Soldier of Fortune
The young army recruit who became an exemplary ghost soldier.
Baljinder Singh looks around his uncle’s bedroom, picks up a pair of shoes from a collection of footwear lined up by the door and smiles. The brand new beige lace-ups are entirely unremarkable but for the white markings on the black rubber soles and the fact that the person for whom they were recently purchased died over 40 years ago.
Turning the shoes on their side to expose the marks in question to the fluorescent strip on the wall above his head, Baljinder is confident of their significance. “This indicates that he’s living here,” he says standing next to a turned down bed and glass-fronted wardrobe with a military uniform hanging neatly inside.
To an untrained eye, the white splodges look like the work of a paintbrush. But for Baljinder, 27, and his family, they are evidence that the spirit of their relative Harbhajan Singh has lately been walking around in Kuka – their village of two dozen sand-coloured houses smudged on green wheat fields in Punjab. “We bought these for him recently and he’s been using them,” adds Baljinder, who helps his father, S Rattan Singh, take care of the bedroom.
At 22 years of age, Harbhajan died on October 4, 1968, while serving in the military. Since then, his shoes have become a recurring theme in the paranormal tales told about him.
It’s February 8, the day before the 46th anniversary of Harbhajan’s enrolment in the 23rd Punjab regiment, and the family is keen to recount the story of the afterlife of their beloved uncle and brother – a tale which was let loose by the Indian army. Sightings after his death, haunting experiences among the ranks and the inexplicable muddying of his army boots have all contributed to the conviction that Harbhajan is in service as a ghost soldier.
The legend built up around his name has become a morale boosting tool for the soldiers facing isolation in the unfriendly terrain of the Himalayan foothills, the top floor of the world.
There, on the inhospitable border with China in East Sikkim, Harbhajan lost his footing and drowned while collecting water for his regiment in a fast flowing stream in the mountain pass of Jelepla. After searching for three days, his fellow soldiers allegedly found his body and rifle after Harbhajan appeared in their dreams telling them where to look. He was cremated, his ashes scattered in the Ganges at Uttaranchal and a small shrine built for him where his body was discovered. But rumor began to take wing among those stationed in the region that Harbhajan remained as an extra pair of (unseen) eyes and boots, that stalked the border and woke up sleeping sentries with a slap.
The army, it is claimed, rewarded him for his work by sending him on annual leave, building him his own barracks and paying him a salary. In later years he was also granted promotions.
Some clues as to why Harbhajan’s death should have resulted in such practices and how belief in his supernatural presence began lie with his family in Punjab.
Back in Kuka, S Rattan Singh, 62, a slight man with a ruddy face and a long grey beard that matches his kurta, points out his brother in a grainy black and white photograph hanging on the bedroom wall. Harbhajan, beardless, turbaned and with a softer expression than his compatriots, looks uncertainly out of the regimental picture taken at Meerut Cantonment.
“He wasn’t going to be a soldier,” Rattan says. “He worked as a farmer like our father but then there was a drought so everyone suggested he should join the army.”
He recalls how his sibling would visit the gurudwara every day. “Baba Ji was a very brave person and a religious person,” Rattan says.
One of the youngest in his regiment when it was sent to Sikkim in early 1968, Harbhajan was known as “Baba” among his fellow recruits because he was so devout. His unit’s deployment was part of a concerted effort to bolster the Indian army’s presence along the border with China after the humiliating 1962 defeat in the Sino-Indian War.
After Harbhajan’s death, it was interactions with the Chinese that first cemented the initial hearsay of his ghost among Indian troops. The Chinese reported seeing a figure in Indian army uniform riding a white horse on their territory, Rattan says.
“The Chinese army wrote a letter to the Indians asking ‘Who is this person doing the horse riding every night?’ ” Rattan says. “The Indian officer had a dream in which Babi Ji told him ‘I’m not going to harm them [the Chinese] however if they want to catch me they can try.’ They never caught him,” he says with a smile that betrays a lasting pride in his elder brother.
As his legend developed in army circles there, Harbhajan was given a seat at fag meetings between the two countries. “Once a Chinese official tried to sit in that seat but Baba Ji threw him off,” Rattan says.
Army personnel also told Harbhajan’s family that in the event of a planned invasion by the Chinese, the deceased soldier would write a warning to Indian military commanders. This reported omnipotence has transformed the ghost into a deity for those soldiers posted to the border with China.
A dedicated temple complex called Baba Mandir has fortified the deification of the ghost soldier, who has become known as “Baba Harbhajan.” The mandir started off as a small monument before, in 1982, it was moved to its current, more accessible location near Nathula Pass, the heavily controlled gateway between India and Chinese-controlled Tibet. It’s here on lunar like territory that the mandir perches at 14 000 feet.
This series of buildings operates as his barracks, housing his bedroom, study and shrine; a member of the military who is posted there to look after Baba Harbhajan serves him breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and supper each day. The dead soldier’s laundry is also taken care of. It’s here that yarns have been woven about the sheets on his bed becoming crumpled when no one is near them. Beside his bed sit his boots which are polished each day by his army attendant. Legend has it that they become dirty overnight – proof for devotees that the Baba has been out on patrol.
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.
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.”
The army declined to comment on the importance of these figures or on Baba Harbhajan.
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 a langar 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.
The officer insists however that faith in Baba Harbhajan and acts of devotion do not equate to reliance upon him or exempt soldiers from doing their duty. “[The] army is not superstitious,” he says. “If we were not doing our work and banking on Baba that would be superstitious, but we all believe in gods and local deities. They don’t have anything to do with the workings of the army.”
As the officer talks, a senior army official on his way back from a personal visit to the shrine stops in for tea. “I have tremendous faith in Baba Harbhajan, all the army does,” he says, declining to be named. “I was stationed here between 1988 and 1992. Belief in Baba Harbhajan strengthens you and gives you courage to stay here and do your job.”
Almost 10 000 feet below, in Gangtok, where the distant Himalayas look like ghostly apparitions indistinguishable from their background, the army legend of Harbhajan Singh has been appropriated by the tourism industry to attract visitors.
Despite the dramatic natural beauty of East Sikkim, compared to the west of the state there are few specific attractions for visitors and Baba Mandir is an obvious vein for tour operators to tap. Around the town, shop windows advertise day trips costing Rs 2 800 to Tsongo Lake, Nathula Pass and Baba Mandir, where devotees leave bottles of water to be blessed with healing powers. In high season about 600 jeeps a day plough the tourist route on winding perilous road from Gangtok.
There is very little evidence of Baba Harbhajan or his legend on display otherwise. But ask the locals and most have heard of or are curious about him. Many believe the various stories about him but generally refer questions about him to the army.
Satnam Singh, the gyani in charge at the Station Gurudwara Sahib who is also a serving member of the army, suggests why belief in Baba Harbhajan might have caught on with the people of Sikkim. “He has a way of warning and believers who can hear him get saved and if they don’t [hear him] then bad things happen,” Singh says.
A plaque commemorating the death of two of three pilots in a plane crash was erected near Baba Mandir, he says. The third pilot survived. “Baba had a way of telling him to jump from the plane and he did and the others didn’t.
“[And] whenever people ridicule Baba Harbhajan, then bad things happen to them, like accidents,” Singh says soberly.
And it was an accident that really began the stories of Harbhajan’s ghostly presence on the border, according to the son of the man who found his body washed downstream after he drowned.
Lieutenant Colonel P Dorjee was commander of Harbhajan’s regiment when it was stationed at Jelepla. His son, Pema Wangchuk Dorjee, is the editor of Sikkim Now, a local English-language newspaper.
“My dad found the body. He wasn’t told anything in a dream,” Dorjee says taking a drag of a cigarette in his office in Gangtok.
Harbhajan’s death in the lonely outpost was the first casualty that the newly formed regiment had suffered. The other soldiers were deeply affected and began waking up in the middle of the night saying strange things. “In the barracks one guy would wake up saying ‘I’m Baba, I died here, I was a nice guy, leave something behind for someone to remember that I was here,’ ” Dorjee says.
Soon other soldiers were experiencing the same dreams and becoming “possessed by Baba’s spirit” says Dorjee. “[My dad] did not really believe these things initially,” he says. But these episodes soon turned into a “mass hysteria” as more and more boys woke up in their barracks voicing similar pleas. The Lieutenant Colonel agreed to place a small engraved stone bearing Sepoy Singh’s name and the fact he died on duty at Kupup, the spot where he was found, far from home.
Army convoys passing through the area began stopping at the stone to pay their respects by leaving money. The regiment collected the donations and used them to do up the memorial and even open a tea stall.
The unit replacing them went even more overboard and attached brass grills to the mandir. Dorjee continues: “This is believed to be the story of how Baba really got commandeered. A General came visiting in 1975 and reaching Kupup noticed the memorial looking like a guard’s room. He ordered it to be dismantled because he said the army does not believe in all this. As he was speaking a truck passing filled with troops ran off the cliff but no one was killed. The General took this as a sign that the Baba was getting angry so he said ‘We should respect it.’ ”
Only on returning years later did Lieutenant Colonel P Dorjee come to hear of the things being said about his former underling. “He didn’t believe all these stories,” says his son. “But he wasn’t going to challenge it as a superstition because sometimes people need these things to stay sane in a place like that.”