In memoriam

Major General D.K. ‘Monty’ Palit, VrC

back to issue

Soldier-scholars are a rare commodity anywhere, rarer still in the intellectual wasteland that is the Indian military, which is drilled in small things only to be at sea when faced with larger issues. Considering that old time militaries frown upon officers with an intellectual bent, and the Indian Army is still largely ‘old time’ in its traditions, values and practices, the fact that ‘Monty’ Palit got as far as he did in service is a testament to actually one thing: his contacts. His intellect was an attribute that, fortunately, was not held against him.

It was plain bad luck and bad vibes with Churchill that saw General Sir Claude Auchinleck, heading the Middle East Command in the Second World War when the going was tough against Rommel’s Afrika Korps, being shunted off just as the tide of the battle was turning in July 1942 at Alam Haifa. Auchinleck was handed his Field Marshal’s baton and kicked upstairs as Commander-in-Chief, India. Career-wise, it was catastrophic for the ‘Auk’ but a boon for Palit. Few native officers in the British Indian Army were better connected to the C-in-C than ‘Monty’ Palit. His father – Colonel A.N. Palit, an ‘OBE’, was the Medical Officer attached to the 62nd Punjabis in the 1920s, a battalion of which the then Major Auchinleck was Adjutant. For an Anglophilic army, fealty to the crown mattered. ‘Monty’ Palit got choice postings.

Commissioned into the elite Baloch Regiment in 1939 out of the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, Palit at the time of Partition won a prized billet with the (3/9) Gurkhas – a regiment the British scrupulously avoided posting Indian officers to – and which unit he led in a hard-fought action to capture the crestline above the Haji Pir salient in the Poonch sector in the 1947-48 Kashmir operations. Palit was wounded and won the Vir Chakra. Thereafter, he rose swiftly to command the 7 Infantry Brigade stationed in NEFA (North East Frontier Agency) and only a year or so into his tenure, was rushed into the job of Director, Military Operations, at the Army Headquarters, manifestly the most coveted post in the army for a Brigadier-ranked officer and that too a relatively newly minted one. Fatefully for him, the mountain war with China in 1962 intervened. It was the beginning of his slide.

It is fairly clear now that in the politics of the Generals, aided and abetted by the mischief-mongering defence minister, Krishna Menon, playing out as a sideshow to the tragic military fiasco unfolding in the Himalayas, Palit sided with the senior flag-ranked triumvirate – in Delhi the inactive Chief of Army Staff General Pran Nath Thapar and his abysmally-inept Chief of General Staff, the Sandhurst-trained Lieutenant General B.M. Kaul, and in Calcutta, the interfering General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Army, Lieutenant General L.P. ‘Bogey’ Sen, against the trio of field commanders – Lieutenant General Umrao Singh leading XXXIII Corps, the frightfully unlucky Major General Niranjan Prasad atop 4 Division and Brigadier John Dalvi heading Palit’s own 7 Infantry Brigade. It would have earned Palit the respect of fighting-men had he sided with Umrao and that lot, backed their appreciation of the situation, and bolstered their plan for an orderly retreat from Tawang, which is settled on a mountain incline and, hence, was indefensible. This he did not do.

Mistakes were compounded, and confusion reigned with Kaul and Sen in their different ways making the mess messier with each passing day, which Palit as DMO did little to clear up. The Sela Ridge in the Tawang sector was ordered to be vacated with a fallback on Bomdila. It was an order countermanded by the Divisional Commander, Prasad. In the ensuing melee with soldiers and units moving hither and thither and lower officers, not knowing which order to follow throwing up their hands, the divisional front broke, and a rout followed.

The flip side of the mounting disorder on the war front was the farce played out in the higher reaches of the army. First, IV Corps was created on paper and Kaul hoisted as its commander. Having done nothing more stressful than churning out public relations pamphlets during the North African Campaign in the Great War, Kaul promptly suffered pulmonary oedema after his initial exposure to the heights but insisted on directing the IV Corps operations from his hospital bed in Delhi! It was a nightmare and so scarred the Indian Army that it has yet to rediscover the will and the spirit to fight the Chinese. How else to explain the fact that the army brass has not prioritized the raising of 3-4 Light Mountain Divisions as a minimum force required for offensive warfare on the Tibetan plateau, despite being on the agenda for some 40 years now? Palit produced a brilliantly written, finely detailed, and ultimately unconvincing self-exculpatory book on the conflict – War in the High Himalayas.

Fortunately for Palit, his other writings burnished his reputation. As an extraordinarily perceptive military analyst and writer, he had no peer. His classic and in many ways precocious, Essentials of Military Knowledge, dealing with basic infantry tactics and such which he wrote when his contemporaries in uniform were still trying to get the hang of things military, is the primer the first generation of officers joining independent India’s army in the 1950s as also the Pakistan Army (perhaps, because of Palit’s Baloch connection) cut their teeth on.

Palit topped that by writing perhaps the first great treatise on nuclear weapons and strategy – War in the Deterrent Age – by an Indian in 1966 when he was Major General commanding the 23 Infantry Division. It was remarkable he found the time to research and write while still in service, this very perceptive tome advocating India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons to countervail China – a line that went against the thinking of the Indian government. Instead of going full tilt with testing a nuclear bomb, Delhi at that time was seeking a joint security guarantee from the United States and the Soviet Union against China, something Palit dismissed in his book as ‘more a conference table proposal than a practicable solution.’ His strong language was complemented by the quality of his strategic insights. He argued, for instance, that from a military point of view nuclear deterrence ‘is at best relative and at worst sterile’ but that if India failed to obtain a nuclear bomb it should ‘be prepared to abdicate the right to strategic (and therefore, …political) decision-making’, and warned that if India did not match China’s nuclear clout, it would have to reconcile to the fact of ‘stability in Asia [being made] forever conditional on the Chinese goodwill.’ It is an argument that continues to have relevance.

After retirement, Palit produced one of the most engaging biographies – that of Major General A.A. ‘Jicks’ Rudra, and a more affectionate monograph on his father Col. Palit, of the Indian Medical Service. Perhaps to promote such writing, the General established a publishing house (‘Palit and Palit’).

He wanted more serving and retired officers from India and Britain to do research and write military history of colonial India. For that purpose, he founded the ‘General Palit Military Studies Trust’ in the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in 1988, which he funded. The Trust moved to the more appropriate United Service Institution of India in 2003.

‘Monty’ Palit died on 3 April 2008 at the age of 89.

Bharat Karnad


* Bharat Karnad is the author of India’s Nuclear Policy: Credible Minimum Deterrence (forthcoming) and of Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, 2nd edition (2005).