Some experiences with the Army

In my years in Manali as a horsewoman, I often encountered soldiers, as the route from Manali to Ladakh and then on to Kashmir is through some prime trekking terrain.

Writing up some of those experiences here. Partly as a response to Indians who accuse me of being anti-National for simply believing “propaganda” about human right abuses.

If you ask any local around Manali about the Army, you will find that they keep their distance, and while they respect the work the Army does, there is a lot of frustration over their behavior. As a local once put it. If an Army truck nicks your car, and you get out and argue with them over the damage, chances are you’ll get bashed. Absolutely nothing to do with terrorism.

A personal scare I had was when we used to be camped in Marhi, which is at the base of the Rohtang Pass. We used to ferry tourists on horses for joy rides to the snow point. Accommodation was a tarpaulin sheet pitched to form a tent. We had a helper with the horses who also stayed with us.

My boyfriend was from Delhi, and once, we left the helper in the camp and took a trip to Delhi for some work – I forget what. We got a call from a friend asking us to return urgently as the Army was looking for us, and it would be trouble if we didn’t return. So we did.

We came back to find that our camp had been confiscated by the Army – saddles, utensils, bedding and all. Some soldiers and locals had got into a drunk fight at the video hall, and the next morning, the lads (including our helper) had all absconded fearing being beaten up by the soldiers who came looking for them. That is when they found the camp empty and took it away. Friends who tried to explain that it was not the helper’s property got beaten trying to protect it.

We went to meet them and got interrogated thoroughly, if verbally about our business in the region – we explained that we were city people settled here for years living a nomadic life with horses. We told them we taught village kids tutions in the winter or migrated to the Mandi district, offered joy rides here in spring and autumn and took pack horses for high altitude trekking in the summers.

They concluded after taking this information, and told us we were free to leave. We asked them about our camp, and they said they didn’t know anything about it. I don’t know where I thought of the idea, but I asked them pretending to be very helpful that I knew a retired major general, and would it be helpful if we (as in including the officer) asked him for help? He would be sure to know more people than the ones working under the officer, and that may help us find our missing camp.

The officer said there was no need, and he would ask the soldiers himself. We took our leave, seeing that we could do nothing further. Two days later, we woke up in the morning to find our belongings dumped on the side of the road in front of the mud hut we had rented.

This is Himachal Pradesh in an almost completely Hindu area. We had done absolutely nothing that could be considered to be anti-National. Yet, our helper was fleeing for fear of his life/well being over a drunken brawl in a video parlour between the soldiers and some locals – which he hadn’t participated in, it turned out, but got recognized for being there – they wanted to know from him who else was there.

As a woman trekking guide and Indian (unlike female clients with me), I had learned over the years to be wary of soldiers, because they may want to check my ID and ask questions of me far longer than others on the team, or they may try to act over friendly.

But, for these two issues, I have dozens where the Army people have been very nice. We have received information and aid from them when heading into remote terrain, we have had many a visits to their barracks and dinners and songs and fun.

I remember another incident when I had taken a horse from our camp to another place about six kilometers away. On the ride back, we landed up behind an Army Convoy. The road in that area is indistinguishable from the scenery, except the boulders are smaller. The resultant dust cloud was out of the question to be riding through, so when the road reached an area where it curved around a large ground, I took Ribot (my horse) off the road, and we cut across the ground to really race it so that we got ahead of the convoy… and we left it behind gradually. I had the speed advantage of a horse heading home to his herd 😀 The roads are better now, and a vehicle would likely be faster, but not in those days.

About a kilometer before our camp, there was a chai shop where I knew the owner and wanted some supplies too, and I stopped there and tied Ribot outside. The convoy passed again, and the last vehicle stopped. An officer came into the shop and asked the owner who owned the horse. Not knowing why the man wanted, both of us stayed quiet, but finally, I said it was my horse. He saw me at that point and realized I was a girl. He also recognized my clothes. He came up and shook hands with me and complimented me on my riding skills and left.

I have seen soldiers run rescues and I have heard them talk of the nerve wracking tension of living among citizens they can’t harm and not knowing which of them could harm them. I have never been to an Army barrack in Kashmir, but they told me bluntly that they wouldn’t have such casual contact with a civilian there because it wasn’t safe.

The point I am trying to make here is that these are people. For good or for bad. I have suffered at their hands, and know for a fact that if they can hassle absolutely harmless people over an ego issue, in a terrain they consider friendly, they are definitely capable of worse among those they don’t see as friends. At the same time, I don’t buy the story that their sole purpose in life is to abuse people.

Like any people, they have their blessings and their dangers, and the real issue is more about enforcing human rights than debating intent.

To those calling me anti-National, I am not going to defend myself. You are entitled to your opinion. Just as I am to mine. And I think it does far more harm to our soldiers to deny crimes, because that actually is neglect. It also makes the entire Army complicit in the crimes through protecting criminals. If you love our soldiers, I fail to see how you don’t value the honor of those working with integrity being sacrificed over those who don’t. There is an urgent need to free soldiers of integrity from having to bear the burden of defending those without. Just as there is a need for the Kashmiris to find justice.