“I am 19 Madras...” This was Lance Naik Hanamanthappa’s favourite line. He believed in the unit and his fellow men more than anything. So, he always said, I’m 19 Madras. “If I’m strong and tough, my battalion is strong and tough,” this was what he always told his colleagues.
I owe my Sena Medal to Hanamanthappa, which I got for eliminating a terrorist later identified as a hardcore cadre of the ULFA in Assam sector. Whenever I look at the Sena Medal on my chest, it only reminds me of him.
I can easily recall the day. It was November 25, 2009 and as a battalion commander, I was leading the operation and he was the Scout protecting me inside the thick Manas national forest, which comes under Chirang district of Assam.
During that successful operation, we eliminated Mohan Rai, who was the leader of the 709 battalion of the ULFA. Being the fittest person of the battalion, he was made Scout of our Quick Reaction Team.
Scout is the foremost guy of the team for launching an operation, so he was the backbone of the QRT. I share a very special bonding with him, as both of us started our military career almost at the same time and have parallel experience. He joined 19 Madras in 2003. A few months later, I joined it after passing out from NDA. And in those 11 years of bonding, I have seen him growing from a 19-year -old young, enthusiastic and energetic soldier to a fittest soldier with endurance who could carry pride and ethos of the regiment.
Both of us served together in our initial posting in J&K till 2005 in Operation Rakshak, where we together carried out several successful operations against militants. And our unit got the Army commanders unit citation for the same. I believe, during this time, he realised what bravery was, especially when emotions were running high.
But the real transformation from a young motivated soldier to a strong endurance soldier happened during our posting in Assam. His character continued to grow stronger simultaneously growing in strength. He very soon turned out to be the best soldier of the battalion. And he was more or less involved in all major operations during Operation Rhino, in which our battalion had 24 kills under its name.
I would always call him a ‘fighter’. He always motivated younger soldiers to take a lot of pride in the unit’s traditions and history. He always carried the spirit of the battalion and if you talk to him for five minutes, you will get motivated by the determination and the grit he has for the task given.
Hanamanthappa was a good sportsman, and loved by all for his bonding and subtle humour. Though he was slightly a reserved person, who does not talk too much, his colleagues always looked up to his opinion on any important issue. He was a man of strong character, but equally an emotional person. I only see him as team player and super motivated soul. He showed his character at the world’s highest battlefield - the Siachen glacier.
Not only a perfect disciplined soldier, he was also a very good sportsperson. He was a good hockey player and an athlete. He was known by the name Koppad among colleagues and always used to lead his battalion in inter-battalion games.
While my on way to Hubli for his last rites on Friday, my heart still does not believe that Koppad is no more. I was in Delhi for Asian Shooting Championship, when I heard about the news of 10 of my men posted at 19,600ft Sonam post at Siachen buried due to an avalanche. But six days after news broke about Koppad being alive, I felt as if my brother was back. I wanted to meet him and have a cup of tea with him and talk about the experience. It was really a matter of joy and the fact that he proved to the entire world about his determination and pride for 19 Madras. I might not have him physically with me, but we shall carry his pride and spirit when we are at the frontline.
I shall be saying adieu for one last time tomorrow morning at his hometown and for me it’s a feeling of lifetime..
I am proud of him and will miss him too. For now, for me, I lost my buddy.
(As told to Pradip R Sagar)
(Major C Naren Babu is the Company Commander of 19 Madras. Babu, an ace shooter of the Indian Army, is presently posted at the Army Marksmanship Unit in Mhow)