Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Story Of The Ghost Of An Indian Army Soldier Who Still Protects India's Border

Believe it or not, military mythology is a thing. Maybe when it comes to serving your nation, the soldiers never actually die. This is the story of Baba Harbhajan Singh, an Indian Army soldier, who died in 1986 but his ghost is believed to still be protecting his brothers-in-arms at the border.  

Born in a village of Punjab in 1941, Harbhajan Singh enrolled himself in the Indian Army in 1956. In 1965, he was granted a commission and was posted to serve with the14 Rajput Regiment. It was in the year 1967, near Nathu-La pass, that Singh met his end after slipping and drowning in a glacier while he was leading a column of mules carrying supplies to a lonesome outpost. His body was recovered after three days and cremated with due honors. But did he really die?  

Legend has it that it was his own ghost that led the search party to his own dead body. Soon after cremation, it is believed, he appeared in one of his friends dream and asked him to erect a shrine in his memory. Following this, a shrine dedicated to Singh was built. 

Even today, jawans posted at the Nathu-La post firmly believe that Singh’s ghost protects them. Soldiers even believe that his ghost warns them of any impending attack at least three days in advance. Even the Chinese, during flag meets, set a chair aside to honour Harbhajan Singh. The water from his shrine is believed to heal ailing soldiers. Singh’s shrine is guarded by barefooted soldiers, and his uniform and boots are cleaned on a daily basis. Stories about his ghost visiting the camps at night and even waking up the soldiers who sleep while on watch, are massively popular and very regular.  

The belief about his paranormal existence is so firm that every year on 11th September, a train carrying ‘his’ belongings departs for his hometown accompanied by fellow soldiers, and goes right till his home’s doorstep. Moreover, until his recent retirement, Singh was steadily promoted up the ranks and retired as an Honorary Captain. His salary has, without fail, been sent to his family up until his retirement. Singh is looked up to as a holy saint today and soldiers often refer to him as ‘Baba’. Guess patriotism never really dies!

                                            Harbhajan’s army jacket in his temple in Sikkim.
From his barracks the army sanctioned two months off for Baba Harbhajan each year. A jeep festooned with yellow placards bearing the words Baba Harbhajan Singh in red lettering carried his portrait, uniform and belongings down the steep winding road from his mandir, stopping along the way to receive donations from Sikkimese villagers. 
A seat was reserved for him on the Lohit Express to Jalandhar Cantt in Punjab. The Singh family still has the tickets on which the age of the passenger oscillates from year to year, suggesting perhaps that the army was not keeping a close record of their ghost soldier’s advancing years.
All leave for soldiers serving in the Jelepla area was cancelled when Baba was “away” because the army feared they were more vulnerable without him. According to his family, as he rose through the honorary ranks an officer and a junior soldier accompanied him on the journey and escorted him from the station to his family home in Kuka.
In that Punjabi village, Rattan admits being sceptical when the army initially sent the uniform of his deceased brother home “on annual leave.”
“When he [Baba] first used to come here alone on holiday he came in the dream of our mother and said ‘I don’t have a room to stay,’ ” says Rattan. “[But] I wouldn’t believe unless he came and told me himself.” A few nights later, when he was in bed, Rattan says that he too received a visitation. “The covers were pulled back and it was Baba Ji saying ‘Are you happy now? I’m sitting on your bed, you make a room for me where I can live.’”
Harbhajan’s blind mother Amar Kaur also reported hearing footsteps and a voice saying ‘Mum it’s me,’ Baljinder chips in. “And we heard the sound of running water from the taps at two o’clock in the morning when he used to take a bath,” he adds.
But when their Baba Ji is referred to as a “ghost” the family bristles. “We think he is a very holy spirit, not a ghost,” says Rattan, whose smile has now vanished. “He is everywhere now, wherever we need him, because he is retired.”

In 2006 Baba Harbhajan was sent on leave for the last time, Rattan says. The army told him that they had retired his brother at the rank of honorary Captain when he asked why no vehicle arrived bearing Baba Harbhajan’s portrait the following year. The payments into his mother’s pension were also curtailed after she died the same year; the fabled ghost salary was in fact a pension payment to the next of kin of a deceased soldier – normal army practice. The Singh family still have the books detailing these pension payments.

A regimental photograph taken at Meerut’s cantonmnent. Listed as “Bhajan Singh” in the photograph, Harbhajan is in the second standing row and third from the left.

Baba Harbhajan’s abrupt retirement, in the year he would have turned 60, came after the start of a civil court case challenging the army’s credence in supernatural beings in October 2005. Most servicemen and women, except at the highest ranks, retire at 58, suggesting Baba Harbhajan’s late retirement was initiated for expediency in the face of an embarrassing court case. Ex-serviceman Subedar Piara Singh sought a mandatory in-junction against the Defence Ministry’s “superstitions.” He cited the case of Harbhajan Singh but he could just as easily have picked on Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat, said to guard the Sino-Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh 50 years after his death, or Om Prakash, who apparently appears in the dreams of soldiers stationed on the Siachen Glacier in Jammu and Kashmir.

After at least four hearings the case was dismissed, the army having claimed that there was “absolutely no correspondence available … of the deceased with regards to his promotions” and that two soldiers, believed to be his escorts making the journey from Sikkim to Punjab by train, were themselves actually “on leave.”

For troops posted near Baba Mandir, belief in the Baba has given rise to certain rituals that mark out their time in Sikkim. Out of respect, soldiers there refrain from eating meat and drinking alcohol on Sundays and Thursdays and alangar is held on Wednesdays. The harsh conditions, proximity to the enemy and long dark nights of lonely sentry duty make such “morale boosting” beliefs necessary, according to a serving officer in Sikkim. “It’s a firm belief of the people who are here that his soul is still around and that he is giving protection to everyone,” says the soldier who does not wish to give his rank or full name. “It’s not just soldiers who believe, it’s everyone up to general,” he says, sitting beside Tsongo Lake, just a few miles from Baba Mandir.

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