Rank Injustice

Why the army's colonial and exploitative sahayak system must go

01 March 2020
Screen grabs from videos of sahayaks performing menial tasks at various army cantonments.
Screen grabs from videos of sahayaks performing menial tasks at various army cantonments.

ON 12 JANUARY 2017, three days before Army Day, Lance Naik Yagya Pratap Singh, then posted with the Forty-Second Infantry Brigade of the Indian Army, in Dehradun, uploaded a video on Facebook. It soon went viral, and was picked up by news channels. The mobile-phone footage showed the soldier in camouflage fatigues, facing the camera with squared shoulders, his image blurry but his voice sharp and clear.

In June the previous year, Singh said in the video, he had addressed a letter to the prime minister, the president, the defence minister, the home minister and the Supreme Court. The letter called for an end to the practice of assigning soldiers to officers as sahayaks—attendants. He described the practice as exploitative. Soldiers trained to fight the enemy, he said, should not be made to polish their officers’ shoes or walk their dogs.

Singh said that his brigade had received an official query from the prime minister’s office regarding his complaint. Ever since, his commanders had begun exerting tremendous pressure on him, repeatedly questioning and abusing him. It was enough to make the average soldier kill himself or take some other “wrong step,” he added, “but I will not do that. I am a soldier, and as a soldier, I will not dishonour my uniform by hurting myself or someone else.”

Earlier that morning, Singh had received a charge sheet and a summons for a court martial. “I appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi that all I did was write an application,” he said. “What wrong have I done that they are forming a committee to charge-sheet and court-martial me?”

The next day, several news channels aired videos of jawans—enlisted soldiers—washing a car, walking a dog and shifting gunny bags from a military truck into a house. Singh later told a military court that he had shot the videos at his brigade’s headquarters. The dog, he said, belonged to Brigadier Ajay Pasbola, the brigade’s commander. The car belonged to Major R Richard, the camp commander, while the gunny bags were being moved into Pasbola’s father’s house. In his viral video, Singh had named Pasbola and Richard among the officers who were harassing him.

Sagar is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: Indian Army defence ministry labour rights