So what do historians really do?

To Chetan Bhagat, a popular writer and a “five point someone”, the answer is not very obvious. He believes that they write this happened, then this happened and, ok, their work for the day is done. But this isn’t how others view the purpose of historians and history – for them it is history that defines the present, which creates traditions that define a nation and its fortunes. This is truer for the Indian Army.

Few people outside the military know what motivates the men of an infantry battalion of the Army to face impossible odds in battle. The soldiers call it izzat, the Urdu word for honour that motivates them to climb mountains under fire, in sub-zero temperatures where the exposed skin freezes and peels off.

History to live up to

It was the izzat of the paltan (battalion), stemming from a deep sense of history built over centuries, that had inspired Major Ranjit Singh Dyal and his men in the last few days of August 1965.

The men of the 1st battalion of the Parachute Regiment, tired and beaten, were on the verge of giving up the assault on the strategic Haji Pir pass. The pass, a critical link between Jammu with the Kashmir valley, and had given Pakistan a strategic edge over India since the 1947-48 war. As the clouds of war gathered over the subcontinent, Indian military planners hastened to capture Haji Pir to save Jammu.

The task fell on Maj Dyal, a gritty Sikh who was the second-in-command of the battalion. The battalion had lost officers and men, and Dyal, even though far senior in rank, took command of the companies that would make yet another assault to capture Haji Pir.

In the darkness of the night, Maj Dyal invoked the “paltan’s izzat” to his exhausted men. They had the battalion’s rich history to live up to: the antecedents of Maj Dayal’s 1 Para trace back over 200 years ago when the Punjab regiment was raised as a part of the Coast Sepoys of the Madras Presidency, under the East India Company. As the first battalion of the then Punjab Regiment, it was chosen to convert to a Parachute role, making 1 Para the Indian Army’s oldest battalion.

With the “paltan’s izzat” at heart, Maj Dyal and his men assaulted the Pakistani army on the Haji Pir pass for a third time, leading to a major victory. Once on top of the pass, they held on despite several ferocious counterattacks by the Pakistanis.

Since then the battalion has never looked back and in 1980 it was converted once again into an elite Special Forces unit.

Memories of battles

Without history, the Indian Army would be rudderless and risk losing its identity. So, when Chetan Bhagat questions the role of historians, it threatens a march towards the burning of books that the Nazis indulged in, as they sought to first delegitimise and then rewrite history.

The Regimental histories of the Indian Army’s fighting formations have always held it in good stead. The 1st battalion of the Sikh Regiment carefully maintains a rare Chinese vase in its records, a remembrance of a bygone era when the battalion travelled to China to fight British India’s wars. The Marathas are the only Regiment in the Indian Army that invokes the memory of a mortal (Chhatrapati Shivaji), not the gods, before a battle. For military historians, it is this legacy and its attendant narrative that makes the difference between victory and defeat. 

For the proud Sikhs, the battle of Saragarhi in North West Frontier Province on September 12, 1897, is a valuable memory that inspires them till this day. That day, Havildar Ishar Singh led 22 of his Sikh compatriots to hold out against 10,000 Afridi and Orakazai tribesmen as they swarmed into their outpost. The 22 men held on for days till their ammunition ran out. Finally, they fought with bare hands before succumbing to overwhelming numbers. Till this day, Sikh Battalions invoke the rich history of their predecessors to inspire and lead their men into battle.

Ability to correct course

The army is filled with such tales from the past. Even today, the officers and men of the 3rd battalion of the Jat Regiment recall the battle of Dograi, where 86 men died as they took on a Pakistani force twice their size.

On the night of September 21, 1965, the battalion, led by its Anglo-Indian commanding officer Lt. Col. Desmond Hayde, charged into the Pakistani village of Dograi though it was guarded by a Pakistani infantry battalion and a tank regiment. The night before, Lt. Col. Hayde had told his men in anglicised Haryanvi, “Susre, Zinda Ya Murda, Dograi Mein Milna Hai (Dead or alive, we have to meet in Dograi).” Such was his leadership that the Jats won Dograi, vacated it and then attacked in again to re-take it – a rare feat in the annals of the Indian Army.

These are the histories that continue to send men into battalion to build new histories for their subsequent generations.

When Chetan Bhagat questions historians, he is also questioning their narrative, which gives a nation its purpose and the ability to correct course when mistakes from the past return to haunt its future.