Fire and Brimstone

Despite government’s assurances, military aspirants remain angry with Agnipath

Smruti Deshpande

On June 14, defence minister Rajnath Singh along with the three service chiefs held a press conference to announce the Cabinet Committee on Security’s (CCS) decision to implement the new recruitment process for the youth in the armed forces. This provision, earlier deemed as the ‘Tour of Duty’, will now be referred to as the Agnipath scheme.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh along with the three service chiefs announcing the Agnipath scheme
Defence minister Rajnath Singh along with the three service chiefs announcing the Agnipath scheme

Under the scheme, the three armed forces—the army, navy and air force will now recruit soldiers called the ‘Agniveers’ for a period of four years with six months of training. The eligible age for enrolment will be between 17.5 to 21 years.

Following violent protests by the youth all over the country, the government, three days after the announcement, changed the upper age limit to 23 years as a one-time waiver. At the end of four years, 25 per cent of the total number of these soldiers would be retained. These new recruits will have a different insignia and a distinct rank. Once the youth have served their time, they will not get the ex-servicemen status.

At the end of four years, the youth will be given a Seva Nidhi Package as well as a ‘Death and Disability’ package. The yearly pay package will amount to Rs 4.76 lakh in the first year. Gradually, with an increase every year, this package will amount to 6.92 lakhs in the fourth year. On completion of the service, the recruits will have earned Rs 11.7 lakhs including contribution and interest.

The government stated that among ‘other allowances’, the recruits will be given a ‘risk and hardship’ package as well. The government will be doling out 30 per cent, same as Agniveers towards emoluments. The scheme will be exempt from income tax. The government intends to give a Class-12 certificate to Agniveers upon the completion of their term.

The government has stated that once Agniveers exit the forces, they will revert to society as ‘disciplined, trained and skilled citizens’. The stress has also been given on the fact that during the recruitment medical and physical fitness standards will remain as per extant norms. The recruitment will see a ‘robust assessment system’ which will be transparent, objective, automated and centrally maintained. The genesis of the introduction of such a scheme lies in two facts—the government wants to reduce pension bills and lower the age profile of the armed forces by about five years. The cost-saving, the government has argued, will enable the forces to modernise themselves with the state-of-the-art equipment. The chief of the army staff said, “An enhanced youthful profile of the army i.e., reduction in average age from 32 to 26 years, to be achieved over a period of time.” More than 46,000 Agniveers will be recruited by the end of the year. All the three services have started inviting applications for the Agniveer scheme.

The Indian Navy has started its recruitment for Agniveers from July 1. The navy is hiring under the Agnipath scheme for two posts: Agniveer SSR and Agniveer MR. To apply for Agniveer SSR vacancies, candidates should be Class 12th pass-outs from a board recognised by the ministry of education with mathematics, physics, and either chemistry, biology or computer science as their subject. SSR candidates would be deployed on aircraft carriers, guided-missile destroyers and frigates, replenishment ships, and other technical submarines and aircraft of the Indian Navy. For Agniveer MR, candidates must be class 10 pass out from a ministry of education recognised board. Under Agniveer MR, candidates would be recruited as chefs, stewards and hygienists.

In addition, all Agniveers would be given firearms training and allotted other duties for the ‘efficient running of the organisation’. The army has also started inviting people in July. Initially, nearly 25,000 Agniveers will be recruited. The second batch will be enrolled from February 2023, which will include 40,000 Agniveers. The IAF started inviting applications in June and claimed to have received nearly 2 lakh applications in just six days. While the government and the armed forces have been behind promoting this scheme as fiercely as possible, a majority of veterans have taken to social media and editorial spaces—online and offline—to express their discontent.

As reported by The Wire, at the behest of the government, serving three-star commanders were asked by their respective service headquarters to ‘interact’ with veterans to convince them of Agnipath’s intrinsic worth, thereby lending heft to the controversial conscription venture. The report stated, ‘One such meeting, involving Indian Army veterans, took place in New Delhi last week, whilst another is around the corner to be held at the Western Army headquarters in Chandimandir, adjoining the tri-cities of Chandigarh, Panchkula and Mohali, where a large number of influential veterans, including former service chiefs, reside.’

The scheme has received immense flak. There have been unprecedented violent protests across the country by military aspirants. Not only were a dozen trains set on fire in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Telangana, but the violence also claimed two lives. One death was reported from Lakhisarai of Bihar where a passenger died during the protest. The second death was reported from Secunderabad, where a protestor who set a train on fire died in Railway Cops’ firing. The rage all over the country was so much so that Bihar, which saw the most protests and in turn damage to public property, saw the state’s deputy chief minister Renu Devi’s house being attacked and damaged in Bettiah. BJP offices in Sasaram and Madhepura were set on fire, while the car of BJP MLA Vinay Bihari was attacked. The Internet in many parts of the state was cut.

As per reports, in Uttar Pradesh, at least 17 districts saw aggressive protests with arson and vandalism and stone-pelting reported from a number of places. A train bogey parked in the washing pit was torched in Ballia even as protesters clashed with the police and pelted stones. About a hundred persons were arrested till the evening. In Varanasi, newly inducted electric buses were damaged at a bus station while protestors barged into the cantonment railway station and vandalised the premises. The functioning of hundreds of trains was affected with many being stuck and most being cancelled across the country.

Protests took place in many states including Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Haryana, Telangana, Odisha, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Jharkhand. As the forces had stalled recruitment for nearly two years, the protestors believe that after their service period had lapsed, they would be rendered incapable of taking up jobs in the forces and would have no professional degree, which will further push them towards poverty. Maximum posts in Other Ranks (OR) are filled by aspirants coming from rural backgrounds. Joining the forces is thus looked at as a stable job, which is expected to bring in financial stability for families living in dire conditions. The four-year scheme does not allow stability and post-retirement benefits. It is the impending uncertainty that has given rise to the protests. As opposed to what happens in the Short Service Commission in the Army, where after 10-12 years of service, soldiers are given an option to continue serving, the Agnipath scheme will retain 25 per cent of young soldiers. The rest 75 percent will then have to find a way out for themselves, while keeping up with society's judgments regarding why they couldn’t be a part of the 25 percent that were retained.

After the protests took a violent turn, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) announced that 10 per cent of all vacancies in the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) and Assam Rifles will be reserved for the armed forces recruits who have completed four-years of service under the Agnipath scheme. This reservation is other than the existing 10 per cent quota for ex-servicemen in CAPFs. The ministry also announced a five-year age relaxation for the first batch of Agniveers.

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