Soldier of Fortune
How a young recruit with the indian army has assumed supernatural proportions decades after his death.
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.