Bottomline | Buddies not Servants

While Sahayaks are integral to the service, only army can avoid their misuse

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The Standing Committee of Parliament on Defence has recommended that the defence ministry discontinue the use of Sahayaks (helpers) in the army. It is alleged that as many of them are engaged in un-soldierly tasks, such as walking the officer’s dog, running domestic errands for the officer’s family, even tending to children as so on, it contributes to stress levels and lower self-esteem resulting in suicide and fratricide. The case rests on the premise that since today recruits are better educated, they join the army to become soldiers and not Sahayaks, and the practice is an anachronism from the Raj days. The Sahayak issue had touched me personally for over 13 years while in the army. My own position then was that Sahayaks are necessary. Army after all is a self-contained entity; while civilians can and are employed in peace stations, it is not possible to hire them in border areas for obvious reasons. Therefore, while all men joining the army are soldiers, they are recruited under various categories called ‘trades’ like cook, waiter, masalchi (who washes utensils), driver, conservancy staff (sweeper), rifleman, gunner and so on. These tradesmen get promotions within their trade just like the other soldiers. While all soldiers are supposed to be combatants, certain trades like cook, masalchi and waiter hardly know how to hold a rifle. The dilemma for a unit is if these tradesmen are sent regularly for rifle practice then who would run the kitchen (langar). Thus as a rule rather than an exception, unit officers pass these tradesmen on paper so that they do not miss promotions. This is wrong but understandable.

Take another example, army is supposed to maintain its golf courses and keep its unit and surrounding areas clean. This requires manpower. Thus, a unit is always balancing between sending riflemen as ‘working parties’ (for cleaning) or putting them through unit training. It is evident that personality of commanders at various levels plays a major role in deciding who is doing what. The important thing is that no task is considered demeaning and unless all men (especially young soldiers) do all jobs including their trade-work, it would be impossible to run a unit, maintain facilities and keep cantonments sparkling all the time.

Unlike men, officers do not have a particular trade, but are expected to learn and know everything including their profession. For efficient multi-tasking, officers need help. In the Raj days and until 1989 when I left the army, soldiers who helped officers with chores and, of course, getting their uniform ready were called batmen (short for battle-man). (The batman or Sahayak is not a listed trade, but usually young soldiers do this task for a few years before they take on bigger responsibilities.) I thought it was impossible to be on time anywhere (the saying in the army is that the important thing is to be on time, not what you do thereafter) without help from the batman. While junior officers would share batmen, senior officers saw this as a rank privilege. This many a times led to misuse as it was not uncommon to find a cook, waiter, a large ‘working party’, half-a-dozen batmen and so on working in a commander’s house on a near permanent basis. Then the commander’s wife needed her own set of workers for her kitchen garden usually headed by a junior commissioned officer (young officer in case of supervising kitty parties). I disliked this gross misuse of soldiers. Depending upon the commander, I remember there was always an inconclusive debate on the matter; regular directives were issued from higher headquarters against their soldier’s misuse which were dutifully disseminated. Few, however, took those instructions seriously.

Then there were separated families who in the absence of the officer (posted in field area) were provided a Sahayak from the unit. He helped the family with rations from the unit and kept them abreast about unit activities. This, of course, was unauthorised but again understandable. Unfortunately, officers stretched this privilege too far. Depending upon the rank, officers would get more than one Sahayak and ask them to do jobs which the housewife should be doing. I remember a case where a Sahayak in separated family accommodation had misbehaved with an officer’s wife. As I was a member of the court of enquiry, it transpired that the soldier was instructed by the lady to give her morning tea daily in her bedroom where many a times she was carelessly attired. While the soldier got rigorous punishment, the lady’s husband was also severely reprimanded by the court. Thus while irregular things happen, misuse of Sahayaks in not uncommon, officers do go overboard in the name of privileges, the army system on balance ensures discipline and exemplary punishments are meted out. The army knows best where to draw the line between desirable and undesirable.

After having left the army, I too often hear about the misuse of Sahayaks. One retired general told me that over 8,000 Sahayaks have been pulled out from units and are attached with army headquarters in New Delhi to either be with officers posted here or with separated families. Scores of officers (unlike when I was in the army) after all are posted in hard field conditions. The only problem with the system of Sahayak is that as it is not a trade, men should have a fast rotation so that they do not miss professional work. As the army know this best, it alone should handle this. The defence ministry can surely trust senior army officers on this matter.


Call us