Mainstream, VOL LIII No 40, New Delhi, September 26, 2015
Unfurling Tricolour atop the Haji Pir Pass
Monday 28 September 2015, by
For years after Independence and partition of the country, Haji Pir Pass was not much in the news. Even during the 1948 war in Kashmir it did not get as much display in newspapers as its strategic position warranted. After the ceasefire, Haji Pir Pass fell in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). It, however, continued to be present fairly prominently on the operational maps of the two armies — India’s and Pakistan’s, and the mental map of the strategic community on the subcontinent.
I was in Kashmir, having been sent by UNI, a news agency which was as young in its career as I was as a correspondent with only a two-and-a-half years of experience.
Pakistan had pushed from across the Ceasefire Line armed infiltrators to foment trouble in the Valley and had reached almost Baramula on way to Srinagar. The idea clearly seemed to foment trouble in the Valley, possibly a revolt, against India. The administration in Srinagar and the government and the Army felt alarmed appre-hending more trouble in case the raiders found a passage to Srinagar.
The local population did not like the invaders walking into the villages and small towns around and alerted civil and military authorities which in any case were vigilant against any mischief from across the Ceasefire Line. The Centre rushed Sushital Bannerje, one of its ablest civil servants, to Srinagar to monitor and guide the campaign against the infiltrators.
UNI asked me to rush to report on the drive against the infiltrators. It gave me somewhat of a kick when I found that on the flight to Srinagar was Inder Malhotra, the ace political corres-pondent of The Statesman. I was young, almost a cub reporter, he with years of experience and huge reputation and contacts!
Srinagar had been placed under curfew. Sushital Bannerje would daily brief the press at the Press Information Bureau at Residency Road. He would give details about how infiltrators were going about in their subversive activities, how the local people were informing the authorities and how the security forces were tackling the emerging threat to Srinagar. Briefings had acquired a pattern as more infiltrators had been apprehended and one day Bannerje, who was always calm, could declare there was no threat to the State Capital and infiltrations had been brought under control throughout the Valley.
Inder Malhotra had gone back; he was too senior a journalist to be away from Delhi for a long time. Somehow I felt something else was happening but could not foresee how the events would unfold. Then one day, the Army authorities told us that the Army Chief, General J.N. Chowdhury, would like to meet us at the Army Mess in the evening. This was interesting. General Chowdhury told us to be prepared to come along with an Army unit to see the anti-infiltrators operations in the Tithwal sector. “You are by now feeling bored in Srinagar, I suppose,” he added with a chuckle. He was quite demonstrative in his swagger.
Next day, we joined the Army troops, taken to Baramula Divisional Headquarters and from there to Haji Pir Pass (not Tithwal), a strategic high point from where one could see a chunk of the PoK including Muzaffarabad, the PoK’s capital. From Baramula, after a briefing by the Divisional Commander, we drove to Uri, where a kucha road branched off towards the Haji Pir Pass. We were told after we had crossed a fragile bridge at the bend of the Uri River that “from here begins your trek to Haji Pir Pass”. “Just be careful of an odd sniper aiming at you,” said an officer. It was nine kms to the Haji Pir Pass. We were three journalists — Balu of PTI, K.K. Sud of AIR and me of UNI. Both Balu and Sud were much senior to me in years and experience. The promise of big action at the other end was compelling and we were curious. Escorting us were Army officers of different ranks. After some walking up the road, negotiating twists and turns of the road, we discovered Brigadier Z.C. Bakshi was following us up on horse-back from behind. He stopped for a chat with three of us before setting off to catch up with his troops engaged ahead of us, around the Haji Pir Pass.
“You should be joining the Army, I was watching your brisk walk,” he said, looking at my young age. “You will get some good news on the other end,” he added with an air of certainty.
We were excited. But there was no way of sending a copy. We didn’t have GSP then, nor was there an e-mail, no mobile phones those days. Army communication would be available only on return from the Haji Pir Pass, at Baramula.
Brigadier Bakshi was getting the latest news from the Signals and he seemed to be happy. “Our chaps are doing well,” he told us with a sense of pride in his men and the exploits of Alpha Company and Charlie Company and others.
We shared his pride, but soon he kicked off to be with his men on front engaged in action. We were equally keen to be there, but we could only walk up — close to action, but still at a distance. We were in the company of Army people. Often there were light moments as they shared Army jokes to keep us amused. There was no such phrase at that time called “embedded journalists”.
We reached Haji Pir Pass a little before the sunset. Some jawans waived to us. Pride was writ large on their face. “Be careful of a sniper’s fire, although we have cleared this feature,” said an officer.
They took us to the bunker on the top of the hill which our men, led by Major R.S. Dayal of the Paras, had just captured from the Pakistani troops and could smell the smoke rising from spots around the bunker. Pakistani troops were shelling the bunker they had to vacate earlier in the day after they had lost the battle of the Haji Pir Pass.
In the night we had our dinner of purees and aloo bhaji. Suddenly arrived in this bunker was none else than Major R S Dayal, who had earlier outflanked the Pakistanis troops forcing them to pull-out of the bunker which gave a strategic view of much of the PoK on the other side. Major Dayal was in a hurry, he hurriedly shared the meal with us and telling us about how his men had braved the enemy fire. Soon after, he darted off to be with his men to capture the adjoining hill to make India’s victory of the Haji Pir Pass secure. He planted the Tricolour at the Pass, but we had no way of sending our copy!
In the night, Pakistan’s artillery was shelling the bunker they had to vacate earlier in the day, but Maj Dayal’s men were too much in command of the area. Next morning we saw craters within 15 feet of the bunker Pakistan’s shelling had created overnight.
In the morning it was all quiet, almost. We were taken to the Pass—where the Tricolour was fluttering proudly. Abnashi Ram, the veteran Army photographer, took pictures of we three journalists at the Pass. On return we found our picture flashed in papers. It was meant to counter Pakistan’s stand that India had not succeeded in capturing the Haji Pir Pass.
“Even our newsmen have reached the Haji Pir Pass,” was India’s reply.
Decades later, I ran into Lt. Gen R.S. Dayal at Panchkula near Chandigarh where he was living. I asked him: “Was it wise on our part to return the Haji Pir Pass to Pakistan at Tashkent?”
“No, I don’t think so,” he said with an element of regret. “But it was a political decision,” he said. Like any professional soldier would, with a sense of duty and discipline.
(Courtesy: India Strategic)
The author, a veteran journalist who also served as an Indian ambassador in Europe and is now a Rajya Sabha Member, covered the 1965 India-Pakistan War as a correspondent of UNI. He subsequently worked in several newspapers and was the editor of Hindustan Times and The Times of India.