Subedar Harbinder Singh is looking forward to his retirement from the army in a year's time. Before that, the burly Sardar, who has served in the Jammu & Kashmir Rifles regiment for over three decades, is counting the months he has to spend at an altitude of 14,000 feet. After all, he has been guarding the Nathula post, across the Chinese border in Sikkim, for the past two years, braving high altitude, loneliness and sheer boredom.
His only break from the monotony of maintaining a vigil over this vital sector on the India-China border comes twice a week -- on Thursdays and Sundays -- when a mailbag is exchanged between the two countries.
On these two days, Subedar Singh has a chance to see new faces as several Chinese officers and men throng the makeshift barbed wire fence on the line separating the two countries and exchange pleasantries. The Chinese even photograph themselves with Indian soldiers. And, as Singh and his post commander recall with a chuckle, "If the Chinese see the Khalsas [Sikhs], they go crazy. After all, we Sikhs are easily distinguishable among the Indians. When they go back home and show the photographs taken at the Indian border, their claims are believed only if we Sardars are in the photographs!"
Although the mail exchange, the only such overland facility between the two countries, lasts exactly three minutes beginning 8.30 am, it is an occasion for a lot of bonhomie. Even as a civilian from the Indian postal department makes his way into Chinese territory, a small bag in hand, the Chinese soldiers, some with their wives and children, start shooting photographs.
Once he enters the small hut-like structure, the Indian postman hands his bag over to his Chinese counterpart, receives a similar bag from him, signs for its receipt and makes his way back to Indian soil. This routine, both for the men in uniform and for the postman, is followed religiously every Thursday and Sunday.
The routine over, the soldiers retreat to their respective posts, which are just 500 metres apart. A long wall is all that separates the two countries. Both sides can watch each other closely, come snow, storm, fog or rain. 'Watch' is the operative word here. As a senior army officer puts it: "Constant vigil is the key to border management."
On the ground, there is no tension between the two forces. There are no firearms on display here. In fact, it is the ubiquitous black umbrella, which almost everyone carries to ward off a sudden drizzle or a light snowfall, that is the constant companion of soldiers here.
Beneath the apparent casualness with which the troops move about lies the steady routine of constant vigil on Chinese activities. The army knows if the Chinese want to create mischief along the Sikkim border, Nathula would be a major trouble spot. Not only is it well-connected by an all-weather, black-topped road, it is also just a two-hour drive from Gangtok, the Sikkim capital, which, in turn, is less than 150 kilometres away from the plains of north Bengal.
Not that there is anything untoward happening here. As a staff officer of the Nathula Brigade says: "Things are as normal as can be."
To remove any possible misunderstanding, officers from both armies meet twice a year -- once in March and once in September. The commander of the Nathula Brigade represents India while the Chinese colonel, in charge of the border defence regiment posted to guard the border, represents China.
Although Beijing officially does not recognise Sikkim's merger with India, it has refrained from creating any trouble.
The last recorded skirmish between the two forces in Nathula was way back in 1967. A dispute about bunkers and defensive positions led to a fortnight-long conflict that saw a young Indian captain earn a posthumous Vir Chakra for his bravery. Since then, things have been quiet. And, unlike the Kameng sector in Arunachal Pradesh, the Chinese have refrained from 'nibbling' away at the Indian border. As a senior army officer says: "There are no disputes here unlike in Aksai Chin or Arunachal Pradesh."
Dispute or no dispute, the Chinese, as Defence Minister George Fernandes is wont to say in public (and as senior army officers say in private), cannot be trusted. Hence, there is no let-up or laxity as far as India's defences along the Chinese borders are concerned.
The troops are well looked after, well-fed and given the best of facilities. Their only complaint: the isolation and physical problems resulting from staying at super-high altitudes are more lethal than enemy threats. The Nathula post commander says: "At this altitude [14,420 feet], a man's physical efficiency reduces by over 40 per cent. During winter, when the oxygen level in the mountains falls further, it is painful even to walk short distances. You can imagine the plight of troops staying at posts which are at even higher altitudes than this one."
Physical pain apart, mental isolation can also prove unnerving. Although no jawan is allowed to stay alone, the fatigue of seeing the same faces over and over again gets to them. Hence, any visitors, be it journalists or touring generals, are a welcome respite from the monotony.
If the top brass tries to keep up the morale by looking after the troops, the soldiers themselves attempt to find solace through devotion to a common deity. But their deity is not god; it is a dead soldier.
Baba Harbhajan Singh is the presiding deity of the Nathula Brigade. Three decades ago, he was an ordinary soldier posted here to escort the mules that carried supply loads. One day he died -- buried under an avalanche.
End of story?
Some months after his death, the commanding officer of his unit, the 23rd Punjab, apparently saw Harbhajan Singh in a dream. The dead soldier apparently urged the CO to construct a small samadhi (memorial) for him, which the officer promptly did.
Today every soldier in the brigade pays his respect to 'Baba' Harbhajan Singh. Every Sunday, a langar (free lunch) is organised at the temple. All the soldiers posted here believe they are blessed by the Baba, who looks after their well-being.
To those who do not live for days on end, under hostile conditions, in these mountains, this blind faith may appear inconsistent with rational and modern thought. But, as a staff officer of the brigade says, "It is this kind of faith that sustains the soldier in these extreme conditions."
Clearly, faith, constant vigil and devotion to duty are on permanent display at this frontier.