Sunday, January 24, 2010

Er...camels, anyone?

This morning on television, I saw the Border Security Force camel contingent practising for the Republic Day Parade on January 26.

Ha, ha, I said to myself, look, camels. How quaint.

The TV camera went behind the scenes, and showed little snippets of the camels stirring at dawn, and interviewed their proud moustachioed handlers. Delhi is cold and foggy right now (lots of flights and trains cancelled today); but the BSF camel contingent was up early, preparing the camels for the day's rehearsals. There are three months of daily rehearsals, as a lead up to Republic Day. And the men interviewed on TV were proud of who they were and what they were doing.

The camel parade is a colourful spectacle. They do look good, you know? The camels are all brightly tasselled; they have this brass band, and the camels march smartly to the drummers. They're even in the Guinness Book of World Records, for being the world's only camel band.

But to me, this sort of pageantry has never been particularly interesting - in fact, I find the Republic Day Parade really boring. I can understand the need for it. Every country needs to say, look, we're big and strong and guess what, my tanks (or camels!!) are better than yours. It's one of these feel-good things, I suppose, not just to reassure your own population, but also tell the rest of the world not to mess with you.

But I was more interested in finding out what the camels did when they were not parading.

As it turns out, nothing. These 100 are purely in showbiz :) They're a special set of camels, chosen for their haughty demeanour, much like their men are chosen for their moustaches. I kid you not. "No moustache? Sorry bro, you just don't cut the mustard." (The mustard reference is my idea of a pun. These men have to wax their moustaches every day with mustard oil, he he).

So anyway, while these 100 vain camels are kicking their legs smartly to music, there are another 700 not-so-vain camels behind the scenes that patrol our sandy desert borders with Pakistan. And it's a loooooonnnng border, stretching across multiple states.

Before 1965, the Indian border with Pakistan was patrolled by the state army. After 1965, when fighting broke out in the Rann of Kutch, a special unit was created - the Border Security Force, or BSF.

Have you seen the Rann of Kutch? Imagine an endless vista of flat land, dry as dust and baking hot. For three months in the monsoons, the Rann of Kutch is a salt marsh, when the rains bring moisture and the ground is inundated. The rest of the time, it is dry and caked; but there's moisture underneath, so it makes for difficult terrain (in fact, they're having trouble building fencing along the border there, because the ground gives way, and it is difficult to find purchase).

My friend Amit (who does really cool travel shows) clicked these photos in the Rann of Kutch while on a shoot. This is the Little Rann, not really the border, but you can see what the ground is like.

But obviously, this is good camel country! A camel costs 90 rupees a day; and doesn't need expensive diesel, or spare parts. Or repair shops or gas stations, all of which are impossible in this area. And - it has a good sense of direction :)

So everyday, the camelmen patrol the borders, up and down, looking for any signs of Pakistani presence. And, on the other side, there's a similar camel contingent in Pakistan, looking for signs of Indians (we are, after all, two sides of the same coin).

Here's a photo from Outlook India's special feature on the camel contingents of the Border Security Force. This photo is from Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, also desert country, but with a terrain quite different from the Rann of Kutch.

These then, are the working camels of the Border Security Force, moody, muzzled and tough. They're cranky creatures, apt to bite, and the camelmen use gur to coax them into better moods. I rather like them!

So I propose a toast - a toast to the working camels of BSF!! When we watch the prancing colour of the camels on Republic Day parade, I guess we should really remember who the real heroes are.

- Deepa

P.S. In 2007, the UNESCO asked the Border Security Force for 100 trained camels, for peacekeeping in Sudan. I don't think that proposal went anywhere, but obviously it means trained camels make horse sense (yeah, yeah, another bad pun, he he he).


Srikant Krishnan said...

Nice one Deepa - you are so observant. Incidentaly, I was at the North Block day before yesterday and midst of guess who - yes the camels part of the rehersals. And was amazed the way they were made to stand absolutely still and all camels lined up to the tee. To the extent what I noticed was that all camels had their legs like slanted in a standing position and synced with each other - wondered how they managed that! Unless thats their usual standing position...

Anonymous said...

Deepa,....Im in the process of writing a book about BSF Camel Corp....Can you help with any Contacts within the BSF.....Pepper