The Babas in the Indian Army
After all has been said and done about the babas and their black sheep of the civilian world, there is plenty left to say about those in the armed forces. I witnessed expression of faith in divine defense personnel for the first time while exploring Sikkim. The road from Gangtok to Nathu La, on the India-Tibet border, is marked by signs pointing you to Lake Tsomgo and Baba Mandir. Now, I am a pretty reluctant visitor to places of worship – particularly the dial-a-shrine variety. That they will be a casualty on time-bound itineraries is an undeniable reality. But my cab driver would have none of it.
Thus I made the acquaintance of Capt ‘Baba’ Harbhajan Singh of the 23rd Punjab battalion, at a shrine built to mark the spot where he fell to his death in 1968, while leading a pack of mules to a remote outpost. His body was recovered three days later. Legend goes that he appeared in a colleague’s dream, led the search party to the spot, and requested to be enshrined. Revered as a protector of soldiers, he is expected to fore warn them in the event of war imminence or natural disasters. Baba continues to draw his salary and enjoy the privilege of annual leave. Lest you believe his legend is confined to the Indian Army, let it be known that Chinese soldiers, too, reserve a chair for him at all meetings.
Two decades later, Om Prakash, another soldier manning a sensitive border post in J&K, beat back an enemy attack single-handedly. What became of him remains a mystery, but troops posted at the Siachen Base Camp are of the unshakeable belief that he is their guardian deity. OP Baba’s (as he is fondly called) memorial is a short distance from that snout of the Siachen glacier that melts to form the Nubra river. A formal military report is presented to him before, and after, each glacial mission; while troops give up consumption of animal protein, alcohol and tobacco during their stay.
The Plateau Nath Baba Mandir in Kargil has a somewhat diverse parable associated with it. Ingeniously named after the topographical feature said baba resided on, story goes that enemy shells refused to explode around him, but did so when immersed in the river; leading troops to believe that the nameless mad man was indeed a divine being. Presently a Shiva temple, maintained by the Army, stands near his hut with an ante-room dedicated to him. My initial amusement at this tradition stands overwhelmed by the realization that in conflict zones and inhospitable life conditions, Hope is your best friend. And, Faith? Your law unto survival.
Note: This piece has appeared as a middle in The Tribune.