New Delhi: When the minister for planning and development in West Bengal Rachhpal Singh attended a function on Monday to honour sculptor Ramkinkar Baij, little did he know that what began as an act of respect—taking off his shoes before garlanding a statue—will end up sparking a debate about his inhuman treatment of subordinates. Singh’s bodyguard, a police constable, was photographed tying his protectee’s shoelaces.

The incident came in for particular criticism because Singh is a former IPS officer who should have been more mindful of a subordinate’s dignity.

However, this is not the first time that IPS officers have drawn flak for their attitude towards constables assigned to them as bodyguards or orderlies. In October 2014, similar photographs of the deputy inspector general of police Jammu Kathua range Shakeel Ahmed Baig had gone viral. His son had posted them on Instagram with hashtags like ‘power’ and ‘king’.

The root cause for these incidents is the orderly system in the Indian Police Service, a vestige of colonial legacy where constables and home guards are appointed as personal attendants to senior officers. The original aim of this practice was for the constable to help the officer with his uniform and on-field duties. Over the years, however, the ambit has widened to include every kind of domestic chore and, as recent incidents show, even humiliating tasks like tying shoelaces.

“From washing clothes, to keeping the house clean, to looking after the demands of family members, orderlies are little more than glorified house help. These are men trained to maintain law and order and we are reducing them to the status of house help. This is shameful. A criminal waste of man power and morale," said a senior serving IPS officer who did not want to be identified.

In 2013, a parliamentary standing committee report had recommended issuing a mandatory direction to all police forces against the use of personnel for household duties. The report had stated that the orderly system affected the morale of the police personnel. Andhra Pradesh abolished the system in 2009 after a constable, P. Muralinath, died under mysterious circumstances while serving as an orderly in a senior officer’s home in Noida.

As recently as this month, Karnataka Police has also been asked to submit a report about this tradition. According to a news report, Karnataka home minister K.J. George said, “We cannot eradicate the system overnight. But, I will end this at the earliest."

The Indian Police Service is not the only force to continue with this tradition. The Indian Army too has the ‘batman’/sahayak tradition wherein a soldier is assigned to an officer. The practice has come under criticism in recent times as reports of clashes between troops and officers have come to the surface. Over the years, the army has issued diktats against using sahayaks for domestic chores like taking the dog for a walk but the practice is yet to be abolished. Interestingly, the British Army phased out the batman tradition after World War II. Even the Pakistan Army, another force modeled on the British Army, phased out the practice recently. Perhaps it is time for Indian forces to take heed.

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