Return of Haji Pir Pass: How we betrayed our soldiers in 1965

The Haji Pir Pass provides easy access to both Jammu and Kashmir regions. It also provides vastly shorter connectivity between the two regions. Haji Pir was captured by the Bharatiya Army during 1965. This capture dealt a death blow to the Pakistani Army’s plans of assaulting Uri and subsequently the Kashmir valley.

Bharat captured Haji Pir pass in 1965 war. During Tashkent talks Bharat agreed to return Haji Pass, located at 13600m which dominated Kargil town and many other places of strategic importance. Prime Minister Shashtri died the next day after signing the Tashkent Declaration with Pakistan on 10th January 1966. He was denounced by all for collapsing against Russia’s pressure. This resulted into two great disadvantages to Bharat.

What it Took to Capture the Haji Pir Pass

Major (later Lt Gen) Ranjit Singh Dayal led a 1st Para team (elite special forces unit) to capture the strategic Haji Pir pass close to midnight on 25th August, 1965. The Bharatiya troops, with just biscuits as ration, led the 1st Para team down the Hyderabad Nallah towards the strategic pass. Under the cover of unexpected rain, they managed to evade enemy fire.

Within hours and after hard battle, he radioed back to inform his headquarters that the Haji Pir Pass was in Bharat’s hands.

The taking and return of the Pass is both as spectacular as it was infamous, respectively, in Bharat’s military and diplomatic history. The military operation was necessitated because Pakistan then, as part of its dubious Operation Gibraltar, was using the Haji Pir Bulge to launch the main influx of its infiltration campaign into the Kashmir Valley. Pakistan had then also built huge stocks of arms, ammunition and supplies at several places in the Bulge for speedy administrative support to various raider groups.

Thus the offensive action was intended to neutralise their logistical set up and plug ingress routes of the infiltrators. Five days before the launch of the attack, then Army Chief, General JN Chaudhury had emphasised on the necessity to take offensive action to throw the Pakistani Army off balance and compel it to react instead of Bharat dancing to Pakistan’s tune as New Delhi had been doing until then.

The capture of the Haji Pir Bulge did put a dent in infiltration and unbalanced the Pakistanis. But then Pakistan’s grand design, as revealed three days later, involved launching Operation Grand Slam on September 1 comprising a major armour and Infantry thrust in blitzkrieg style reminiscent of Hitler’s Wehrmacht in the carefully selected Chhamb-Jaurian sector to capture the solitary bridge in Akhnoor followed by the town itself on the Jammu-Poonch highway.

They were to then head to Jammu to capture the Jammu-Srinagar highway. In doing so, Pakistan would have wrested control of the land route to both the Jammu region and the Kashmir Valley thus severing the state from the rest of Bharat. The plan was sound and the Pakistani Army nearly succeeded against an unprepared Bharatiya Army that characteristically was lacking prior intelligence and was unable to militarily fully appreciate and anticipate the situation.

It was only after the Bharatiya Army’s XI and I Corps, much to Pakistan’s surprise, crossed the international border into Pakistani Punjab and headed towards Lahore and Sialkot, respectively, on September 6 that Bharat got much needed relief and was able to prevent a catastrophe. Pakistan responded by immediately withdrawing a major portion of its medium armour and artillery along with an Infantry brigade that saved Akhnoor bridge from capture in, what then Western Army Commander Lieutenant general Harbaksh Singh terms, ‘the nick of time’ in his book War Despatches.

When negotiations commenced in January, 1966 between Bharat and Pakistan under the aegis of Soviet Union, Bharat had to view the threat posed by Pak dagger into Bharat’s heart in Chhamb Sector. Since Pakistani forces had already reached Fatwal ridge only 4 Kms from Akhnoor, it could always resume operations for capture of Akhnoor.

The author understood this implication better in 1987 when he was commanding his unit near Jauriyan, a few kilometers west of Fatwal Ridge. The Bharatiya policy makers at that time did not visualize infiltration threat through Uri-Poonch bulge and hence it was decided to return Haji Pir Pass to Pakistan and ask them to withdraw from Chhamb Sector since it would not have been advisable to let Pakistan point a dagger at Akhnoor and thereafter at Jammu.

It was too high a risk to take. So Prime Minister Shastri was left with no option. Whether he died due to a feeling of guilt will remain a mystery. But in hindsight, Bharat was remiss in not capturing Haji Pir Pass in 1971 war. It was the only worthwhile objective on the Western Front.

This status quo ante included return of the bravely fought Haji Pir Pass captured with considerable grit and determination not to forget human and material cost. Some Bharatiya Army officers point to that fact that had it not been done, the Bharatiya Army would have then found the Pakistani Army permanently positioned just 4 km from Akhnoor making it possible for them to swiftly attack the area later on.

Bharat missed the bus in 1971 when it could have attempted to recapture Haji Pir. By returning the Pass or not subsequently regaining it, Bharat lost a strategic advantage. As late Lieutenant General Dayal, the hero of the Battle for Haji Pir, subsequently said, “The Pass would have given Bharat a definite strategic advantage. It was a mistake to hand it back. Our people don’t read maps.

The Man Behind the Capture

The importance of Major Ranjit Singh Dayal’s role in capturing the Haji Pir Pass can be measured by the fact that the Pakistani Army offered a reward of Rs 50,000 for his head.

Dayal would later call the return of the pass “a mistake.”

“It was a mistake to hand it back. Our people don’t read maps.” Major Ranjit Singh Dayal

Why Was it Important?

P C Katoch, veteran Special Forces officer of the Bharatiya Army wrote about the significance of Haji Pir Pass:

Haji Pir Pass, at a height of 2,637 m, is located on the western fringe of the formidable Pir Panjal Range, which divides the Srinagar Valley from the Jammu region. It is through this pass that a wide, metaled highway connected Srinagar to Jammu via Uri–Poonch–Rajouri, over which bulk of passenger and trade traffic used to ply to and fro. This road is of strategic importance as it connects Uri with Poonch, but since a major portion of road is in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), it cannot be used. It has been a constant source of problems for the Indian security forces in Kashmir as trained militants sneak into Kashmir Valley, Poonch and Rajouri districts via the pass.

Another Army veteran, Maj Gen (Retd.) Sheru Thapliyal later wrote that had the Haji Pir Pass remained with Bharat, not only would major infiltration routes have been blocked but also the distance from Jammu to Srinagar through Poonch and Uri would have been reduced by over 200 km.

Source:- India defence review, Tribune India

(This article first appeared on defenceupdate.in and has been reproduced here in full.)

Additional Reading

Returning Poonch-Uri bulge to Pak a strategic mistake’


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