Bipin Rawat

New Delhi, Jan. 14: A spurt in the number of “complaint videos” on social media has made the army chief, General Bipin Rawat, emphasise to soldiers that grievances should be addressed through the system instead of being aired in public to the embarrassment of the military.

Rawat has also said he would increase the number of suggestion boxes at army headquarters and units so that soldiers could connect with him directly.

But a combination of factors, mainly frustration among some soldiers – aired particularly after a BSF staffer’s video showing the poor quality of food served – over long-standing complaints has combined with the penetration of smartphones in the forces to suddenly focus on personnel management.

In one of the latest, the wife of a soldier, lance naik Yagya Pratap Singh, has videoed herself and circulated it. Based in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, Richa Singh complained that her husband’s mobile phone was snatched away by officers at his station in Dehradun.

The lance naik had said that he had written to the Prime Minister seeking redress of his grievances, that he was forced to work as a personal servant of officers, wash their cars, clean their toilets and kitchens. He said he was being harassed since he had made the complaint.

Richa today said she would go on a hunger strike till her husband was freed from confinement.

In another video, a soldier with an engineering unit complained that “officers have no rules and they are thieves” who siphon away funds.

In yet another clipping, a soldier in uniform said his commanding officer forced him into a mental hospital in Jammu and Kashmir and transferred him 10 times in two years because he had objected to “wrong billing” of regimental funds.

Army sources say these are often isolated cases and do not make up a pattern. It is sometimes the individuals involved – whether the officer or the soldier – who have misunderstandings.

“The ‘buddy system’ makes up the fabric of the Indian Army,” General Rawat said on Friday. “I take care of my buddy and the buddy takes care of me.”

The origins of the “buddy system” go back to colonial times. It had operational logic: an officer planning and leading operations or leading a platoon into action was expected to be free of the burden of carrying loads, such as radio transmitters. This was assigned to a “buddy”, also known as a “batman” or ” sahayak” and, increasingly a “sewadar” (serviceman).

Over the years, this system has got corrupted and has often seen soldiers being used for personal duties that they have resented.

In April 2008, then defence minister A.K. Antony had proposed doing away with the system. But he was reluctant to force the decision and instead asked the army to take a call and volunteer to do away with the system.

Shortly before Antony’s appeal to the army, the 6th Central Pay Commission had recommended the abolition of the sahayak system in the central police forces.

Again, four years later, General V.K. Singh (retired), then army chief, recommended that officers should consider hiring civilian labour in peace stations – a proposal that may be revived.

The idea behind the recommendations was that the sahayaks were actually trained soldiers and being assigned as personal servants was demeaning to them. But that proposal was also given a wide berth.

The navy and the air force do not have the same system as the army where an officer is assigned a sahayak immediately after being commissioned into service.

The use of sahayaks as personal servants does not apply to all 35,000 officers of the army. Many officers have an enduring relationship with their assistants long after they have retired. Famously, the late Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw‘s Gorkha associates still manage his house at Wellington in Tamil Nadu.