Friday 1 July 2022
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Violent protests against Agnipath spread to 7 states despite government clarification, assurance, compromise

Several parts of NDA-ruled Bihar and BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh witnessed protests against the new military recruitment policy Agnipath

At least one person has died and several others were injured, as furious and violent mobs of wannabes set trains on fire and attacked police in several states over the new military recruitment policy, Agnipath. The government has defended the scheme, calling it “transformative”.

Violent protests

A person died and more than 15 were injured in Telangana’s Secunderabad as violent protests spread to the southern state. Several states like Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh have witnessed violent agitation over the new scheme.

This was after the house of Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar Renu Devi was attacked in Bettiah in West Champaran district yesterday amid protests against the new recruitment scheme that has set off a firestorm. “Such type of violence is very dangerous for the society. The protesters should remember that this is a loss for society,” Devi said in Patna. Bihar has borne the brunt of the violence which began two days ago.

BJP Bihar president Sanjay Jaiswal’s house was attacked today. Police forces have been deployed near his house in Bettiah.

In Uttar Pradesh, a mob entered a railway station in Ballia this morning and set a train coach on fire, and also damaged railway station property before the police used force to disperse them. Another group of protesters carrying sticks argued with the police on the streets outside the railway station in the district of eastern Uttar Pradesh.

As many as 100 persons have been held in the Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh. The arrests happened for vandalising two trains, pelting stones, setting a compartment of train on fire during protest against Agniveer this morning

Agnipath scheme protestors have now blocked the Kanpur-Jhansi highway in Uttar Pradesh.

The Jattari Police Station building and a police vehicle were set on fire by angry protesters in Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh today. Roadway buses have been torched near Tappal in Aligarh.

Police resorted to using tear gas on the Delhi-Agra highway in order to protect commuters as protestors in Agnipath agitation pelted stones. Few vehicles were damaged in the incident, but police said that traffic movement is normal now.

Violent protests against Agnipath reached West Bengal today, with job security-seeking wannabes taking out rallies and blocking trains in multiple regions. Police, however, said that there were no reports of violent incidents such as arson or stone-pelting. At Thakurnagar in North 24 Parganas, protestors blocked railway tracks for more than an hour. Some youths also staged protests outside the house of Union Minister of State for Ports and Shipping Shantanu Thakur in the region.

Over 200 trains have been affected — 35 trains have been cancelled while 13 short-terminated — since the protests erupted on 15 June, according to Indian Railways.

A train is vandalised by protestors protesting against the Agnipath recruitment scheme for the armed forces at Secunderabad railway station in Hyderabad on Friday [ANI Photo]

Hyderabad Metro services in all three lines have been till further notice owing to the ongoing Agnipath protests. 

Bowing to violent protestors

As in the case of overturning the Supreme Court judgment on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act after a Bharat Bandh by Dalits, not notifying the Citizenship Amendment Act after violent protests by Muslims and withdrawal of the agriculture reform laws after a year of protests by rich farmers, the Modi government has begun compromising here too. It brought about an important change today on the age limit for those eligible for a four-year tenure.

Home Minister Amit Shah tweeted, “The recruitment process in the army was affected due to the Covid epidemic for the last two years, so Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji, in the Agnipath scheme, sensitive to the needs of the youth, gave a two-year concession in the upper age limit in the first year, from 21 years to 23 years.  It is a sensitive decision to take this step”.

The decision by the government is its first big compromise on the scheme in the wake of the violent protests against it. The Agnipath scheme introduces short-term military recruitment; those who qualify will serve for four years. Critics say that the new recruits will miss out on entitlements enjoyed by existing personnel, including government pensions unless they are retained after the four-year programme.

Young adults between the ages of 17-and-a-half and 21 were listed as the original beneficiaries of the scheme. Post-compromise, the government has raised the upper age limit from 21 to 23, after protesting crowds pointed out that there had been no military recruitment for the last two years on account of the pandemic and lakhs of young men and women would be unfairly ruled out if they crossed the age of 21 during this period.

Clarifications galore

To pacify the socialists, ministers of the union government posted assuring messages on Twitter. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh wrote: “The Agnipath scheme announced by the union government is a golden opportunity for the youth of India to join the defence system of the country and serve the country. Due to the lack of recruitment process in the army for the last two years, many youths could not get the opportunity to join the army.”

“Therefore, keeping in mind the future of the youth, on the instructions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government has increased the age limit for recruitment of Agniveers from 21 years to 23 years this time,” the defence minister said, adding, “This is a one-time relaxation given to enable a lot of youth to become eligible to become Agniveer.”

The Narendra Modi government’s Agnipath scheme is “an opportunity for India’s youth to join the defence forces and serve the nation”, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said, adding that the prime minister’s decision of increasing the age limit for Agniveers “shows sensitivity towards those whose dreams were impacted due to the Covid pandemic”.

Army, navy, air force chiefs pitch in

The government must have thought this was not enough to calm down the violent mobs. So service chiefs were pressed into the service to pacify the crowds.

The three service chiefs today mounted a defence of the Agnipath, clarifying that it presented an opportunity to youth to serve the nation and that military service would equip them with skills for subsequent employment, even as tens of thousands of entitlement-seeking socialist youths ignored appeals for calm and intensified their protests across the country demanding that the scheme be immediately rolled back.

Agnipath is a recently introduced recruitment model for the short-term induction of soldiers in the military.

Announced by defence minister Rajnath Singh on 14 June in the presence of the chiefs, the Agnipath model has replaced the legacy system of recruitment — and is a means to phase out regiments named after castes — with the aim to lower the age profile of the three services, ensure a fitter military and create a technically adept war fighting force capable of meeting future challenges. The recruits will be called Agniveers.

Army chief Gen Manoj Pande said the youth had perhaps not fully understood the contents and implications of Agnipath, and that had led to apprehension about the scheme. “Once they understand the contents, they will realise it is good for them and the armed forces,” he said.

Pande said units and formations of the army were ready to embrace the change and efforts were being made to spread awareness about the scheme down to the last soldiers at the earliest. He said the announcements made by the government; different state governments, corporate houses and other agencies over the last two days on giving Agniveers priority in employment should reassure the youth and allay their concerns.

Cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security earlier this week, Agnipath seeks to recruit soldiers, including women, for only four years with a provision to retain 25% of them in the regular cadre for 15 more years after another round of screening, enhance the operational preparedness of the armed forces, and create a skilled and dynamic workforce for employment in other sectors.

There is now no other avenue for recruitment for personnel below officer rank (PBOR) in the army, air force and navy.

Navy chief Admiral R Hari Kumar said the introduction of the Agnipath scheme was long overdue and was in line with the recommendations made by the Kargil Review Committee to ensure a younger age profile in the armed forces.

The model is expected to bring down the average age of a in the armed forces from the current 32 years to 24-26 years over the next six to seven years.

“The armed forces are not an employment generation scheme. You join the defence services because of patriotism and the desire to do something for the country. When 75% of the Agniveers are released from service, they will be young, say 22, and at that age, the world will be theirs,” said Kumar.

He said deliberations over different aspects of the model were carried out for two years before it was announced. He said the possibility of launching a pilot project was also considered but was not pursued as it would have created two classes of recruits, led to issues related to pay and seniority, and opened the floodgates of litigation.

The Indian Air Force will be the first service to recruit young men under Agnipath. IAF chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari said that the air force would kick off selection under the new recruitment model on June 24. He said the government’s decision to grant a two-year age relaxation to defence aspirants under the new model will permit a larger section of youth to enrol in the armed forces.

The defence ministry on Thursday made those who are 23 eligible for a career in the military for the next round of recruitment as a one-time waiver given that the process was stalled for more than two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The armed forces will recruit 46,000 Agniveers this year, with the army expected to conduct its first recruitment under the new model in 90 days. The first batch of the army’s Agniveers will start their training by the year-end, Pande said.

The government has said that Agniveers will be absorbed on priority in other central security forces and be eligible for government jobs such as in the railways. But some veterans have raised concerns about the combat readiness of the new recruits, their levels of motivation, and whether the prospect of a short tenure will make them risk-averse.

The four-year service includes training for 10 weeks to six months. Those recruited under the legacy system train for nine months and serve the armed forces for about 20 years before retiring in their late 30s.

Those recruited under the new scheme will draw an annual package of Rs 4.76 lakh in the first year of service and Rs 6.92 lakh in the fourth, will get a non-contributory insurance cover of Rs 48 lakh, and an additional ex-gratia payment of Rs 44 lakh for death attributable to service.

Soldiers who are released after four years will get Rs 11.71 Lakh as a Seva Nidhi severance package, including Rs 5.02 lakh contributed by them during their service. The soldiers released after four years will not be entitled to a pension, while those retained to serve for another 15 years will get the retirement benefit. Pensions account for a fifth of India’s defence budget. The country allocated Rs 5.25 lakh crore for military spending this year, including a pension outlay of Rs 1.19 lakh crore.

But not everybody from the fraternity of soldiers is impressed. Critics including army veterans say that the military will be damaged by what they describe as the contractual nature of short-term roles, that the motivation and morale of the forces will be hit, and that four years is insufficient to develop the sort of training and skills that are imperative for the armed forces.  Those protesting also say that despite the government’s assurances, they are concerned that they will be left unemployed once they graduate.

Opposition smells opportunity

As in several cases before, instead of acting as responsible opposition doing constructive criticism, the Indian National Congress has sided wholly with the mobs. “Agnipath scheme is controversial, carries multiple risks, subverts the long standing traditions & ethos of the armed forces and there is no guarantee that the soldiers recruited will be better trained & motivated to defend the country,” the party’s scam-tainted leader, P Chidambaram, said.

Read: Agnipath scorches party ranks: Manish Tewari supports, Varun Gandhi revolts

The opposition has asked the government to suspend the scheme and hold extensive discussions on it; the government says that it held consultations on the matter for two years before shaping the scheme and is confident of its advantages.

The government says that critics are overlooking the potential of the scheme to deliver quick and important results. The government has clarified that after their four-year tenure, Agniveers will be prioritised for jobs with the central paramilitary forces and the railways. For example; they will get access to special education programmes which will give them college credit for their time spent in the military. As many as 25% of the best recruits will, at the end of their four-year programme, be retained for full tenure; and the military will benefit from a younger and more dynamic employee base. 

Industrialists have said they will help employ Agniveers upon the completion of their military roles too.

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