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.

16 comments

  • Very interesting.

    • Isn’t it…?
      Wonder if there are more of them? The web did not divulge much.

      • Therez many more of them. In case u interested, I cud pull out details for you. In one case, the “baba” proceeds on Annual leave for two months every year, where a berth is reserved for him in the train, His photograph travels to his home town in Punjab, accompanied by a sevadar. Jaswantgarg, a fort made in memory of L/Nk Jaswant Singh of Garwal riflles, beat bact , single handed, a chinese attack, over three days, (1962, Battle of Nuranang, Tawang Sector) He still gets his promotions and has risen to the rank of Capt now. He too draws his pay and allowances. His uniform is set every day and his sahayaks polish his boots for him every day. Surprisingly they claim that the boots are solied evey morning when checked. His bed sheet is supposedly crumpled as if some one has slept the night. AMAZING. No one proceeds beyong Jaswantgark onto Tawang and further to the China border without paying his homage to “Baba Jaswant Singh”

        • Thanks for sharing all these details, Anup. Appreciate it, as have been trying to get hold of more info on the subject.

          Incidentally, it is Harbhajan Baba who proceeds on leave each year. It is his personal effects and photograph that make the journey to and from Punjab. The tale about Baba Jaswant Singh is new to me and certainly deserves a closer look. As does that of Baba Joginder Singh.

          One day, soon.

  • Having been to the Siachen base camp twice, one can vouch for the reverence with with OP Baba is held. Unfortunately, couldn’t stop by the other one on my lone visit to Nathu La. Having said that, I must say that religion doesn’t feature much in my life but I must respect the feelings of others – particularly those in the armed forces.

  • Nice! Though, I’ve heard from travelers to Sikkim (never been there myself) that Harbhajan Singh vanished on duty and was never found…

  • There is another tale of Baba Joginder Singh, (Joginder Top at Devils Cauldron) short of Bumla(Indo – China Border) the route from where the Chinese came in in 1962. He was a JCO (Subedar then)

  • I have heard of these tails and have also seen some small prayer places on roads in the border area . Troops believe in them .I wonder how true all the stories are

    • I wondered, too, concluding eventually that faith is what drives these troops.
      That most of these legends originate from remote out-posts located amidst hostile terrain speaks for itself.

  • I have been to the OP Baba shrine short of the base camp in Nubra valley during the most hospitable time of year. It’s a challenge.
    A logical minded person may easily turn to faith in those terrains; especially as the winter sets in.

    • I cannot even begin to imagine what winter months would be like in those regions. All I can say is, more power to those who hold vigil there.

  • I missed this temple when I had gone to Sikkim, but I did see the frozen Lake Tsongo…it was amazing.

  • This is the right story and god is everywhere in some form and in case of Glacier he is with the name OP Baba

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