The Siachen tragedy has turned the spotlight on the Thambis, as soldiers of the Madras Regiment are affectionately called.
Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad who died on Thursday, survived for more than a week, five days under a thick layer of ice, after an avalanche struck an Army post on February 3 at 20,500 feet in the Himalayas. He was from 19 Madras, the 19th battalion of the regiment. So were nine of his fellow-soldiers who perished in the incident.
Most of the men in the Madras Regiment, which recruits from the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, would have seen towering mountains only after joining the army.
Yet, these soldiers have scripted compelling tales of courage and resolve while being deployed on the world’s coldest and highest battlefield, army officials say.
“The Thambis are silent workers but very dependable soldiers to carry out any assignment. Other qualities include mental toughness, physical robustness and adaptability,” said Lieutenant General Subroto Mitra (retd), who is from the Madras Regiment.
Hanamanthappa’s battalion, 19 Madras, was part of a brigade commanded by Mitra in Jammu and Kashmir in 2004-05. General Mitra recalled its outstanding drills, ethos and a dogged determination to succeed.
Over the years, the Thambis have carried out some key tasks on the glacier such as building helipads, opening new routes and constructing a fuel pipeline.
HT gives you a low down on the regiment’s track record in Siachen and what makes the Thambis tick on the glacier:
3 Madras: It was the first battalion from the regiment to be inducted into Siachen in 1988. Veteran officers say the decision to send the unit to Siachen had set tongues wagging, with a few cynics doubting the ability of Thambis to survive in those alien, extreme conditions. But the battalion performed splendidly. It killed 15 enemy soldiers and lost 10 of its own men during the period. The battalion’s casualty rate was one of the lowest compared to other units.
The battalion had a rare second tenure on the glacier in 2005. The soldiers are credited with opening a new route to the landlocked Sonam post, the same post where Hanamanthappa and his comrades were deployed.
2 Madras: The second battalion from the regiment to serve in Siachen in 1993. A senior officer says the tenure of 2 Madras proved that the Thambis had what it took to face any kind of challenge head-on.
9 Madras: The third battalion to be deployed in Siachen in 2001. Before India and Pakistan signed a ceasefire pact in November 2003, the extreme conditions were not the only worry as casualties were also caused by enemy firing. The battalion’s performance, however, measured up to expectations.
11 Madras: It was the fourth battalion from the regiment to be deployed in Siachen. A Madras Regiment officer recalls that the unit conducted a large number of assaults on enemy posts and disrupted the enemy’s maintenance activity till the truce was declared in 2003. One of the key achievements of the Thambis was their role in constructing a kerosene pipeline from the Siachen base camp to the forward posts.
17 Madras: The Thambis of this battalion call themselves Khatras or danger. They were inducted into the glacier in 2007. Like their predecessors, the Khatras didn’t disappoint either. The men held posts at heights of nearly 21,000 feet, braving temperatures that would often drop below minus 50 degree Celsius.
25 Madras: The battalion was tasked with the responsibility of defending a large frontage of the actual ground position line (AGPL) between India and Pakistan in 2014. Another senior officer, familiar with the deployment, says: “The battalion enhanced the operational and administration sustenance of troops by improving mobility within complexes by bridging crevasses, opening new routes and constructing helipads.”
12 Madras: It went to Siachen in 2014 and played a central role in de-inducting, repairing and re-inducting a wide variety of weapons and equipment. The Thambis also recovered the mortal remains of two soldiers killed on the glacier nearly 20 years ago. The senior officer says, “It was an immensely gratifying moment that brought much awaited closure for the families.”
19 Madras: Koppad’s battalion is about to complete its 90-day deployment on the glacier.