India did not realise the strategic importance of the Haji Pir Pass and handed it back to Pakistan after the army valiantly recaptured it in 1965, says the legendary para commando who led the operation that changed the course of that war.
Lieutenant General (retired) Ranjit Dyal said on Friday that the pass would have given India a definite strategic advantage. "It was a mistake to hand it back," he said.
"Our people don't read maps," said Gen Dyal, regretting the return of the pass to Pakistan at the Tashkent talks brokered by Russia to end the Indo-Pak war of 1965.
Gen Dyal was in Bangalore to attend the golden jubilee celebrations of the Indian Army's Paratroopers Brigade.
The general had also played a crucial role in Operation Bluestar to flush out Sikh terrorists hiding in the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar in 1984. He was then chief of staff of the Western Army Command, and was appointed security adviser to the governor of Punjab for the operation.
In 1965, General Dyal, then a young major, led a team of soldiers from the 1st Para to capture the strategic Haji Pir pass, which lies a few kilometres beyond the present Line of Control between India and Pakistan.
The capture was part of an offensive strategy planned by the legendary Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh, who was then the Western Army commander.
Gen Singh planned the offensive military actions in retaliation to infiltration by armed Pakistanis violating the Ceasefire Line, which finally blew up into a military confrontation in the Rann of Kutch.
The Pakistani Army's plan to annexe Kashmir through an operation codenamed Gibraltar had already started in the first week of August 1965. They planned to pin Indian troops down in the Kutch region and thus get a free run in Jammu and Kashmir.
But Gen Harbaksh Singh's strategy and the actions of men like Dyal dashed their plans. Gen Singh ordered his men to launch a two-pronged attack on the Haji Pir pass to capture the entire bulge and cut off the main route for the infiltrators from Pakistan. The move would also serve to cut off the main logistics support for infiltrators already inside Indian territory.
According to the original battle plan, a sister battalion was to move towards the pass, but a last-minute change forced Major Dyal and two companies of men from his 1st Para battalion to move forward.
With damp shakarparas and biscuits as ration, Major Dyal led the 1st Para down the Hyderabad nullah towards the Haji Pir pass on August 25, 1965. The Pakistani Army opened fire on them, but an unexpected shower gave the Indian troops cover.
While they were climbing up the slope to the pass, the paratroopers located a house, surrounded it, and captured several Pakistanis and recovered weapons from them. Clever soldier that Dyal was, he disarmed the enemy soldiers and used them as load carriers for the rest of the trek up the pass.
The capture itself was a victory against all odds, including three days without proper food. While launching the final assault on the pass on August 28, the paratroopers had to walk up 4,000 feet on foot. At times they even had to crawl on all fours in the slushy mountainside in the night. But their attack was so well executed that the Pakistani troops left the pass and fled.
Gen Dyal was awarded a Maha Vir Chakra for this operation, and his comrades won several bravery medals.