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Sapper caste, Sir!

One of the Indian Army’s combat support arms is the Corps of Engineers, of which one component is my regiment, the Madras Sappers, known formally as the Madras Engineer Group (MEG). With troops drawn from South India (they are often referred to as Thambi), it has a formidable reputation of steadiness and courage under enemy fire, a hoary military tradition dating back to the 18th century. It also holds the distinction of not ever having been subject to the compulsions of caste and religion, and an absence of caste-consciousness with its attendant taboos over eating and drinking with men from other castes or religions, or crossing the sea.

During the Second World War, Madras Sapper units were deployed in Burma, West Asia, North Africa and Europe, in fact wherever there was actual fighting on the ground. There is a touching anecdote of a man named Chatu who had enrolled as a sweeper in a unit which was moved for battle to the deserts of North Africa.

A brave act

During the campaign, some soldiers were caught in a minefield in the desert, without water or food. It was the non-combatant Chatu who volunteered to carry sustenance for them, risking his life against enemy fire and mines. His act was akin to that of the character Gunga Din in Kipling’s eponymous poem, who carried and fed water to wounded soldiers under fire, prompting a British soldier to say, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din”.

After this act of selfless courage, Chatu was held in the highest esteem, respected by soldiers and indeed all ranks of the unit. He enjoyed unusual freedom in the unit, and participated in all unit activities, notwithstanding his “low caste”. During British times, there was no official recognition of acts of courage by Indian non-combatants, else Chatu would have certainly been awarded for gallantry worthy of a soldier.

Post-Independence honour

It is interesting to note that post-Independence, during India’s first war against Pakistan in 1948, Madras Sapper non-combatant Dhobi Ramchander was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra, India’s second highest gallantry award after the Param Vir Chakra. This was for saving the life of an officer wounded in an ambush, using a rifle to keep the enemy at bay and helping him to a distant medical aid post.

Chatu was, however, honoured in a unique way after the War. During a ceremonial barakhana, the Officer Commanding, Major Cameron, led Chatu to the table and had him served food first. This became a custom in the unit at every barakhana thereafter, and continued until Chatu left the unit on retirement in the 1960s.

Troops in the Madras Sappers, whether Christian, Muslim or Hindu, have always lived and worked together and fought and even died shoulder-to-shoulder. When occasion demands, they eat from the same cooking pot. This long military tradition has demolished all caste distinctions, and the anecdote about Chatu demonstrates this. The Madras Sappers archives record that an inspecting officer once asked a Thambi what caste he belonged to, and pat came the proud reply, “Sapper caste, Sir!”

The author was commissioned into the Madras Sappers in 1962. In 1993, he was awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM). He retired in 1996 in the rank of Major General.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2021 5:56:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/sapper-caste-sir/article26352309.ece

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