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A dog with a military mission

By Praveen Swami

Rani, the mountain dog, at its workplace in the Dras sector. — Photo: Praveen Swami

GURKHA POST, MARCH 10. Photographs of Bollywood heroines cut out from glossy film magazines are plastered on the inside walls of the fibre-reinforced plastic huts which troops here on the icy heights along the Line of Control (LoC) call home. But when soldiers on Gurkha Post talk affectionately about Rani, they do not mean any actress: they are talking about a dog.

Each day at 8-30 p.m., Rani sets out from Gurkha Post across to Tri Junction, another post perched on a mountain peak a few hundred metres away. It carries items of mail, sweets, vegetables and meat, all snuggled inside a cloth pouch slung under its belly. The journey to Tri Junction is a hazardous one, for even a single mis-step can trigger an avalanche. Rani, however, seems to have an intuitive idea of where it can tread safely. Even the timing of its daily journey seems to be planned, for the snow cover is at its least stable when the sun is beating down.

No one actually trained Rani to make its journey from Gurkha Post to Tri Junction. "One fine day," recalls Captain Arvind Kondal, the officer who was in charge of Gurkha Post when Rani made its move, "she decided to spend her nights at Tri Junction. Perhaps she had become used to following us across the ridge in the summer. Then, someone tried slinging a bag under her belly. It worked." For the soldiers at Tri Junction, where the snow is too deep to build a helipad, Rani is more than a friend. Avalanches and blizzards may cut telephone lines and disrupt wireless traffic, but neither will deter the dog from doing its duty.

Rani started learning its job during the summer, when supplies are stocked to last troops through the several months when snow will cut them off from the rest of the world. From April to September, thousands of soldiers and porters haul goods up the mountains from Sando Post, the base camp for the area, to forward positions. It is hard work, but pays well enough to attract economic migrants from as far away as Nepal. A porter can earn upwards of Rs. 13,000 a month during the summer, and more if he decides to stay on at a forward post through the winter.

Many dogs also stay on, although not all of them work for a living. Some like Tai, which also lives on Gurkha Post, have never been known to do anything but lounge near the cook-house, soaking in the warmth of the fire and waiting for any scraps of food to be thrown their way. Still, the habit seems to be catching. Another dog - also named Rani - has started ferrying goods to Point 5240, a critical post. Troops on the Siachen glacier had noticed such canine behaviour some years ago. One dog there had even won a commendation from the Chief of the Army Staff after a Pakistani sniper brought it down.

No one in the Army is certain if dogs like Rani in fact constitute a true breed. The canine varieties that are most often seen in Dras are generally referred to as Gaddi or Pahari. Gaddi dogs are widely used by local shepherds and are reputed to be strong enough to repulse attacks by snow leopards, and to have the intelligence to corral stray sheep and goats back to their pens. No formal effort has, however, been made by the Army to train or breed the local variety of dogs. Some officers who took Gaddi dogs to the plains, generally found they do not cope with heat.

It is probable that dogs have long had an active role in the areas now held by the Indian forward troops in Dras. Before 1947, traders used to make their way up the Sando Nallah, or mountain river, each summer, and then haul their goods over the 5,000-metre high Marpo La (pass).

From there, they would make their way to Olthingthang, Gultari, Gilgit and Skardu, all now in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Dogs would have followed the traders' caravans, perhaps scaring away the marmots, the Himalayan bears and the foxes. Such animals still come to scavenge what pickings can be found after soldiers on Gurkha Post have finished their meals.

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