While the border with China remains cold, the relations may hot up
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
The snow appears quite suddenly; pockmarked by jutting rocks and slush. There’s nothing enchanting about snow on wane even if it is at Auli. Spring has been encroaching upon the desolation of Himalayas, stray apricot trees are blooming in pink and white and at many places there is a burst of shocking red flowers. The blooms recede as the snow line approaches. And one is filled with a sense of being cheated. There is neither enough snow nor enough flowers. Spring is not a pretty month after all.
About 10km from Joshimath, headquarters, 19 battalion of the Indo Tibetan Border Police Force. Auli is famous for skiing. And sure enough. Despite the fact that there is not much snow to sing about, the place has quite a few foreigners skiing away merrily when others struggle to walk, given that the snow has become soft and slippery, A lesser-known aspect about Auli is the ITBP’s snow-craft school, where the Himveers (brave-hearts of the Himalayas) learn to use and subdue snow to their advantage. For them, pristine and woolly snow slopes are not merely fun, they are training grounds. ITBP is the first force in the country to use snow craft for operational duties. So the personnel here go on patrol on skis holding guns instead of sticks and use sledges for rescue. Makeshift igloos from the posts and Swiss skis are mode of transport, Sometimes they also use dog-driven sledges. For a moment, as the ITBP personnel demonstrate their various snow-skills, it seems that one is turning a page from a fairy tale, only to be rudely reminded of the time and place by the omnipresent rifle.
Deputy Commandant, Dushyant, who heads the school, loves his job. He is indulging in his passion even as he fulfils his duty. The spirit is shared by most at the school, where each personnel is an accomplished sportsperson. While Inspector Nanak Chand has participated in a number of international competitions, such as Winter Olympics and Asian Winter Games, Inspector Bhag Chand has been adjudged the best skier of the year in India. Emphasising their accomplishment, the bosses at ITBP point out that if these men didn’t have their operational responsibilities and could get professional training abroad, they would make their mark in international events. “Our role is such that skiing is an operational requirement.” Says Dushyant, who himself is an accomplished skier and rafter, Skiing apart, mountaineering and rock-climbing are other prerequisites for all ITBP rookies. Hence, Auli also houses ITBPs school for rock-climbing, where equal emphasis is given to rescue operations. The battalions at Joshimath and Gauchar (11 battalion, also in Garhwal region of Uttaranchal) have been designated as first responders in an event of a natural calamity, which happen in plenty in these areas, hence a major part of the ITBP training is geared towards relief and rescue work. Little wonder, ava-lanches and landslides pepper most conversation.
Though the border with China has been quiet for many years and the Middle Sector in any case is the most peaceful one given that even the maps have been exchanged in this area. The ITBP continues to be deployed in this difficult terrain. And in the absence of roads, they rely on their feet and skis. Even as deputy commandant Dushyant explains the various kinds of training being given to the ITBP personnel here, a batch of about 20 men, in full skiing gear leave for a 115-day exercise, north of Auli. For the next 15 days they would live off the land and sleep in tents on the snow.
Though all areas of ITBP deployment, from Ladakh (Western Sector) to Himachal Pradesh-Uttaranchal (Middle Sector) and Sikkim-Arunachal Pradesh (Eastern Sector), are very difficult, with most posts being located in extreme high altitude, the Middle Sector is made particularly treacherous because of the unpredictability of the mountains and lack of infrastructure. The Himalayas in Uttaranchal have steep gradients, are rocky and prone of landslides and avalanches. Because of the terrain, the roads are extremely narrow, and in parts non-existent, Kashmir and parts of Ladakh, in comparison, seem like a virtual paradise. The fact that peaceful Ganga. Flowing like turquoise sash, finding its way gently around the rocks and mountain folds, is accompanying you a few metres below the precarious road, which often disappears under layers of fallen stones and pieces of earth, offers little comfort. Mythology intermingles with spirtuality as each mountain peak tells a story and each pool of water is steeped in faith and spirit. Even though thousand throng this road. Which culminates at Badrinath, one of the holiest Hindu shrines, in search of solace every year. For ITBP personnel. The Himalayan range is a formidable adversary who they try to best. “We have the distinction of climbing the Everest five times.” says Dushyant with a touch of pride. But while the ITBP has tried to tame the mountains they have also propitiated them with their lives. Each year. The Himalayas swallow their share of ITBP personnel.
Even as the ITBP personnel device new means of remaining on top of the mountains, the mountains manage to stay a step ahead.
While most ITBP posts have been in the range of 10,000 to 18,000 ft. they are now in the process of taking over from the Assam Rifles in Arunachal Pradesh and their area of deployment would go up by another few thousands. And their battle with nature will continue.
With more jobs and less numbers, the ITBP is walking a tightrope