Mohammad ni Gali, that overlooks the strategic Haji Pir pass (which is the gateway to the Kashmir valley).

As battalion commander, he personally led the attack and was severely wounded in the operations and evacuated from the battlefield.

Unfortunately, the second in command (I think a British officer), lost his nerve in face of Pakistani counter-attack, and the Indian Army had to leave the Mohammed ni Gali feature. We could never regain that formidable feature and this loss has had a lasting effect on our position in Kashmir since the Haji Pir route continues to be used for infiltration into the valley. It must be noted that unlike the initial operations in October 1947, where the Indian Army faced tribal raiders, in Poonch it was the regular Pakistani army that we confronted. For this act of conspicuous bravery, Palit was awarded the Vir Chakra.

The second most important episode in his military career was his command of the 7 Brigade in the crucial Tawang sector on the China border in 1960-61. Subsequent to this he was the director general military operations during the 1962 India-China war. His actions in that crucial post have come under a lot of criticism.

In his own book, War in the high Himalayas, he admits that as 7 Brigade Commander he had never visited the Tsangdhar ridge (the scene of fighting) and his understanding of the terrain was faulty.

However, as the author of the official history of that war, I can vouch for one fact, that is all the faulty decisions and strategies in that ill-fated war flew from the basic premise 'China will never attack'. The origin of that premise was in the domination of the political and military space by Jawaharlal Nehru!

But even more than Palit's contribution to strategy and policy-making, he was a soldier-scholar at heart. It is this faculty of his that has made a lasting contribution to national defence.

He wrote several books and regimental histories, including the history of the regiment of artillery and arms of Jammu and Kashmir. But his most valuable contributions were Essentials of Military Knowledge and War in the Age of Nuclear Deterrence.

The first book is virtually a primer for all young officers to understand the basics of ground fighting. Illustrated with historical examples, Palit's book stimulates thinking. He vividly brings home the fact that while modern weapons have increased range and lethality, the basic principles of tactics and strategy remain the same.

The only work comparable to this is Infantry Attacks by the great German General Rommel. Generations of serious officers have been nurtured on this book, and Palit could well take the credit for single-handedly educating the Indian army's officer corps.

The second most important contribution of his is the book, War in the Age of Nuclear Deterrence. Looking at the plethora of books on nuclear strategy (of dubious worth) in the Indian market today, this may not be seen as such a major contribution.

But it must be remembered that this was written in the 1960s, and at that time the Indian army, even at the highest level, had little interest in nuclear war doctrines. This was regarded as 'their' (read Soviet and American) problem. I can vouch for the fact that even as late as 1979-80, only lip service was paid to nuclear war. More often than not, nuclear weapons were regarded as a mere 'appendix' to conventional war and discussed 10 minutes before lunch-break. Again, Palit was a visionary who saw its relevance and tried his best to educate Indians on this very crucial issue.

General Palit had a keen mind to spot the revolutionary changes that were taking place in the relationship between military tactics and technology. In an earlier era, it was military needs that dictated the inventions and new technology. But by the mid 20th century, technology had gained its own independent momentum and began to dictate tactics and even strategy. He saw this very clearly in the 1973 Yom Kippur war in the Middle East, where the range and capability of the Russian missile shield dictated the extent and timing of Egyptian attacks. He termed it 'tactics being reduced to weapon dialectic'.

His books were widely read not only in India but were compulsory reading in the training institutes of advanced countries like the UK and the US. Another of his seminal contribution to military thinking was his work on 'Malayan Insurgency'. He wrote regularly for newspapers and helped raise defence consciousness among the general public.

General Palit was an avid reader of military history and came to the conclusion that Indian military history, written mostly by the victors, had not been fair to Indians. To rectify this lacuna, he founded a research trust with the IDSA (Institute Of Defence Studies and Analyses). Since I was working on the history of post-Independence wars, he asked me to take up the first fellowship in 1991.

Since my area of interest was more contemporary, I was rather reluctant. But it was the question that he posed that made me accept the fellowship. The question was:  

'The Marathas fought a glorious guerrilla war against the Mughal empire for 22 years and ultimately destroyed Mughal rule in India. How is it that against the British, the same Marathas gave up so tamely?' It was this that launched me on a quest that brought out that indeed, the Marathas fought the British equally bravely and the outcome at Assye and Wadgaon battles was a Maratha victory. But subsequently, since they ended up losing the war, this real history was buried under a pile of lies. The task of correcting distortions in our history is indeed gigantic, but it is General Palit who has initiated this long, thousand-mile journey.

General Palit is no more, but many Indians inspired by his books are carrying forward the Indian military tradition that is second to none. My final salute to the departed soul. 

Photograph: Former West Bengal Governor Padmaja Naidu confers the Vir Chakra on Major-Gen D K Palit

Colonel Anil Athale (retired)