Simply put: Why Sahayak is ‘buddy’ for Army, ‘servant’ for critics

SUSHANT SINGH explains the history, background and controversy over the colonial era practice that many find abhorrent, but which the Army is unwilling to junk

Written by Sushant Singh | Updated: March 16, 2017 2:12 pm
Lance Naik Roy Mathew

The long-simmering controversy over the use of ‘Sahayaks’ — or helpers — by officers of the Army has returned with the surfacing of two videos on social media over the past couple of weeks. The first, a sting video published by a news website last month, showed Lance Naik Roy Mathew complaining about being made to do personal chores for his superior officer; in the second video, which went viral on Tuesday, a jawan named Sindhav Jogidas accused “some officers” of treating jawans as “slaves”.

Lance Naik Mathew was found hanging at Deolali Cantonment last week — the Army, while opening an inquiry, said he may have been driven by the “guilt factor of letting down his superiors or conveying false impression to an unknown individual”. The Army has rejected Jogidas’s allegations as baseless, and said he had never been employed as a Sahayak.

While the Army maintains a helper is only an officer’s “buddy” during combat, critics say that such a provision is liable to be misused, and is demeaning to the soldier.

What is the Sahayak system in the Indian Army?

While officers of the army during colonial rule were supposed to have a retinue of servants — an official list from the late 19th century mentions 39 such servants — they needed help when in battle. Thus evolved the concept of ‘batman’, short for ‘Battle Man’, wherein a young soldier helped out an officer with some of his mundane activities.

The practice has since been codified via an Army Order and other policy letters into the Sahayak system. No official figure is available, but an estimated 50,000 Sahayaks serve in the Army.

Who in the Army is assigned a Sahayak?

Sahayaks are authorised to Officers and Junior Commissioned Officers when serving with units or Headquarters functioning on War Establishment, i.e., those units which mobilise for war. The scale of Sahayak authorisation is as follows:
* 1 for every field officer and above,
* 1 for every 2 officers of the rank of Captain and below,
* 1 for every Subedar Major,
* 1 for every two Junior Commissioned Officers of the rank of Subedar and below.

The Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy do not have a system of Sahayaks for officers.

What jobs are Sahayaks supposed to do?

As per the Army Order, the duties assigned to a Sahayak are:
* to provide personal protection and security,
* to attend to telephones, receive and deliver messages during operations, training and exercise, and in peace,
* to maintain weapons, uniforms and equipment of Officers/Junior Commissioned Officers in accordance with custom and usage in the Army,
* to assist in digging trenches, erect bivouacs and shelters during war, training or exercise, while the leaders are more busy in planning, coordination and execution of operations,
* to be of assistance during patrols and independent missions,
* to carry and operate radio sets, maps and other military equipment during operations, training cadres and outdoor exercises.

Are soldiers recruited specifically to be Sahayaks?

No. Unlike, say, a chef or a hairdresser or a housekeeper, there is no trade called Sahayak in the Army. The usual practice in units is to employ a young soldier, and rotate the soldiers doing the duty of a Sahayak. It is supposed to be a voluntary job, and any soldier expressing a desire to not be a Sahayak is supposed to be excused.

Can Sahayaks be sometimes forced to do menial jobs by officers or their families?

Over the years, several instances have come to light in the media where soldiers have been seen to be deployed at officers’ homes. They have been seen washing private cars and walking officers’ dogs. There are frequent allegations about the abuse of the practice, but no concrete proof or data. The Army insists that a Sahayak “is more like a buddy to the officer”, and “would have been attending the work at home due to reverence”. He isn’t, the Army says, “technically supposed to work in the house”. This was reiterated at length by the Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, in his inaugural Army Day press conference in January.

Since when has the criticism of the practice become loud? Why?

The issue of Sahayaks has attracted attention periodically but the strongest criticism of the system came in 2008 when the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence took “a very serious view of the shameful practice which should have no place in the independent India”. The Committee asked “the Ministry of Defence to issue instructions to stop forthwith the practice, which lowers the self-esteem of Jawan”. As the recommendations of the Committee are not binding on the government, no change took place in the status quo.

With the advent of social media, it has become easier for such grievances to be put in the public domain. Due to reduced opacity of military cantonments from civilian life, and changing social norms, these instances have gained greater attention in the media.

How has the Army typically reacted to criticism of the Sahayak system?

The Army has responded by reiterating orders and guidelines on the use of Sahayaks, and by asking officers to ensure that a soldier is not employed on unauthorised duty. It has also proposed the hiring of non-combatants for permanent deployment at major peace stations to perform these duties. This proposal, first made in 2012, has been revived recently, and is expected to free more than 25,000 soldiers employed as Sahayaks. Officers in field areas would, however, continue to have Sahayaks authorised to them.

Which other Asian armies have a similar system?

China’s People’s Liberation Army has no such system. The armies of Pakistan and Bangladesh have moved to a system of using non-combatant civilian orderlies to help officers.

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