May 27, 2016

Isolated Indian Soldiers Invent New Saints to Maintain Their Sanity

On one base, troops revere a serviceman who died in 1968; ‘How can I not believe?’

May 27, 2016

NATHU LA, India—Indian army enlisted man Jitender Singh Sehrawat has had a few close calls.

When lightning tore through the roof of his bunker at a high-altitude post on the Chinese border one recent afternoon, it blasted a hole in a metal mess plate lying feet from where he was standing. Miraculously, Mr. Sehrawat says, he and his squad mates were unharmed.

He doesn’t think it was luck. Rather, he believes he was saved by Harbhajan Singh, a serviceman who died in 1968 and who is revered as a watchful spirit by soldiers.

It is lonely and hostile in this remote mountainous base, and the threat of armed conflict is never far away. To get through the days, and to explain the inexplicable, troops have added a series of beloved figures to the traditional Hindu pantheon.

“Without Baba’s blessings, it’s impossible to live up there,” the 24-year-old Mr. Sehrawat says. “How can I not believe?” Baba is an honorific bestowed on Hindu saints.

The Hindus are a devout people, believing in millions of gods and numerous saints. Many believe in rebirth, and some in the afterlife. Few revere a dead person as if he is god.

At Nathu La, a strategic pass to Tibet high in the Himalayas, the army has built a shrine to Mr. Singh, who was a sepoy, the equivalent of a private, when he drowned in a rushing alpine stream at age 22.

Believers say he patrols the frontier, wakes sleeping sentries and keeps soldiers from harm.

“Life is tough,” says Maj. Gen. Vinod Karnik, a retired officer who served in Nathu La. There is “a lot of snow and the Chinese are just about 50 yards in front of you, eyeball to eyeball.”

Though India’s urban youth are less inclined to believe in spirits than their elders, Indian army soldiers are an exception. For men stationed at the Siachen Glacier on India’s frontier with Pakistan, there is Om Prakash, or O.P. Baba. Legend says that in the 1980s, Mr. Prakash single-handedly fended off an enemy advance. His body was never found.

The glacier, at 20,000 feet above sea level, is the world’s highest military base. Soldiers pay their respects to Mr. Prakash at a shrine at the foot of the massive ice sheet. It contains a bust and a few personal effects.

Over in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, scene of intense fighting during India’s 1962 war with China, soldiers turn to rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat, who is said to have perished battling a Chinese advance.

In Nathu La, it is all about Mr. Singh. His shrine includes a bedroom and office along with a chapel. Each morning, an orderly prepares tea for Mr. Singh, now an honorary captain, and lays out his uniform for the day. Other meals arrive with military precision.

The shrine contains a room where visitors can leave bottles of water next to a picture of Mr. Singh to receive his blessings. Believers say drinking this water will relieve aches and pains above the waist. Wearing slippers kept in the room is said to cure ailments in the lower extremities.

Mr. Sehrawat, a sepoy, says acclimatizing to duty at the Nathu La post, which is 15,000 feet above sea level, was a challenge. The altitude can cause headaches and wreak havoc with soldiers’ digestion.

Soon after he arrived in Nathu La in 2013, Mr. Sehrawat found himself in a convoy of army trucks towing artillery along a winding mountain road. He watched horrified as a landslide swept down a hill toward him. The cascade narrowly missed the vehicles.

“Baba ji is our support,” Mr. Sehrawat says. “He is protecting us.”

On a recent morning, files of sepoys jumped out of passing army trucks, headed up to the shrine and bowed their heads. Some snapped pictures of Mr. Singh’s rooms, each of which contains a picture of him wearing a uniform and an olive-drab turban.

Shambhu Jha, 49-year-old soldier based in Kolkata who goes to Nathu La periodically for training believes Mr. Singh is guarding the long Chinese boundary between India and Tibet and helps keep the area secure.

“Those who are on duty on the border are able to live in peace thanks to Baba ji,” says Mr. Jha.

Pamphlets available at Mr. Singh’s shrine propagate the mystery. “Even Chinese troops have been reported saying that they had seen a man in white clothes on a white horse patrolling the watershed,” says the pamphlet.

Like other soldiers and officers in the Nathu La area, Mr. Sehrawat says he doesn’t eat meat or drink alcohol on Sundays, as a mark of respect for the saint. In the bunker where he sleeps, a picture of Mr. Singh is placed in a shrine with images of Hindu gods.

Soldiers offer him daily prayers. Many set a place for the soldier-saint when they eat meals.

Capt. Ashwani Chandel, 25, says last year he saw a troop truck skid off a road during a heavy snowfall, plunge into a ravine and crumple. No one was hurt, he says.

“How can someone escape without a scratch from such an accident?” the captain says. “This was because of Baba ji.”

Parthiban Chandrasekharan, who has been in the army for nearly 30 years, says he saw a jeep pass a shrine to another soldier-saint, rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat in Arunachal Pradesh, without stopping. The jeep then lost control. One officer who failed to salute the Baba died, Mr. Chandrasekharan was told by the driver of the vehicle—who saluted and survived.

“For those who don’t pay their respects, the punishment is immediate,” says Mr. Chandrasekharan.

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