Hot on the trail of an Indian desert patrol

The vast and undulating Thar Desert sprawls over some 74,000 square miles in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan, its seemingly infinite stretch of sand dunes occasionally broken up by a few remote villages here, a cluster of scrub bushes there. Little in the way of flora and fauna can survive the freezing temperatures of winter or the scorching 125 degree F. heat of summer.

Enter the indomitable camel. It is in this inhospitable terrain that the camel corps of India's Border Security Force (BSF) makes its home, patrolling more than 950 miles of desert frontier abutting Pakistan.

"The BSF has three major jobs," says Cmdr. Christopher Marandi. "One is to stop smuggling of illegal substances, two is to prevent any type of crossing, and three is to let the Indian people feel safe."

In 1965, after the second of three wars fought between India and Pakistan, disputes centering around the Kashmir region had underscored India's need for a military presence. Yet the government thought that installing a branch of the armed forces would escalate the conflict. Thus was created a paramilitary police under India's Home Ministry, the BSF.

Recent nuclear tests, 50 years of prickly relations, and the occasional flare-up aside, Indo-Pakistani desert border relations here are relatively congenial. The two sides discuss pressing issues of the region over tea. "We meet with the Pakistanis every month," says Mr. Marandi. "We don't have any problems."

The 1,000-man camel corps is a small portion of the 186,000-strong BSF. En masse, they guard more than 4,000 miles of border along eight international frontiers, looking for footprints and anything else out of the ordinary. On a typical patrol, eight mounted camel BSF jawans (Hindi for "strong young men") will ride for six hours, sometimes with a backup vehicle. The shifting sands require different patrol formations: single, double file, or in an arrow shape. A conditioned camel can last as long as a week without water and has the capacity to retain five or six gallons of water. In a region that receives less than 10 inches of rainfall in any given year, this endurance is a necessity.

The jawans have to be as conditioned as their furry counterparts. They have no choice but to adapt; there are no fringe benefits for the camel corps. "It's just one more border region to guard," says Marandi.

Were it not for a resourceful director general of the BSF, the camel corps might well have been phased out of existence in 1986. "The life of a borderman can be very lonely," explains the now retired Krishen Singh Rathore. "So to keep up the morale, we created an ad hoc marching band using everything we could, from a pickax to a washboard." The "camel orchestra" grew in size and scope, eventually becoming a highlight of the annual desert festival in the city of Jaisalmer, and going on tour to Delhi and Bombay. The camel corps' role as the living symbol of the BSF was cemented, kept alive by the ceremonial training center in Jodhpur.

RECRUITS enter into the BSF at constable (policeman) rank and a beginning salary of 4,000 rupees ($95) per month. Marandi, nearing his mandatory retirement age, earns 14,000 rupees a month (approximately $350). After six months of basic military training, recruits are posted to a border region for two years, changing check posts every six months. For the desert region, there is an additional one-month basic camel training - the jawans learn how to handle, ride, and care for the camels.

A seasoned jawan remarks, "You need to be good to camel or he will get you later." Camels hold grudges and will freely spit at a rider if he is reckless.

Thirty to 40 men and their camels inhabit each desert border outpost, which looks like a nomadic village. Structures are huts topped with thatched roofs. Yet all the basic amenities are here: sleeping quarters, mess kitchen, communication center, and place of worship. There are also some surprises, such as a volleyball court and a recreation room complete with satellite TV, which pulls down Indian as well as Pakistani channels. "India's Most Wanted" is typical tabloid TV fare, although the jawans are unlikely to capture any celebrated criminals. Clandestine desert activity is rare.

Good food is a priority, as morale can often wither under the strain of extended desert stays, and almost anything to bolster spirits is granted.

"I provide meat every other day, and I make sure that everything is fresh," Marandi says. He views himself as a "father" to some 1,000 men under his command, inquiring after his men's well-being at every turn. With a smile he adds, "What is more important is the love," which he conveys by affectionately admonishing a soldier to slim his potbelly, or granting a senior officer extended leave to be with his wife.

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