Growing up in Roorkee, a small town that got its fame from a variety of reasons including the university – now an IIT – where I lived with my parents and for being the headquarter of the Bengal Sappers, we lived in a state of deprivation.
My mother grudged the endless supply of loyal, able-bodied men that friends in the cantonment, wives of army officers had, to assist in all the domestic chores.
These included sweeping, mopping, and chopping vegetables to cleaning the cars and maintaining the sprawling lawns of British-era bungalows.
She felt discriminated because she did not have elaborate help to manage home and was dependent on the lone peon my professor father was allotted. He devoted a few hours every day, attending to tasks my mother assigned him.
Though not part of his line of duty, he nonetheless attended to these because that was the norm – every faculty member and administrator had access to peons, either exclusively or collectively, depending on seniority.
As children, not old enough to cycle down to school, we went piled in rickshaws. In contrast, friends whose dads were in the army were driven on bicycles by a designated orderly or batman.
Grievance Redressal System
Little has changed in the past fifty years since my first exposure to the system of well-placed persons being provided personal servants at public expense.
The sadder part, however, is that instead of feeling repentant at the gross exploitation of colleagues, albeit junior, those who run the system have hit back by levelling allegations against those who provide the first line of defence and even questioned their motives and painted them as men with dishonourable pasts.
Regrettably, this has come right from the top, from the man who recently assumed charge as the new Chief of Army Staff. General Bipin Rawat has defended the sahayak system and expressed displeasure at grievances being voiced in public.
The moot point is that soldiers will use other means – mainly the omnipresent social media which is easily accessible – when an official and compassionate redressal mechanism is either non-existent or not efficient enough. As the army chief’s decision to establish a structured mechanism to voice complaints shows, his step couldn’t have come a day later.
Debate About ‘Sahayak’ System
There are special needs of the army and other defence and paramilitary forces. Besides soldiers per se, forces require a variety of other personnel – cooks, waiters, masalchis (scullions) or those who wash dishes, and cleaners or sweepers. These jobs are clearly of civilian nature but for security and logistical reasons, recruits cannot be hired from the civilian population on a temporary or contractual basis.
The sahayak is not a listed trade in the services. But young combatants are assigned this task for some years. And they perform tasks assigned by the officers and their family members dutifully out of fear that refusal would prevent being assigned combat duties in future.
The primary reason for justifying the sahayak system during peace time is that the officers will not be able reach anywhere on time if they had no assistance for getting their uniform ready.
While this argument is ridiculous, the added problem is that once the sahayak is assigned to an officer, nothing prevents the officer’s wife from loading him with domestic chores. The power structure of the army does not allow him to complain. As some soldiers who have uploaded videos say, no one joins the forces to take the officers’ dogs for walks, to go shopping for the lady of the house or to take the baba to school!
House Panel Against the Practice
In March 2010, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence examined the practice of using jawans as sahayaks. It noted that the practice “prevalent in the army in one form or other since British days” was continuing and they were forced to attend to serve family members of the officers.
Though “the army categorically deposed before the Committee that the jawans are not technically supposed to attend to the household duties at the residence of the officers”, the practice continues unabated.
The Committee commented that this was a “shameful practice which should have no place in independent India” and that it expected the government to “issue instructions to stop the practice forthwith, as this lowers the self-esteem of jawan”.
“Any officer found to be violating the instruction in this regard should be dealt with severely,” the panel added. In its Action Taken Report, the government, while stating that the system would continue, pledged that “sahayaks will not be employed for menial household work”.
Can’t Overlook Unfair Practices
The primary angst, as revealed in the uploaded videos, demonstrates that employing combatants in menial duties demeans them and adds to the stress and lowers their self-esteem as a consequence of humiliation. In recent days, there have been several instances of suicides by the personnel of the paramilitary forces and jawans. The CRPF accounts for almost 40 percent of the suicides that occur in the paramilitary forces.
Instead of brushing the instances of unfair practices beneath the carpet and penalising those at the bottom of the hierarchy, this episode should be converted into an opportunity to examine several issues that plague our defence forces.
Concerns ranging from extended work hours, poor working and living conditions, inadequate uniforms, equipment and ammunition to the absence of legal rights that worry combatants need systemic and sensitive examination.
The government has invested a significant amount of its political credibility by appointing General Rawat after superceding fellow officers. He must demonstrate brilliance not just on the battlefields but also off it. What better arena can he get than the cantonments and outposts?
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent books are ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)