The government is viewing seriously complaints from soldiers serving as batmen for senior officers as part of a tradition begun during the British Raj. The army accounts for most of the nearly 35,000 soldiers who are attached to officers ostensibly for the upkeep of their service weapons and uniforms. In reality, however, they end up as domestic orderlies. This, the soldiers and their families say, causes all the problems.
Called ’sahayaks’ (assistants) in the Indian Army, they allege that they get poor quality uniform, their promotions are often delayed and that seniors often humiliate them.
The soldiers say that this offends their sense of dignity.
Although the Sixth Pay Commission has recommended the abolition of the sahayak system in the paramilitary forces, the army finds these soldiers indispensable.
A hawaldar told IANS on condition of anonymity: “Our problems are many. We put in long hours but still there is no dignity for us. The officers abuse us at times asking us to do household work. Also, the pay is low.”
“We also end up buying our uniforms from private dealers using our own money,” he said.
Said another soldier: “As long as the officer is a bachelor, the problems are not that serious. But once he marries and has a family, our problems multiply.
“At times, the wife may not be aware of the military traditions. Also, some wives become jealous because we act like virtual shadows of the officers. They think we are interfering in the lives of their husbands.
“We are also asked to polish the shoes of the children and do other household work.”
Defence Minister A.K. Antony appears to be aware of the problem.
On Wednesday, at the Defence Investiture ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, when he was asked about the batmen, he replied that “many things” needed to be sorted out but that changes cannot come overnight. Antony also told the army brass at the just-concluded combined conference of commanders here that officers must respect the ‘jawans’.
But said an army officer: “We don’t ill-treat the sahayaks, who are also combatants. But they are needed to do many official work.”
Although PBORs or Personnel Below Officer Rank in the Indian Air Force are not deployed as sahayaks, they face other problems.
“We cannot wear the poor quality uniform provided to us and are forced to buy them. Why can’t we get a uniform allowance like the officers?” asked a sergeant.
“We are also shortchanged on promotions. While the violation of seniority among the top ranks makes news, the supersession of a PBOR with 20 years of service by a young soldier goes unnoticed,” he added.
It is not that the armed forces are ignorant about the simmering discontent.
Indeed, psychologists have found that abusive language and perceived humiliation by superiors are among the precipitating factors leading to suicides and killings in the army.