| Charles at Delhi airport. Picture by Rajesh Kumar
New Delhi, Oct. 28: Tradition is a royal hangover. The Prince of Wales today gave a historic regiment of the Indian Army that was once named after his title a royal pat.
Among Prince Charles’ first appointments on landing here today was one with the commandant of the Bengal Sappers’ that will celebrate its bicentenary next week. The Bengal Sappers used to be called The Prince of Wales Own Sappers and Miners.
Brigadier Gautam Banerjee, the commandant of the Bengal Sappers’ Centre at Roorkee, was invited to the British High Commissioner’s residence to have tea with the Prince of Wales.
“I went and told him I am from the Bengal Sappers. He said he was aware of us and praised our role in UN peacekeeping missions,” Banerjee said afterwards. “I was told the British have a Bengal Sappers’ Association headed by General Cooper who will be sending a delegation for our celebrations,” he said after the meeting.
The regimental system was bequeathed to the Indian Army by the British. Despite the history that has sundered the Indian Army from its imperial founder, the military establishment encourages regimental ties to promote fellow feeling among the ranks.
The Bengal Sappers, along with the Madras and Bombay Sappers, are the three engineering groups of the army. In conventional war, the Sappers’ main tasks include laying mines (and demining), bridging and arranging logistics for the passage of offensive formations like strike corps.
In the atmosphere of counter-insurgency, the Bengal Sappers are active in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast, supporting army units, defusing improvised explosive devices and monitoring the Line of Control.
There is little that is Bengali about the Bengal Sappers. They were named after “Bengal” because the British were at the time of its founding in 1803 headquartered in Calcutta (and “Bengal” then included the present states of Bihar, Assam and Orissa, and also what is now Bangladesh) and the regiment was to draw its recruits from north India just as the Bombay and Madras Sappers had central and south India as hinterlands.
But the Bengal Sappers have a glorious history. The first Indian to win a gallantry award was a Bengal Sapper.
The regiment is one of the most highly decorated and has fought in West and East Asia and in Europe during the World Wars. It lost its pride of place twice — first when its soldiers mutineed and joined the rebels in the 1857 uprising against the British (following which the British did not recognise Bengalis as a martial race) and again in 1947 when its Muslim recruits opted to go to Pakistan.
The regiment has since regrouped, has about 30 battalions, some of them being equipped to fight in a nuclear, biological and chemical warfare environment, and is now an indispensable formation. The regimental centre is at Roorkee in Uttaranchal.