In April 2010, shortly after one deputy inspector general of police had arrived in Chhattisgarh to head the Central Reserve Police Force units deployed there, he instructed his men to send out patrols. The order was not based on any specific intelligence. Instead, as a Union Ministry of Home Affairs press release later described it, these were “area domination” patrols – conducted by guarding forces to make their presence felt among militants and civilians alike. Ideally, such patrols last a few hours, with the teams checking known hideouts of militants before heading back to base.
But this officer’s instructions were quite different, but very clear: the men were to patrol the jungles for at least three days because he wanted them to be aggressive in their approach. So, the troops, ill-equipped and ill-trained, were forced to wander the forests and villages without any intelligence.
In the early hours of April 6, Maoists attacked the temporary camp they had set up and killed 75 jawans, along with a constable from the state police. This was one of the biggest losses suffered by the Central Reserve Police Force post-Independence. The Maoists, on the other hand, walked away unscathed.
The officer who had ordered the patrol was shifted out of Chhattisgarh within days of the incident, but his career did not suffer any setback. An Indian Police Service officer on deputation with the force, he was rewarded with a medal the next year, for duties done before his short stint in the state. He continued to get promotions regularly and remains in service.
Control but no command
A few years ago, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government decided not to post any Indian Police Service officer below the rank of deputy inspector general to any central police organisation. This meant that none of the officers posted with, say, the Central Reserve Police Force, Border Security Force and Indo-Tibetan Border Police would have any operational experience. They would mostly come into the service and serve in “peace postings”, all of them in a staff position, while the difficult field and operational postings would fall to direct recruits into the central police organisations. What made it worse for the direct recruits was that none of them would ever head the organisations they had joined. The top echelons were received for officers from the Indian Police Service, even if they had never served in any operational role.
If there is a cause for resentment in the central police organisations today, this ranks high on the list. Treated as less than their counterparts from the Indian Police Service, the direct recruits end up serving under officers who have never worked alongside them or even led them in actual operations. Naturally, they don’t expect most of these officers to understand the practical issues they face when they are posted in difficult areas.
When Border Security Force constable Tej Bahadur Yadav went public with his videos of poor food and inadequate rations last week, it was a result of this disconnect that central police organisations feel with their leadership. The resentment is widespread across the ranks, as several police officers Scroll.in spoke to revealed.
Unlike the military, the central police organisations don’t set a high premium on operational experience. In the military, especially in combat arms such as the Infantry and Armoured Corps, an officer is expected to serve at every level before he gets a shot at commanding a full unit or regiment. His performance at these levels decides his future prospects. No such provision exists for the central police organisations and even the best performers know that they will eventually hit a ceiling in their careers.
The death of 76 jawans in the Tadmetla ambush in Chhattisgarh was revealing in another way: it showed the severe lack of equipment the men faced. Most of the dead men were photographed with shoes they had purchased from the nearby Dantewada market, since the footwear issued by the Central Police Reserve Force were found to be uncomfortable and impractical for the jungles. An inquiry by former director general of police EN Rammohan found the force’s camp lacked basic facilities, had minimal security and sub-human living conditions. None of this was factored in by the officer who ordered his men out even before he could get a sense of their capabilities or living conditions. Today, Chhattisgarh has over 30 battalions deployed in anti-Maoist operations and the state government wants more. But it is not ready to give them the freedom and autonomy they need to operate.
“In the Army, this would have been unacceptable,” a serving lieutenant general told Scroll.in. “In the Indian Army, we have the concept of command responsibility. Even if you are a formation commander, if you have suffered many losses under your command, it basically seals your career. That is how seriously we take losses in the Army.”
Officials from the central police organisations spoke of another fear that has descended on them since Yadav’s videos went viral and prompted the Army chief to warn soldiers against airing their grievances in public, which is a breach of service rules. Many of them believe they have been put under some form of surveillance, to catch them if they ever speak against service conditions. But this has also led to another phenomenon. “Middle-ranking officers at the deputy commandant and commandant levels are now bonding with their inspectors and constables against the senior leadership, such is the frustration amongst them,” said a senior central police organisation officer who did not want to be identified. “This could boil over in different ways.”
Within days of the Border Security Force constable airing his grievances on Facebook, more such videos surfaced – of a Central Reserve Police Force soldier speaking of the alleged discrimination the paramilitary forces faced as opposed to the Army, and of an Army jawan singing about “pickle on roti”, unsatisfactory living conditions and restrictions on leave. This seems to be just the tip of the iceberg of resentment brewing within the services and spreading to the armed forces.
The Army buddy
On January 13, yet another video by an Army man showed just how deep the malaise is. Worse, the grievances are now finding their way to social media platforms, creating issues of discipline in the armed forces.
In his video, Lance Naik Yagya Pratap Singh of the Rajput Regiment, posted in Dehradun, complained against the alleged exploitation of soldiers by senior officers in the name of the sahayak or buddy system – a custom started by the colonial British Indian Army.
The colonial Army created the post of a helper, or sahayak, so that Indian soldiers or helpers could help British officers with their daily tasks – polishing shoes, cleaning uniforms and ensuring all the officers’ personal needs were taken care of. As war came to the sub-continent, the role changed and the sahayak became a comrade-in-arms, fighting alongside the officer in battle. This tradition continued into post-Independent India, but also became a source of free labour for many officers.
In 2010, the Standing Committee of Parliament on Defence in 2010 asked the Army to end this “colonial practice”, but the then chief of Army staff managed to stave off the demand and ensured the practice continued. The Ministry of Defence decided to look away, since senior bureaucrats and ministers also benefit from this pool of captive free labour. Clearly, while the Army now calls the sahayak a buddy, it doesn’t treat him as one.
“If this were true,” said a serving commanding officer of a unit posted in the Northeast, “then the officer is expected to do as much for the buddy as the buddy does for him. However, the power equation is firmly in place, and they [sahayaks] are expected to carry out menial tasks.”
The officer pointed to some cases where “officers care deeply for their sahayak and some have even helped them become officers through the relevant officer recruitment programme”. However, he added, “That is very rare.”
Chances are that despite Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat’s offer to address the complaints of soldiers personally, no substantial change is expected. With social hierarchies firmly embedded in the Indian Army and the central police organisations, largely due to their colonial moorings, the exploitation of soldiers and constables will continue unabated.