OPINION

Recollections from memory about batmen

Columnist Brig (Retd) Muhammad Akhtar Khan talks about the “batman” issue.

Recently there has been quite a flurry of letters to the Editor on the subject of provision of batmen to Army officers. The views expressed have varied from one extreme suggesting abolishing the institution altogether to the other extreme which suggest not only its retention, but also justifying the manner in which the batmen are currently employed. The remedy to my mind lies somewhere in between these two extreme viewpoints.

To analyse the problem, I decided to write of my personal experiences with the Army batmen spread over a period of 30 years and then analyze where we have gone wrong and suggest a remedy to the problem.

I was commissioned in 6 Baloch in Feb 1953 and retired in Dec 1982. During these thirty years I had been provided a batman. Basically, a batman is not a private servant who is provided to the officers to perform the duties of a domestic help. There is no extra manpower employed to provide a batman to the officers. What is authorised to officers is a part and parcel of the organisation is what is known in the TO&E (Table of Organisation and Equipment) of the unit is a ‘runner’. A runner is the person who always accompanies the officer and his primary duty in operations is to convey the orders/instruction of the officer to his subordinates, particularly when the wireless is not functioning. Logically, therefore, the runner must be an intelligent person so as not to confuse the orders/instructions of his officer and he must he physically very fit since he has plenty of running to do. Besides this primary task, he also looks after the officer’s equipment, helps to dig his trench and put up his bivouc in the field, beside being a member of the protection party. Over a period of time, in the days of the British, during peace time the batman used to live with the officer (in the mess or bungalow as the case may be). Besides his duties of conveying the orders/instructions of the officer after working hours, it came to be accepted as a part of his duties to polish the boots and equipment, shine the metallic parts of equipment and generally look after the officer’s uniform. This is the institution of batmen that we inherited, and this was what it used to be in 1953 when we were commissioned in the Army. My association with the batmen can be divided into two phases. Phase I is from 1953 to 1962 when I was a bachelor and Phase II is from 1962 to 1982 when I was a married officer. The selection of batman was best left to the Senior Junior Commissioned Officer (SJCO) of the company who always knew what was best for the ‘sahib’. Initially, I was provided batmen who were nearing retirement and the SJCO thought they deserved a lighter duty. Later as a captain (when I was company commander, adjutant and GSO-III (General Staff Officer-III) at Corps HQ) I was provided young intelligent and fairly well educated (by Infantry Standards of those times) batman. Later on, I realized that my SJCO had rightly decided that as a young officer with not much of a responsible job to shoulder I could make do with the old timers on the verge of retirement. Later, when I had more responsible appointments deserved an intelligent and keen batman to communicate to the staff.

My first batman was Anar Khan. He belonged to interior of Khushab, was a pure illiterate (if that is the correct English translation of Kora Unparh) Anar Khan a World War II veteran, had seen action in Burma and SE Asia and was full of stories. I was soon calling time ‘Pomegranate’ Khan, purely out of affection and he liked his new name. He was a devoted soldier who was loyal down to his marrow. He stayed with me till his retirement. Anar Khan was followed by Vadi Khan another old soldier from Bagh. Vadi Khan probably would not have matched Anar Khan for loyalty, but he was a highly resourceful person. In 1956 I proceeded to attend the Intelligence course, where Vadi was despatched earlier while I went to see my parents at Muzaffarabad. The school accommodation was double storey, with wooden partition between the two floors. Life on the ground floor used to be hell since not only the footsteps and other noises but even loud snoring from the upper floor could be heard downstairs. The form was that senior students were given the upper rooms and juniors the ground floor. I had been allotted an upper floor room (being a Captain) and the gentleman on the ground floor was only a lieutenant from Artillery (where promotion was slow). The officer was senior to me being from 6th PMA (whereas I was 7th PMA) so he asked to be shifted upstairs. Had I been present I would without hesitation have agreed, since the gentleman involved was my senior in PMA and irrespective of my temporary rank I always addressed him as ‘Sir’. But Vadi Khan would have none of it. He bluntly refused and asked the school staff that how could a lieutenant become senior to a captain. By the time I reached the matter had been amicably resolved and the concerned gentleman had been adjusted in another building. Later in life I read Churchill’s memoirs and the story regarding his batman who asked him whether he had arranged a horse for himself on his arrival in South Africa during the Boer War. The batman on receiving a negative reply duly produced a horse next morning fully saddled and ready for his officer. Subsequently, there was a great commotion and a search for a lost horse in the neighbouring unit. I am not sure whether the story is true or Churchill made it up to add spice to his memoirs but what I do know is that had I ever needed a horse, Vadi Khan would certainly have produced one not withstanding all the security measures of the AT (Animal Transport) unit. Fortunately, the occasion for testing Vadi Khan in this field never arose. Vadi Khan was followed by Lehrasab Khan. A mild mannered, polite and well behaved person. Lehrasab belonged to Gujar Khan. He always had a smile on his face. Had he only a slight educational background he would have made a decent Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO).

Lehrasab Khan was followed by Ashiq Hussain, Muhammad Munir and Hassan Akhtar in that order. This was the period when I had reached a stage of greater responsibility and hence I got batmen who were young, better educated and not on the verge of retirement. The batmen were normally turned over after a year so that they would not stagnate professionally. I am not only happy but proud that all three later on rose to become Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and made excellent platoon commanders.

Since this closes the phase, I and Hassan Akhtar was the last of my batmen as a bachelor officer, a few words regarding the batmen with bachelor officers in those days would not be out of place. As would be observed the batman were regularly turned over and after a year or so reverted to unit duties (unless he retired in the meanwhile). Normally the bachelor officer’s batman, used to be given first two periods off to tidy up the officers room etc and attend the normal training from third period onwards. We did not allow batmen to stagnate and become deadwood as far as soldiering is concerned. With bachelor officers, there was no question of batman being employed on any nature of domestic work. During Collective Training the batman always accompanied us and performed their operational role of a runner.

The last of my batman of bachelor days Hassan Akhtar was also to be the first of my batmen as a married officer after Jan 1962 when I got married. The immediate change in the household staff which occurred after marriage was that instead of being supported only by a batman the following staff were added on immediately:-

a.  A full time private servant who performed the duties in the kitchen.

b.  A part time sweeper was employed who did the cleaning of the house and surrounding area.

c.  A part time ‘Mahi’ came daily to do the washing of clothes.

d.  A part time Mali was employed to visit the house twice a week to attend to the lawn/garden.

One may wonder that how a young captain with a salary of about Rs 600/- plus could afford to hire such a lavish staff. Well the times were good and life was much cheaper. On getting married an officer became eligible to ‘Disturbance Pay’. I have never been able to understand the nature of ‘disturbance’, the officer was confronted with on being married but the ‘Disturbance Pay’ then used to be Rs 50/- pm. It was about enough to look after the pay of the four additional hands mentioned above. The point to be noted is that our batmen were neither expected nor performed any domestic duties which cut against his ego or pride as a soldier.

I had to part with Hassan Akhtar my batman and Mushtaq my private servant when I was posted to East Pakistan in June 1962. Being on an intelligence assignment where I rarely (if ever) wore a uniform I hardly needed a batman. One of the jawans used to visit my place to take the clothes to and from the dhobi. There we got an excellent youngster as a domestic help. Abdul Haq was the younger brother of one of the jawans serving in my unit. He asked for and got a start of Rs 10 pm (plus food and clothing). Soon he picked up the job and kept getting a regular rise. We used to affectionately call him ‘Abdul’. Soon he grew not only in proficiency but turned out to be the cleanest, best dressed and groomed private servant in Dacca Cantt. He had been given regular increments and by the time we were leaving East Pakistan in Sept. 1964 he was being paid Rs 25/- pm. In spite of our request he could not accompany us to West Pakistan. We lost touch with him but the way he came up in the couple of years that he spent with us, I am confident he would have done very well in life.

On my return I was earmarked to attend the 1965 Staff Course. My late father had bought me a car and I suppose I misused my privilege and picked up a driver. Muhammad Taj as my batman. Our private servant Mushtaq (who had gone to my parents in 1962) rejoined us. A driver as batman in the Staff College was a great help and convenience since one was too busy to attend to the family needs and my wife could not drive (not many ladies in those days could) in Sept 1965, our course was packed up. I went to 23 Baloch (a new raising), Taj went to 6 Baloch (his parent unit) and Mushtaq once again went to my parents along with the family. Taj incidentally retired as a Havildar. Mushtaq soon found a job with United Bank from where he recently retired.

I remained associated with 23 Baloch from 1965 to 1969 and during this period I was served first by Gul Muhammad and later by Muhammad Manzoor. The former retired as a Naik and the latter as Havildar. During this period we had an Urdu speaking cook in the house — Abdul Ghafoor. An aged person but a fine cook. He remained with us at Karachi and Malir but on my posting up country he could not accompany us due to family reasons. At Kohat, we got a boy from Bannu — Baladar Khan as the private servant. Last reports about him were that he is working as a waiter in Bannu Club.

Subsequently as a Lt Col I once again started getting batman who were on the verge of retirement. The Subedar Major who made the selections now probably considered the Commanding Officer at par with young subalterns who could make do with old timers on the verge of retirement. Usman (12 Baloch) Hafeez and Allah Dad (both from 2 Baloch) served me in this phase. Subsequently, as a Brigade Commander I used to ask one of the Battalions in my formation to provide me the batman. Consequently, Mehdi Khan of AK Regt and Abdul Ghafoor of Punjab Regt were the last of my batmen.

Since my retirement almost twenty years ago my former batmen remain in touch with me. Lehrasab Khan came to see me accompanied by his son Imran on my appointment as Joint Secretary in Ministry of Production. The boy was smart and intelligent looking but like his father backward in education. Well, Lehrasab went home alone that day and Imran even today is one of the smartest Qasids serving the Government of Pakistan. Similarly, Ashiq who had learnt driving wanted to ply a Suzuki Pick Up. I could not arrange a discount on the price but the waiting period in those days was 3-4 months. Ashiq got his Suzuki off the shelf. Allah Dad’s son Fawad is not only serving us as a domestic hand, but is one of the ‘Stars’ of our street cricket team. Hafeez has an attractive job in Abu Dhabi and is a regular visitor whenever he comes to Pakistan.

To sum up, the batmen in our times was neither a private servant nor was he treated as such. He was more of a family member. The married officer’s batman normally used to eat their meals at the officers place and draw ration money (which was about 60% of his basic Pay). On the occasion of my marriage four of my former batmen were present not as extra working hands but as honoured guests. The relationship between us was never of a master and servant but of compatriots.

The general impression today of batman being a personal servant is not without justification. The rot set in sometime in the 1970s. With the sharp rise in cost of living and rapid inflation due to increase in petroleum prices the officers were forced to cut their expenditures. One short cut adopted by many, if not most was to dispense with private servants and gradually shift the load of domestic work on batmen. This should not have been allowed to happen. Slowly other methods of misuse of facility like employment of more than one batman or provision of batman to unauthorized people (like retired officers) not only crept in but mushroomed.

Having given this historical background the position that emerges is:-

a.         The batman (or runner) with each officer being an integral part of the TO&E and with operational role to play, cannot and should not be abolished. If resorted to it would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

b.            Withdrawal of batman from officers during peace time will not result in any financial saving. He shall still remain on the strength of the unit.

c.         The batman should not be misused as a domestic servant which he is not. All married officers must he asked to hire private servants in addition to attend to their domestic duties.

d.         The ‘Disturbance Pay’ to married officer should be revised (I believe the current rate is Rs 1000/- to 1500/- pm). If due to rise in cost of living it is not enough to hire a private servant, it should be revised upward.

e.         Batman should constantly be rotated and a class of professional batmen who are not fit for their actual duties should not be allowed to develop.

f.          Under no circumstances should professional training of batman be neglected. Any batman who fails the Annual Physical Efficiency Tests or Range Classification should immediately be reverted to the unit to ensure his professional fitness.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brigadier Mohammad Akhtar Khan (Retd) was born at Mirpur (Jammu and Kashmir) in 1934. He received his early education at Colonel Brown’s School Dera Dun, Burn Hall Srinagar/Abbottabad and at Gordon College Rawalpindi. He was commissioned in an illustrious battalion of the Baluch Regiment on 14 February 1953. During his three decade long service in the army Brigadier Akhtar served in various command, staff and instructional appointments and also participated in the 1965 and 1971 Wars as a Company Commander and Battalion Commander. He is a graduate of the Command and Staff College Quetta 1965 Session, and Human Resource Development Course at The Graduate School of USAD at Washington DC. He was inducted in the Civil Service in December 1982 and rose to the rank of a Federal Secretary in 1993. Later he served as a Consultant with a Oil Exploration Company till final retirement in 1997. Brigadier Akhtar is settled in Rawalpindi. He is married and is the father of three sons.

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