'Mutiny' in sahayak row

Jail for 16 soldiers for brawl at Ladakh forward range

By OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
  • Published 8.05.15
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New Delhi, May 7: A summary general court martial (SGCM) has found 16 soldiers of an army battalion guilty of "mutiny" at a firing range in Ladakh in May 2012 and, in a contentious ruling after three years, has sentenced them to prison terms ranging from three to 10 years.

Earlier, the chief of the unit, a colonel, and two other officers were found guilty of "command failure" and punished with loss of rank and financial benefits.

The "mutiny" in the 226 Field Artillery Regiment at the Nyoma field firing range near the China frontier on May 10, 2012, the investigations that have followed it, and the sentences that have been meted out have also raised questions of gender-justice, propriety in the army's sahayak - or "batman" (personal attendant) - system and the authority of the Armed Forces' Tribunal (AFT) to intervene in military legal procedures.

The court of inquiry that preceded the SGCM and the summary of evidence show multiple versions of the events that overtook the army unit.

One version is that a Bengali-speaking soldier who was a sahayak to a major allegedly molested the officer's wife in her personal quarters. The woman testified before the Court of Inquiry that she hit him with a torch in trying to save herself and the soldier bled from an injury during the scuffle.

Another version is that the soldier had accidentally entered the quarters when the woman was changing and his motive was misconstrued.

Yet another version is that he had injured himself while moving the luggage of the officer and his wife in a field area where spouses were not supposed to be present.

Whatever happened inside the quarters, the officer was deeply offended and is alleged to have beaten the sahayak along with two of his comrades.

This enraged the other enlisted men in the unit who, in turn, beat up the officers they could lay their hands on and went looking with flaming torches through the night for other officers who they wanted to get hold of.

The commanding officer of the unit was not present in Nyoma. The court of inquiry found that he had granted permission for spouses to move from a staging area to the field firing range, overlooking rules. The inquiry also concluded that he had failed in his duty to keep abreast of what was happening in the unit under his command.

Following the incident, the army ordered the SGCM. A total of 168 soldiers were questioned and investigated. In the three years since the "mutiny", the proceedings have also been challenged in the Armed Forces Tribunal.

Court martial verdicts may be challenged in the AFT after they have been delivered. But the army officially says that the AFT has often intervened in cases before the legal process could be completed.

The SGCM, headed by a colonel in Akhnoor near Jammu, has now been wound up. Its verdict is yet to be confirmed by the headquarters.

But already, the Nyoma incident - that most officers describe as "horrifying" were it to recur - is nagging the army with its practice of assigning "batmen" to officers who are used for personal work.

Most officers contend that the sahayak is also a comrade-in-arms who sometimes has to help with cooking, serving food, driving the family and the officer, gardening and cleaning the house, washing and ironing uniforms, and carrying radio sets. Officers in field areas say the pressures of work leave them with little time to care for personal responsibilities.

But the Indian soldier today is no longer the trooper senior officers have grown up with, it is acknowledged. The jawan is more aware and has access to more media than ever before.