From Batmen and Sahayaks to Agniveers, Military Brass’s Attitude Towards Enlisted Men is Feudal

The fact that the service chiefs are ‘talking at’ instead of ‘talking to’ the angry aspirants is certainly not going to ease the already tense situation Agnipath has triggered, military analysts say.

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New Delhi: As if the terms of the Agnipath scheme were not controversial enough, the patronising attitude towards potential recruits displayed by senior officers the government has deployed to make its case has only made matters worse.

Senior serving and retired military officers seen and heard backing the Agnipath (‘Path of Fire’) plan have, over the past eight days, been hectoring the protesting young men via television channels, newspaper columns and social media platforms over their legitimate insecurities concerning temporary employment in the forces.

These officers have also been condescending in their attempts to make light of the fears the youthful protesters have expressed over their prospective four-year tour of duty, following which 75% of them – dubbed Agniveers or Fire Warriors – would be demobilised. These defenders of the official line have roundly rebuked anyone with forebodings, firm in the conviction that they are the only ones who know what’s best for potential recruits, simply because they are, or once were, in charge.

“There is a great and growing disconnect between these officers and the youth seeking to enlist in the services, which is responsible for the ensuing superciliousness,” said a former one-star Indian Army officer. Living privileged and cocooned lives, these officers are simply unaware of the harsh, jobless reality the bulk of discharged Agniveers would face every four years, he declared, declining to be named. The enticement, he added, of India allegedly becoming a $5 trillion economy by 2025, and hence replete with jobs, finds no traction with these agitated youngsters, mostly from rural areas and mofussil towns in northern and eastern India.

On Tuesday, Lieutenant General Anil Puri, additional secretary in the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) which mentored the Agnipath scheme, told reporters that the part-time military recruitment scheme had been finalised after 254 meetings lasting 750 hours – or 31.25 days –involving the services, Ministry of Defence officials and other government departments. But it seems none of the prospective stakeholders – the likely Agniveers – were  consulted anywhere, with all deliberations conducted in a bureaucratic echo chamber with the sole objective of implementing Agnipath at any cost.

Lt General Puri further stated that Agnipath’s launch had been timed to ensure its implementation was effected without any ‘major upheaval’. Sadly for him, those marathon meetings ended up making a major miscalculation.  That is why Agnipath’s notification was followed by a flurry of obvious damage limitation measures as the government and services rushed to placate enraged would-be soldiers.

And, despite the rash of recent assurances by the government and private sector corporations offering physically agile, team-work oriented and disciplined former Agniveers employment from 2027 onwards, there was one vital ingredient that senior military officers naively or deliberately, ignored: the youths’ lack of trust in a recidivist state to deliver on its employment promises.

Innumerable analyses, based on official data, have surfaced over the past week, detailing governmental and corporate apathy in employing ex-servicemen – for decades – despite the prevalence of formally reserved quotas. One such report in The Wire was interspersed with sceptical ex-servicemen tweets directed at the private sector firms that had promised jobs to many of the 32,350-odd Agniveers due for demobilisation 2027 onwards, and for years afterwards.

These pledges, in turn, prompted military analyst Lieutenant General K.J. Singh (retired) to observe that few such private organisations would recall their promises four or five years hence, which is when the excuses and justifications to politely ‘close the door’ on Agniveers would most likely begin. Lt General Singh, who retired as the Western Army Commander in 2016, is one of a handful of senior officers to publicly acknowledge the army’s own failures in re-employing former servicemen, and counselled caution over the Agnipath plan. Writing in the Times of India, he noted that despite a “plethora of suboptimal army induction schemes”, few had succeeded, leaving “unresolved, festering problems” in their wake.

Defence analyst Major General Ashok Mehta (retired) lamented the fact that “pliant serving generals and their equivalents” had become ‘His Masters Voice’ for Agnipath, which he described as a political football. He observed in The Tribune that less than five days after the project was announced, the three services were once again briefing the media, reiterating that ‘youthful profile’ was the main driving force for the systemic change. It was abundantly apparent, he said, that the purported ‘consultations’ with veterans on the Agnipath scheme must only have involved those who consented.

“Despite being aware of these shortcomings, senior military officers continue to pompously browbeat disillusioned youngsters by parroting shibboleths of discipline, service before self and nationalism, which inspire neither hope nor optimism amongst budding Agniveers,” a senior Indian Navy (IN) officer told The Wire. The fact that the service chiefs are ‘talking at’ instead of ‘talking to’ the angry aspirants is certainly not going to ease the already tense situation Agnipath has triggered, he added.

A feudal mindset

The fact is that such in-house feudal attitudes towards Personnel Below Officer Rank (PBOR) are endemic in each of the services, but especially the army, and over the decades have only become institutionalised.

One frequent glaring example is when fatalities occur during the army’s counter-insurgency operations. Invariably, the slain officers, if any, are identified in press statements on the incident by rank and name, but not the soldiers; they remain mere body count numerals. Incidentally, the same yardstick applies to the Central Para Military Forces, with the jawans killed in action remaining nameless in any press note on an ambush or firefight with insurgents. The officers, of course, are named.

The other enduring feudal aspect of the Indian Anrmy, and one it has repeatedly failed to address, is the ubiquitous colonial system of ‘batmen’ or personal orderlies.

A few years back they were rebranded as “sahayaks”, or helpers, but their underlying colonial-era job description remained the same. These PBOR add up to perhaps 30,000 soldiers – who are deployed as cooks, washermen and gardeners, besides ferrying officers’ children to and from school and even minding their pets – and it is often  jokingly remarked in army messes that if sahayaks were to return to their units, the army could easily add another corps to its present 14.

A 1911 photograph of the orderly officers in King George V’s employ. Photo: C. Vandyk, National Army Museum, UK/Out of Copyright

The Indian Navy and Indian Air Force (IAF), however, have never had a tradition of batmen. Instead, they employed civilian non-combatants at market wages in their many residential and other messes and the numbers assigned to even senior officers are low.

Also Read: Indian Army Plans to Reduce Pomp But the ‘Batmen’ Remain

When some sahayaks took to social media a few years ago to post videos detailing their degradation at the hands of officers, the army clamped down on all such activity. In the name of ‘discipline, it closed the lid on the problem, thus endorsing its perpetuation.

As this reporter wrote in The Wire some months ago, the term batman evolved in the British army during the inter-war years, before which they were known as soldier-servants. Formally, batmen were meant to be “runners” for officers – conveying their orders to subordinates, maintaining their uniform and equipment, like personal valets, and driving their vehicles, at times even in combat conditions. Batmen also acted as their officers’ bodyguards and, in deceptively vague military jargon, were required to perform other ‘miscellaneous tasks’ demanded by them, which at times were highly questionable.

Will some of the Agniveers also end up becoming sahayaks? Possibly, if the army brass refuses to mend its feudal ways.