Over the past fortnight, Indian cities have been reeling under violent protests by job aspirants to the armed forces over a controversial military recruitment scheme, Agnipath. The protests, which spread across the country, saw protesters torching buses and trains, with the Indian Railways alone incurring losses of around $90 million.
Announced on June 14, the “revolutionary” Agnipath (or “path of fire” in Hindi) scheme calls for recruitment of personnel for non-officer ranks in the infantry, navy, and air force for a period of only four years. Under the plan, 25 percent of those recruited would be retained for a longer tenure and the remaining 75 percent will be let off without a pension or gratuity. The latter will be eligible for a $14,900 severance package at the end of four years. Youth between the ages of 17.5 years to 21 years will be eligible to apply.
Faced with angry protests, and since recruitment to the armed forces had been put on hold for the past two years, the Narendra Modi government has allowed a relaxation of two years in the age criteria (till the age of 23) for this year’s recruits.
Attempting to douse the protests, Vice Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General B.S Raju described the contractual job scheme as a “pilot project” that could be tweaked after implementation. Meanwhile, despite the protests, the government has gone ahead and started recruitment of “Agniveers,” as these short service commissioned soldiers will be known.
Purportedly the scheme is aimed at making the army leaner and fitter. While unveiling the scheme, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said: “The youthful profile it will create will benefit the armed forces as these recruits can be easily trained for new technologies, and their health and fitness levels will also be better.”
However, as defense experts and Army veterans have highlighted, the recruitment revamp is aimed at reducing the pension burden of the defense budget. At present nearly $16 billion of the $70 billion defense budget goes towards paying of pensions.
Several Army veterans have criticized the scheme. Retired Major General Sheonan Singh told the BBC that “saving money is good but it should not be done at the cost of the defense forces. If you go to war with an experienced soldier, will a person with four years of training be able to replace him on his death?”
Beyond the question of military preparedness, there are social factors to consider. The Indian Army is the second highest recruiter in the country after the Indian Railways. Youth from rural areas enlist in the army in droves, drawn to it for the job security it hitherto offered and its prestige.
Farmer organizations have extended their full support to the protesting youth and have demanded a rollback of the new scheme. Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a farmer rights group, held nationwide protests against the Agnipath scheme, terming it “anti-military, anti-farmer and anti-national.” In a statement the organization said, “When the central government is bent upon destroying the spirit of the slogan Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan (hail the soldier, hail the farmer), it is the duty of the farmers’ movement to stand shoulder to shoulder with the jawans [soldiers] in this struggle.”
At present, several regiments in the Indian Army like the Gorkha, Jat, Sikh, and Rajput regiments retained the British legacy of recruiting from these specific castes. The Agnipath scheme will recruit on an All-India, All-Class basis and thus change the composition of these regiments.
“Joining the Fauj or army in this country is still a matter of intense social pride,” a former Army officer, who did not wish to be named, told The Diplomat, pointing out that “recruitments are predominantly from rural areas and most families have a legacy of several generations being in the Army.”
“To expect troops with no job security … to risk their lives [by serving in the army] is unrealistic,” he pointed out. He dismissed the Agnipath scheme as “flawed, dangerous and ill-conceived.”
Meanwhile, the Modi government has dug in its heels insisting that its main intention is to create a band of youth who are skilled and “… to give them an opportunity to serve the nation and to exit and do something more. It is not an end in itself.”
Predictably, opposition parties have slammed the government for compromising the security of the country and weakening the armed forces.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted, “When India faces threats on two fronts, the uncalled for Agnipath scheme reduces the operational effectiveness of our armed forces. The BJP govt. must stop compromising the dignity, traditions, valour & discipline of our forces.”
Insensitive remarks by BJP leaders has added fuel to the fire. BJP General Secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya said he would hire Agniveers as security guards for the BJP office. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal reminded the ruling party that youth join the army to serve the nation, not to be a guard outside a BJP office.
Prior to this, former Army Chief V.K. Singh, a junior minister in the Modi government, contemptuously dismissed the youth protests saying, “If you don’t like Agnipath scheme, don’t join. There is no compulsion.”
Concerns have been raised over the implications of having tens of thousands of army-trained, unemployed youth languishing in society. The government swung into firefighting mode in response. Leading industrialists soon extended support to the scheme. Several corporate leaders, including Mahindra group’s Anand Mahindra, RPG group’s Harsh Goenka, and Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, came out in strong support of the Agnipath scheme saying, skilled Agniveers will be highly employable.
With unemployment at an all-time high, the Modi government’s promise of recruiting 46,000 defense personnel this year through the Agnipath scheme, comes with a rider — Agniveer applicants will have to pledge that they did not take part in any protests against the scheme.
The Modi government is crushing dissent in the guise of discipline.