Editor's note: This is the second in a series of three ground reports from Doka La that look at the state of the region in light of the fluctuating animosity between India and China. Part one of the series, Amid New Delhi-Beijing mind games, 'patient' Indian Army braces for long haul was published on 08 August, 2017
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is at our gates holding war-games and talking war. But behind even the wet ears of PLA must lurk one thought: What of Baba Harbhajan Singh, has the Chinese president Xi Jinping taken account of ‘Him’ who rides the snowy nights?
Perhaps, China couldn’t have picked a worse place to get into a spat with India on the border than Doklam. The tri-junction happens to be the favourite stamping (or stomping) ground of the ‘Ghost who rides the white steed’, guarding the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the eastern Himalayas. And the Indian Army marches as much on its stomach as on a steadfast belief in the power of faith. India's borders, from the west to the east, are strewn with shrines to dead soldiers, spirits who keep an eye on the enemy across the border.
Nothing will and can explain the faith that Indian soldiers have on fallen comrades who, they believe, have acquired saintly powers beyond that of mere bombs and missiles.
At the age of 22, sepoy Harbhajan Singh drowned in a glacier in 1968. However, he continued to serve the army in spirit and was formally retired only in 2006, 38 years after he was buried in snow. In the intervening period, he was promoted up the ranks as would any Indian Army soldier, ending up as Captain Harbhajan Singh.
On Saturday, China threatened that the PLA was fully capable and more than fully armed to “annihilate” the Indian Army at the LAC. Maybe soldiers of the PLA haven’t had any recent ‘sighting’ of the only Indian Army soldier who is on duty 24/7. That, or the Global Times and President XI don’t know of the legend of Baba Harbhajan Singh.
If that’s so, then it would be quite in contrast to the belief in the Indian Army camp. Every Indian Army personnel, from Sepoy to General, would swear that with Captain (Retd) Baba Harbhajan Singh “on duty”, the PLA can do zilch to annihilate the Indian Army.
Nathu La has two shrines dedicated to Baba Harbhajan Singh. One of them is the Old Baba Mandir (OBM) on the Old Silk Road. The other is called the New Baba Mandir (NBM) within Nathu La, closer to Doklam. Both OBM and NBM are thronged by devotees throughout the day and year. They are guarded by men in uniform 24/7 who have complete faith in the powers of their fallen comrade.
As the folklore goes
According to Army records, Harbhajan Singh, a resident of Kapurthala in Punjab, was inducted in the Punjab Regiment in 1956. In time he came to be posted in Nathu La. One day in 1968, while leading a mule train, he and his mules fell into a glacier (some say a ‘raging river’) and he was not to be found. Somebody in the Army even floated the canard that Singh had absconded.
But, as the legend goes, he appeared in the dream of his soldier friend Pritam Singh and told him where to find his body. The Army followed "dead Harbhajan’s" instructions given to Pritam in his dream, and lo behold, Sepoy Harbhajan Singh’s body was found at that exact spot! In subsequent dreams, late Sepoy Harbhajan Singh guided the Army as to what it should do: Cremate his body at Nathu La; build a temple in his name on the spot; and be on the guard at all time because he would too!
Local legend is Baba saves local villagers and soldiers of the Indian Army from “evil spirits” and the “evil designs” of the PLA. And while on patrol, if he comes across a sleeping soldier, that worthy is slapped awake!
Today, with the PLA issuing a threat a day, it’s a grand battle between the ‘Chinese Dragon’ and the ‘Indian Sentinel’. And, guess what, it’s the ‘Indian Sentinel’ who has got the Chinese soldiers spooked! The Baba appears to both Indian and Chinese soldiers. But if he comes to his Indian comrades in their dreams as a benign saint, to the PLA soldiers he appears as an avenging angel riding a ghostly white steed, rearing on its hooves. Or at least that's what the local soldiers will have you believe.
All the Indian Army soldiers posted in the region make it a point to visit the shrine of the Baba to seek his blessings on the way to their duties from Gangtok base. It’s said Baba Harbhajan Singh guards the frontier from Jelepa Pass to Nathu La Pass. He is believed to “patrol” the border when even the snow leopard sleeps and the Yak nod.
The NBM is located 4km from Doklam where all the attention is on nowadays but there is no dearth of soldiers and civilians dropping in at the Baba’s shrine throughout the day. Visitors come to pray and seek favours. Each one of them is given a prasad of dry fruits and halwa by the barefooted soldiers who are on duty to serve Capt Harbhajan Singh.
People believe the ‘Baba’ has the powers to heal. They come to his shrine with bottles of water and leave them at the shrine for a week. By the time they pick up the bottle of water, it would have turned into a cure for all ailments, they believe. Soldiers on duty at the shrine told Firstpost that all the units of the Indian Army posted in the region seek the Baba’s blessings.
The Baba’s shrine has a brass bust of him in the central room along with large framed portraits of the young soldier who was, apparently, killed in 1968. Devotional songs play throughout the day. The Baba follows all the customary rituals followed by any living soldier. His bed is laid out in the bunker built specially for him inside the shrine. His clothes, shoes and other important items are also kept in the shrine.
Uniformed men are deployed at the shrine. They make up his bed, wash his uniforms and polish his snow boots. Shuttling his portrait from central room (office) to bedroom at given times is part of the drill. Soldiers on duty remain barefoot at all times. They swear that the Baba sleeps on his bed every night after patrolling the LAC. They point to the crumpled bed sheets and soiled snow boots.
Till he hadn’t formally retired at the age of 60, Capt Harbhajan Singh would go on annual leave to his home in Kapurthala where his mother lived. His belongings would be packed and taken along “with him” by soldiers “in his command”. Leave over, he would return to Nathu La by the same train.
Havaldar Jasbir Singh of the Sikh regiment is a regular. He said the PLA knows of Baba Harbhajan Singh. He has been told that by none other than Chinese soldiers. The PLA is curious about the mystery of Baba Harbhajan Singh and the legends associated with him.
"From their questions, it’s clear they are in complete awe of Babaji. They are aware that the Baba patrols the border round-the-clock to keep a tab on their activities," said Singh.
Such is the respect and reverence that the Chinese have for Capt (Retd) Harbhajan Singh, they leave a chair empty for the Baba at the flag meetings held between the Indian Army and the PLA.
A captain told Firstpost that the shrine of Baba Harbhajan Singh is located on the Old Silk Road on which Doklam is located and which China wants to turn into OBOR. He said men of the PLA never use foul language when talking of the Baba; that they too were aware of the 'Spirit that Rides' and guards the LAC.
The soldiers believe the eternal spirit of Capt (Retd) Harbhajan Singh will warn the Indian Army of an impending PLA attack three days in advance. So far, after the Doklam standoff began in mid-June, no warning has come from the Baba! So, nothing to worry.
Manoj Kumar is a Chandigarh-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
Updated Date: Aug 10, 2017 11:29 AM