Every officer in the Indian Army, is assigned an orderly variously called ‘buddy’, ‘batman’ or more commonly ‘sahayak’. A precedent that dates back to British times when they performed various duties for the officer in combat as well as non-combat situations such as maintaining the officer’s uniform and personal effects, acting as his bodyguard in battle and driving the officer’s vehicle.
But a sahayak in the Indian army does much more than that. He can be expected to do anything, from helping out in the kitchen to walking the dog. The relationship between a sahayak and his officer is familial, one of utmost respect and complete trust. He knows which flowerpot the keys to the officer’s house are kept under. The officer’s kids affectionately call him ‘bhaia’ and treat him like their elder brother.
Make no mistake, this person is a full-fledged soldier trained and equipped by the Indian army to kill enemies of the state. Naik D.S. Subramanyam is one such soldier. He sports perfect biceps and an impeccable crew cut. He has taken out militants in counter-insurgency operations with the R.R. (Rashtriya Rifles) in J&K. He sleeps with an INSAS assault rifle beside him.
But it’s almost as if he has an alter ego. When he’s not busy fighting bad guys (which is the majority of his time) He has batman duties to attend to. He executes his officer’s instructions with complete obedience. Every morning, he cycles to his officer’s residence from the soldier’s barracks, arranges his sahab’s uniform, polishes his shoes till they gleam with his reflection, rubs the stars and the Ashoka with Brasso (a metal polish brand he swears by), packs the lunch for the officer’s school going kids and then pushes off to the cantonment’s shopping complex to buy groceries for memsahib (the officer’s wife).
This particular sahayak grew up in Keezhthonnakkal, a small village near Trivandrum, T.N. His father passed away when he was seven. His mother, unable to provide for both of them send him away to a missionary school where the Christian mission provided him a home, food, education and religious instruction. “I was born a Hindu but I am Catholic” he explains.
As a child, Subramanyam had a flair for athletics and sports. “We used to play football and something that was a cross between badminton and tennis, it was very popular with the village boys” says Subramanyam. It was only a matter of time before the PT instructor saw his potential and coached him to play football for his state. While playing in tournaments, Subramanyam saw fellow players joining the army which inspired him to sign up for recruitment himself. When asked whether there were any patriotic motives to his decision he replies honestly “No. neither was it about the steady paycheck, I could have earned more in my village, the adventure, prestige and discipline attracted me”
Did the Indian Army meet his expectations? “It was only after I joined did I realize that the disciplined environment is created by tiring us out with chores” he says as he goes on to explain how recruits are woken up in the wee morning hours to mow lawns, whitewash everything that doesn’t move and salute things that do.
The cultural shock was another thing he had to contend with. He describes how besides different food and climate, language barrier and racial prejudice reared their ugly heads at him. The use of the phrase ‘teri ma’ which in Tamil translates to an innocent “you know” is a popular beginning to sundry abuses in Hindi. As a fresh recruit who didn’t know a single word of Hindi the phrase often got him into trouble. “South Indian recruits are considered soft targets for bullying by the instructors and fellow recruits. We were called the ‘Madrasi’ squad and given extra punishment” He says. “Once I was on sentry duty in front of the Commanding Officer’s enclave when a instructor came up to me and slapped me for not cleaning up a pan stain near the sentry post left by the chai-walla. I felt humiliated. “Issey achha toh ghar pe gai bhais charata”
There is a historic perception of South Indians in the army stemming from the British classification of the so called ‘Madrasis’ as a non-martial race. The recruitment of ‘Madrasis’ for infantry only took place during the Second World War when there was a deficiency of troops required to defend the British Empire.
This didn’t stop Subramanyam from excelling in athletics and sports even in the Army, doing his regiment proud by winning inter-regimental football tournaments and setting division level 100 meter sprint record of 11 seconds (the national record is 10.30 seconds)
Subramanyam is married but he preferred the bachelor life because after marriage he has to make more frequent trips to his home in Keezhthonnakkal. Something that does not bode well for his trade as a sahayak . In a surprising remark he says “I’d rather stay here than go to my village and wife. But my wife keeps nagging me”. He explains that he married under the duress of his mother.
When asked what he intends to do after retirement now that he’s almost completed his 24 years of service he replies “I wish I could be a P.T. instructor in a school but maximum age for giving the instructor exam is 35, I guess the only thing left for me is to tend to my tapioca farm unless sahab offers me a job as his assistant after his retirement”
The sahayak system is an old institution and has its detractors. Most notable being a 2010 parliamentary standing committee on defence recommended that the Army abolish the ‘demeaning and humiliating’ practice of employing jawans as sahayaks to officers. It is an undeniable fact that cases of mistreatment of batmen is on the rise with changing times. The changing nature of the Army is often attributed to the new generation of officers, most of who belong to a background different from the earlier generation of elite socioeconomic class. The Pakistan army has done away with the institution for these reasons.
What does not help matters is that there is rarely any action taken against an officer for ill-treating the sahayak. Though the Army Headquarters periodically issues notices to Army formations against doing so, they are rarely paid heed to. There are many who never speak out of fear of being punished for complaining” says Subramanyam referring to his less lucky comrades “Although, with a few exceptions, the majority of us never felt the need to complain. True, it was a different job from what we had signed up for, but we did not have any complaints. For most of us it is an escape from the daily drudgery of regiment life”
EDIT (25 Jan 2017): The defence ministry now plans to replace buddies with non-combatants in peace stations within the next three to five years.
Source: http://m.economictimes.com/news/defence/non-combatants-to-replace-sahayaks-in-peace stations/articleshow/56751804.cms