Soldiers’ Gods

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There are many soldier Gods in different border areas where the Indian Army operates. Most of the shrines dedicated to these Gods are situated in inhospitable terrain and mostly placed out of bounds to the civilians. There are no hymns or keertans sang on behalf of these Gods, they do not have ashrams, they do not ride in luxurious sedans, they do not hug devotees, they do not run charitable institutions, and they do not give darshans, and so on. They are soldiers who sacrificed their lives in service of their motherland and now regarded as patron saints guarding the areas where they achieved Martyrdom.


On my first assignment to the Kashmir Valley as a young Captain in 1987, my belief in  God Almighty was rekindled mainly because of the inhospitable terrain, sub-zero temperatures, heavy snow-falls, avalanches, thin air with deficiency of Oxygen, high-altitudes above 10,000 feet, and the drive through the mountain roads where one could slip off the road, down the gorges, and no trace would be left of the vehicle or the passengers.


I was attached to a Punjab Battalion as Artillery Observer. The Battalion had soldiers mainly from Punjab, Himachal and Jammu, consisting of Hindus and Sikhs. As per the norms of the Army, the battalion had a Mandir with a Hindu Pundit and a Gurudwara with a Sikh Granthi. On Sundays or on important religious days we attended both Mandir Parade and Gurudwara Parade. These being Parades, it was mandatory for all officers and soldiers to attend.

On the way to the battalion headquarters, there was a Muslim Peer Baba and every man, irrespective of their rank or position, used to stop and pay their respects to the Peer Baba before proceeding to the battalion. The belief among the soldiers, passed down over many decades of army deployment was that the Peer Baba took care of the soldiers and in case anyone failed to stop and pay respect, he will meet with some tragedy. Being a Christian by birth, I said the Lord’s prayer in the mornings and evenings, a ritual embedded in me by our father.


This was the place I understood the meaning of secularism and realised that all Gods were the same. I was never sure as to who saw me through my first Kashmir tenure, the Gods in the Temple, the Gurudwara, Peer Baba or Jesus. During my later years of field service in Sikkim and in Siachen Glacier, I came across two Soldier Gods.

OP Baba, Siachen Glacier, c/o 56 APO
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Siachen Glacier, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, highest battlefield of the world, is well known for its inhospitable and treacherous terrain, freezing cold at minus 40 degrees Celsius, crevasses and avalanches and lastly enemy action. Statistics reveal that more lives have been lost to the weather than to the enemy action since 1984, when Indian Army first occupied Siachen glacier. Hypoxia, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (‘high-altitude sickness’ or HAPE), bone-chilling winds, sun burns, chill blains, frost bites, the thin air and sub-zero temperatures inducing acute depression, are  some of the weather factors affecting our soldiers. Most of the soldiers serving in such areas become very religious and the trust in their Gods really multiplies.

There are many a myths and legends about the Siachen Glacier like any other battlefields.  Legend has it that OP (Om Prakash) Baba, deeply revered by troops posted in these glacial heights, was an army soldier who fought valiantly to preserve Indian frontiers from Pakistani intruders in most adverse situations. Belief in the Soldier Saint is so strong that a formal report is given to OP Baba before induction of a soldier party on the glacier and after successful accomplishment of any mission. Any officer moving into the area reports his arrival to the Baba by visiting the shrine and paying his respects.


Faith in the legend of OP Baba is so strong that all troops give up consumption of alcohol and tobacco during their stay on the glacier as the Baba is believed to have been a strict disciplinarian and expects the same from fellow soldiers who come here to guard the frontier. Every battalion or company before taking position begins with a prayer at Baba’s shrine. The company commander gives a detailed briefing to Baba before tying a brass bell in the complex, taking a vow to keep away from cigarettes and intoxicants and fight the enemy till the last breath. Soldiers keep this promise till the last day of their tenure in the glacier and is strongly believed that any deviation is met with instant punishment from the legend himself.

It is believed that a night before any imminent danger, Baba comes in the dreams of soldiers and warns them of such eventuality. Baba has always been with the soldiers and protects every soldier and warns them of any impending danger in the Glacier.

Baba Harbhajan Singh, Sikkim, c/o 99 APO

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Baba Harbhajan Singh has defeated death. Believe it or not but it is true, one of its kind of story in the world- a man from an Indian Army in  Nathula border in Sikkim, is still doing his duty even after his death some three decades ago. 60km from Gangtok towards the Nathula Pass lies the valley of Kupup.  Here is the shrine of Baba Harbhajan popularly known as Baba Mandir. Baba Harbhajan has been guarding the international boundary of the two Asian giants, China and India over the last three decades. But believe me he does it alone. The Baba warns about the dangerous activities on the border through the dreams of fellow soldiers. Legend has it that even the Chinese soldiers confirm sighting a man riding a horse all alone, patrolling the border.

Born in Brondal village of Kapurthala, Punjab, Harbhajan Singh joined the 23rd Punjab Battalion on February 1966 as a Sepoy. On October 4, 1968 Sepoy Harbhajan Singh was escorting a mule caravan from his battalion headquarters and he fell into a fast flowing stream and was drowned. Search for Sepoy Harbhajan was made with no results it was on the fifth day of his missing, his Commanding Officer had a dream of Sepoy Harbhajan Singh informing him of his tragic incident and his personnel weapon being under the heap of snow. Sepoy Harbhajan Singh desired to have a Samadhi (memorial) made after him. The Commanding Officer ignored the dream as an imagination but later when the personnel weapon of Sepoy Harbhajan Singh was found at the spot where he had informed, the Commanding Officer was taken aback and to mark respect and towards his wish a samadhi was constructed there.


Here too, the belief in the soldier saint is so strong that any officer or soldiers moving into the area report their arrival to the Baba by visiting the shrine and paying his respects. On my arrival at Sikkim,  Colonel PK Ramachandran, our Commanding Officer, realising my rational stands on such issues had advised me to visit the Baba Mandir. He said that my visit to the Baba Mandir may mean nothing to me, but will go a long way in upholding the faith of the men under my command. I did as ordered without realising the implications of his words until I read a research paper by a US Army Doctor on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) suffered by operationally deployed US Army troops. I realised that cases of PTSD were the least in the Indian Army despite all the operational commitments and I can attribute it only to the faith in God by our troops and the role played by the myths and legends and patron saints of different areas. This may also be the reason for increased evangelistic activities reported among the US Military personnel deployed in operational zones.

St George and the British Army
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St George is patron of soldiers, cavalry and chivalry and he is the patron saint of England, Georgia, Lithuania, Portugal, Germany and Greece.  He has no biblical significance.  He held the rank of a tribune in the Roman army and was beheaded by Diocletian for protesting against the Emperor’s persecution of Christians. St George was adopted as the patron saint of soldiers after he was said to have appeared to the Crusader army at the Battle of Antioch in 1098.

He is usually represented on horseback in the act of spearing the monster which is vomiting fire.  It is based on a myth that in Sylene, a city of Libya, a lake was infested by a huge dragon, whose poisonous breath would kill anyone.  The citizens could never draw water from the lake and in order to keep the dragon away, every day a virgin was sacrificed to it.  One day the turn came for Sabra, the king’s daughter, to become its victim.  She was tied to the stake, and left to be devoured, when St. George appeared mounted on his charger and is believed to have killed the dragon.  Many similar stories were transmitted to the West by Crusaders who had heard them from Byzantine soldiers.

The banner of St George, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers possibly during the reign of Richard I, and later became the flag of England and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy.

In 1940, when the civilian population of Britain was subjected to mass bombing by the Luftwaffe, King George VI instituted the George Cross for ‘acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger’.  The award, which is second only to the Victoria Cross, is usually given to civilians.  The award consists of a silver cross.  On one side of the cross is St George slaying the dragon, with the inscription, ‘For Gallantry’; on the other appear the name of the holder and the date of the award.

After setting foot in India, British Army built its first fort in Madras (now Chennai) in 1644 and christened it Fort St George after their patron saint.

 

 

Who will Play the Butcher?


In 1997 after the Technical Staff Course of 18 months, I was posted back to my parent unit 75 Medium Regiment. In those days the unit had three batteries, each with different class composition of soldiers. Now it has men from all over India, comprising of all classes. A battery is a sub-unit of an Artillery Regiment consisting of six Guns and about 125 soldiers to operate them along with vehicles, radio sets and other technical equipment.

The Regiment then had an interesting class composition. One battery was of Brahmins (other than those from the Southern and Eastern States of India), the second had Jats and the third was manned by the soldiers from the four Southern States. Management of soldiers in all the batteries differed as their reactions to various situations, their needs, their languages etc were different.

In those days, any Young Officer posted to the Regiment would serve with each of the batteries for one or two years in order to make them familiarise with the soldiers. I too went through this rotation until I moved out for the Long Gunnery Course for 13 months. On my return from the course in 1990, I was appointed the Battery Commander (BC) of the Brahmin Battery. After two years I moved on posting to a staff appointment and returned after two years, again I was handed over the reins of the Brahmin Battery until I moved out for the Technical Staff Course.

On my return to the Regiment in 1997 after the Technical Staff Course, the unit was located in the high-altitude area (10,000 feet above Sea Level) of Sikkim, where families were not permitted to live with the soldiers or officers. After the customary ‘Dining-in’ in the evening at the Officers’ Mess, our Commanding Officer (CO) Colonel PK Ramachandran spoke welcoming me back into the fold and ordered me to be the BC of the Brahmin Battery. “Oh! Not again” was my instant reply and the CO was a bit puzzled.  He later spoke to me in person and I requested that I need a change and I wanted to have the experience of commanding another battery. The CO had his own logical reasoning for his decision and I did accept the same without any remorse as I too got convinced. Col Ramachandran had earlier served throughout his army career with a Regiment which had only Brahmin soldiers and I realised the he exactly knew the ‘horse for the course.’

The first week I spent at the Regimental Headquarters, carrying out the acclimatisation drills laid down for any soldier on arrival in high-altitude area. Our Battery was located about three km from the Regimental Headquarters. I luckily had two energetic and hardworking officers – Captain Samya Saurav, the Second-in-Command and Lieutenant Manish Wahi, the Gun Position Officer – both are presently Colonels, who effectively commanded their units. I delegated all my duties to the two and they did an excellent job that I hardly ever visited the battery.  Our CO wanted me to stay with the Regimental Headquarters to assist him, hence I had to delegate most duties to my junior officers.

After the week long acclimatisation, I decided to pay a visit to the Battery in the morning. When I reached the kitchen area, I found five goats there. In high-altitude area live goats are supplied as rations in place of dressed meat. These goats are called ‘Meat on Hoof (MOH)’ but are mostly ‘Meat on Knees’ as the goats are nearly dead after traversing through the difficult mountain roads from the plains.   The soldiers usually feed them well for a week to bring them back to life before they are slaughtered.

On inquiry I realised the problem of the goats – the Brahmins did not want to slaughter the animals, but like good soldiers, wanted to partake the meat. I ordered the Havildar Major (Sergeant Major) Kanti Prasad to assemble the entire battery at 12 Noon in front of the kitchen and the BC would slaughter the animal in their presence. After that I went back to my room in the Regimental Headquarters.

In my youth, our household had fowls and animals and whenever I went on vacation, my brothers would entrust me the task of slaughtering. I think I did a good job of it as Amma, a stickler regarding the way the meat is cut, was pretty happy about my job. That was why I was sure that I would do a smart job of slaughtering the animal – if my mother could not find anything wrong – I was damn sure no one on earth could.

By 11 AM, our Havildar Major knocked at my door and reported that the goat was stewing in the pressure cooker and I need not return to the battery at 12 Noon.