14 Corps Commander strikes deal with angry soldiers, defusing crisis — but hard questions remain

Forty-eight hours after troops of the Ladakh-based 226 Field Regiment staged a revolt against officers they said were responsible for the brutal beating of an enlisted man, the Army is facing hard questions whether its colonial-era institutions are generating a crisis within its ranks.

Men of the 226 Field Infantry marched through the town of Nyoma late on Thursday night, armed with rods and knives, seeking to hunt down five Major-rank officers they said were responsible for the brutal beating of Suman Ghosh — an enlisted man assigned as a personal valet.

The men also staged protests, using loudspeakers to shout slogans condemning the officers and raise nationalist slogans. The fighting left at least three soldiers — including the sahayak —injured.

Early on Saturday, highly-placed military sources told The Hindu, Leh-based 14 Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Ravi Dastane finally hammered out a deal with the soldiers — a deal which promises officers who used beatings against enlisted men will be punished, in return for the soldiers relocating to their base at Thiksey.

In New Delhi, the Army Headquarters described the clash — the worst of its kind since some units mutinied in 1984 — as “an incident of indiscipline,” not a mutiny. The Army has set up a court to inquire into the incident.

Officers, not Gentlemen?

Late on Thursday evening, after the 226 Field Regiment finished a firing-practice session with their 105-millimetre mountain guns in the Mahé range near Nyoma, witnesses saw a fracas break out. Major A.K. Sharma, one of the unit's officers, claimed his wife was insulted by the sahayak. A highly placed source at 14 Corps Headquarters told The Hindu that the officer's wife complained that Ghosh waked into her room without knocking while she was having a shower.

The sahayak, witnesses told The Hindu, was dragged into the Beacon ground near the range, and beaten up. Major Ankur Tewari, Major Kapil Malik, Major Thomas Verghese, Major A.D. Kanade and Major Sharma himself joined in the beating, documents seen by The Hindu say.

From the witnesses' account, it is clear the men of the 226 Field Regiment did nothing — until it became clear Ghosh had suffered significant injuries. Major Kanade, however, allegedly refused to allow the men to move Ghosh to a medical facility, perhaps fearing it would lead to an internal inquiry on his conduct.

The irate men then began arguing with the officers; witnesses say there was a heated argument, accompanied by some pushing and shoving.

226 Field Regiment commander Colonel Prasad Kadam intervened, reprimanding the officers for their conduct — only to be allegedly assaulted by the five.

The Majors, witnesses said, then fled as troops arrived, saving Colonel Kadam.

Fearing attack by other Army units, some men barricaded themselves inside the quarter-guard, housing the armoury, while others marched into the town shouting Bharat Mata ki Jai [“Long Live India”]. Major Sharma was captured and beaten up; the men moved him to hospital thereafter.

Early on Friday morning, Major-General A.L. Chavan, commander of the Leh-based 3 Infantry Division, arrived in Nyoma and began negotiating with the troops, promising them that force would not be used.

In a press release, the Army Headquarters insisted that Col. Kadam's injuries were “superficial,” but highly-placed military sources said he was still in a field hospital on Saturday afternoon.

Simmering class tensions

Earlier this month, the Army announced it was considering doing away with the colonial-era institution of the sahayak, or batmen as they were earlier known — trained soldiers who are assigned to serve as valets.

The 30,000-odd men serving as sahayaks are expected not just to ensure that their officers' uniforms are in order and their personal comfort is cared for, but ferry their children to school and help with their spouses' shopping.

The batman system was long abandoned in the British Army, from which India drew it; even Pakistan dropped the institution in 2004. In India, however, it remains in place — a major cause of humiliation for men enlisted to serve their country.

It isn't only the institution of the sahayak, though, that is a cause of friction: India's two-class Army, divided rigidly between sahibs and men, ill-reflects the social realities of the country today.

For its part, the officer corps is ill-equipped to deal with a changing world. In a recent article, scholar Srinath Raghavan pointed out that the Army recruits officers “at a much younger age than most other democracies.”

Colonial-era culture

Their subsequent in-house education submerges young men in the military's colonial-era culture, leaving them ill-equipped to understand the changed values and aspirations of the soldiers serving under their command.

“In the first decades after Independence,” a retired officer told The Hindu, “enlisted men came from backgrounds which led them to unquestioningly accept feudal attitudes and values. The officers were also products of the same feudal landscape. It doesn't exist any more — but the institutions remain.”

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