In the years following the Kargil war of 1999, tensions between India and Pakistan refused to abate. Worse was to follow when in 2001, a deadly attack by terrorists on India’s parliament led to a formidable mobilisation of India’s armed forces to the Pakistan border. An edgy standoff followed. In response, the Pakistan army moved around 150,000 troops into the region opposite India’s Chhamb area. A cause of concern, the Pakistani plan was an expected one, rooted in an interesting chapter from history.
In 1965, three years after India’s disastrous defeat to China, Pakistan decided to attack India. Pakistan’s president General Ayub Khan was eyeing a soft spot that held the potential of a quick victory. The Indian town of Akhnur lay on an axis that connected Kashmir with the rest of the country. Ayub knew that Akhnur’s capture would weaken India’s ability to dislodge occupying Pakistani forces and could cut off Kashmir from the rest of India.
Exploiting a major tactical gain could prove pivotal in a quick war that Ayub had planned. Numerous geographical features favoured Pakistan in this region. A narrow strip of Pakistani land – an islet between the Chenab river and one of its subsidiary channels – protruded into Indian territory and provided access to the bridge to Akhnur over the Chenab river. The Pakistanis called it the Akhnur dagger while Indians later named it the “chicken’s neck”: obvious snide references to the perceptions held by each side.
The other advantage in this area around Chicken’s Neck was that the shortest distance from Pakistan to Akhnur lay via Chhamb. In fact, Chhamb was close to the Pakistani cantonments in Sialkot, allowing quick deployment of Pakistani tanks and artillery in large numbers.
On the morning of 1 September, 1965, powerful Patton tanks, supported by 105 mm and 155 mm artillery and other elements, roared through the villages of Chhamb, unleashing a ferocious strike against the defending Indian infantry brigade. Soon, the advancing Pakistani army captured parts of Chhamb, threatening to overrun Akhnur and send India hurtling towards disaster.
However, Pakistan’s forces, wracked by differences between generals, delayed mounting an attack that could have led to the fall of Akhnur. In a critical turning point, Indian forces counterattacked, keeping the Pakistanis at bay and used the additional time to bring in reinforcements and regroup to fight a dogged defensive battle.
This also allowed the irrepressible Lt General Harbaksh Singh – India’s wartime army commander – to launch a diversionary counterattack on the strategic Pakistani towns of Sialkot and Lahore. By the time truce was called, India had finished the war inside Pakistan and on a dominant note. But its Achilles’ Heel – of the Chicken’s Neck and the region of Chhamb – with easy access to Akhnur had been exposed.
While the war on India’s western front had hogged the limelight, China announced its threat of opening up a second front against India. In this connection, a second, bigger chicken’s neck had become a part of an insidious Chinese plan – one that posed an even more serious threat to India.
The state of Sikkim, an Indian protectorate at that time, shared its border with China. At the border, an aggressive buildup of Chinese forces was meant to increase the heat on India. China’s objective was to exploit the psychological dominance gained from the 1962 war and coerce India to vacate the vital Nathu La and Jelep La passes on the watershed along the Himalayan border.
Under pressure from China, Indian forces vacated Jelep La. However, Lieutenant General Sagat Singh, the division commander in Sikkim, under whose jurisdiction lay the Nathu La pass, refused to budge. The general realised that if India withdrew from Nathu La, PLA could gain control of the watershed ridgeline and dominate the lower slopes in Sikkim.
Worse, using the overwhelming advantage, an advancing PLA could roll down the hills and cut through a narrow but critical strip of flat land that lay at the base of Sikkim. The strip of land, barely twenty five kilometres wide at certain places, connected India’s states in the North East to its mainland. Called the Siliguri Corridor for being the connecting link, the fragility of the narrow strip however accorded itself a more popular name: Chicken’s Neck.
So, disagreeing with his senior commanders, a defiant Sagat decided not to vacate troops from Nathu La. The threat to the Chicken’s Neck was too real to be ignored. The Chinese, flustered at being stalled, would finally engage India in two consecutive battles two years later. In autumn of 1967, Indian forces led by Sagat Singh defeated Chinese forces at Nathu La and then in the neighbouring pass called Cho La.
Four years later, during the 1971 India-Pakistan war, the two chicken necks on India’s eastern and the western wings would again turn critical. To the west, Pakistan would use the geographical reach of Chicken’s Neck in India to mount its attack on Akhnur. This time, though, Indian forces were ready. Interestingly, Lieutenant General Zorawar Bakshi, commanding the Indian forces, circumvented the Chicken’s Neck and pressed Pakistani forces in the depth areas, thus isolating their forces. Bakshi swore to “wring and break off the Chicken’s Neck” as he outflanked the enemy. He kept his promise and captured the Chicken’s Neck. This ensured it was never referred to as the dagger again.
In the east, the impact of Sagat Singh’s action of occupying Nathu La in 1965 and the victories against China in 1967 helped in denying PLA forces the conviction needed to attack India’s Siliguri Corridor. The Chicken’s Neck on the east stayed protected during the 1971 war as the Chinese could never link up with Pakistani forces. The two chicken’s necks – areas of threat to India from its two most prominent adversaries – were thus shielded during India’s most sensitive period. In fact, the actions turned the chicken necks, natural topographic fault-lines, to India’s favour in due course.
Many years later, in 2002, despite the Pakistani buildup, memories of India’s counterattack of 1971 hung heavy, preventing any ingress towards Akhnur. The dagger had been blunted.
Probal Dasgupta is the author of Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory Over China.