In its current form, the Agnipath scheme makes light of military ethos
Maj. Gen. Raj Mehta (retd)
I am a short service entry officer, call me an ‘Agniveer’ if you will. I am among those in my 1968 batch who ‘made the cut’ for permanent commission before my ‘tour’ of five years ran out followed by surgical demobbing without benefits for those not making the cut. Early in my career of almost 39 years, I found myself posted to the globally benchmarked National Defence Academy (NDA) as an instructor- among the very few Short Service officers to be so selected. I have three ex-NDA brothers, a spiffy ex-NDA nephew and several brothers-in-law. They underwent three years training at NDA; a fourth year at IMA before commissioning. I’ve served in both single and All-India-All-Class units and had no issues with either.
I could therefore say with misplaced smugness and complacency that I am a survivor; been there, done that… been through savage Agniveer travails yet had top-of-the-shack army siblings/ relatives at home; reminders of permanent commission duties and benefits. I too have tasted that ambrosia.
Nothing could, however, be more disrespectful or irrelevant. This is because my Agniveer experience was life changing, searing. It took time for both I and the Army in terms of subordinates, peers and seniors to understand each other well enough to place our lives on trust; it being a critical component of army ethos. Whether general or jawan, it cannot be demanded; be rushed. It must be earned, felt and experienced through delivered performance and adherence to the army’s ethos and ethics. Its presence wins wars; its absence ensures defeat and compromise. Trust is thus an infectious ‘feel good’ factor that establishes faith across all ranks. It brings in respect, admiration and pride—in oneself, in peers, and for country even at cost of death. No sacrifice for those you trust or serve with honour and integrity, such as unit or country, is big enough. These qualities, values and ‘belief sets’; attitudes, are complex and thrive in the mind-space. They are felt and seen in the soldiers’ body language and actions through verbal and non-verbal gestures. An Agniveer selected for an operational mission has to earn that faith/ trust/ respect and that takes time. Collectively, these could be clubbed as ‘A way of life; military ethos; military ethics. These are big chunks of the military’s Regimental system which binds all ranks to its ‘one for all; all for one’ (courtesy Alexandre Dumas) credo… to its Naam-Namak-Nishan and Mai-Baap belief sets. These are learnt; not taught.
Even when a sudden border crisis gives little learning time as happened in 1962/1971 when under-training personnel were rushed into battle, the raw soldiers’ need to deliver was based on his implicit faith that whatever may be the consequences, whether death, injury or glory, he would be looked after by the very army ethos/ way of life that drove the raw soldier to volunteer.
This humane and deep-rooted approach runs counter to the beguiling logic in use for supporting short tours. It clinically suggests (there is no reference to military ethos) that since most soldiers die young, a short ‘Tour’ produces soldiers as good in quality as fully trained and ‘educated’ soldiers. This assumption can be seriously questioned. The mind-boggling mathematics of the TOD scheme however focuses on the monies saved. This allows MoD to get more bangs for its defence bucks through acquisition/ modernization coterminous with ‘leaner’ forces.
It is thus important to take a reality check on the Agnipath/ Agniveer scheme since it will affect the core foundations of our armed forces. Born in battle in 1947, India, 75 years on, remains eternally vigilant in near-war and proxy war deployment. Its armed forces have paid a huge price to keep India sovereign. Their ability to conduct such vigilance with a mix of trained and partly trained short-turnover soldiery for the majority of who there will be demobbing in store except 25 per cent selected for absorption in mainstream forces needs review.
Since Agnipath/ Agniveer have been alluded to, it is only fair to trace their modern avatar. The probable initiator was renowned poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan who titled his famous 1973 poem Agneepath (Path of fire). His protagonist faces formidable life challenges. The poet pleads with his Agniveer—his Fire warrior—to stay his course notwithstanding all hurdles. While this symbolism and imagery is powerful, one hopes that ‘Agniveer’ does not become a parody of ‘soldier’. That is because the scheme is hinged on 75 per cent ‘use and throw’ demobbing. Agniveers therefore face an uncertain future—unless major course correction is done. It will hurt the forces’ self-esteem if Agniveer becomes a synonym for a loser.
Genesis of TOD and later Iterations
Let’s begin by examining the nebulous initiation of the scheme. Its inspiration may have emerged from a September 2019 paper and follow up podcast of May 2020 co-authored by a retired senior military officer and a journalist with financial acumen. The paper focused on reducing defence pension expenditure which had ballooned after implementation of the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme with adverse fallouts on force modernization. It opined that previous cost-saving schemes had failed miserably; Short Service entry being an example. The initial five year service tour had expanded to 14 years (5+5+4 years) with the Supreme-Court-driven women’s entry scheme adding to costs.
The paper, having established the need for belt-tightening then laid out its magnum opus: an attractively marketed short six-year volunteer conscription (an oxymoron) Tour of Duty (TOD) with ‘lateral entry into the country’s national security system’ for demobbed personnel. [As an aside, one cannot help feeling the overpowering impact of the 2019 film: Uri: The Surgical Strike which was running to packed cinema houses with its do-all superhero in macho military uniform and his infectious ‘How’s the Josh’? dialogue on the co-authors in writing their article].
The paper euphorically opined that there was a huge demand from young men wishing to be inducted into the Army ‘for the thrill, adventure and pride of wearing the uniform’. Their induction would result in a happy convergence of net-savvy young men seeking a snappy short-duration military service and the pressing GOI need to save money. If the proposal were accepted, there would be no pension liability or severance/ overheads/ cost of hidden perks. The soldier would be trained for six eight months; then serve for three years each in two separate operational areas. He could be considered for short refresher/ training unit cadres to meet specific operational challenges. The candidates, inducted after meeting current UPSC/ SSB selection regimen in a pilot programme at 100 per year for officers and 1000 per year for Other Ranks. They would serve under warlike conditions, presumably in two successive same/ different operational area tours in J&K/ International Border/Line of Control/Line of Actual Control environment and in the North-east.
Selected personnel would serve exclusively in the (supposedly non-technical) Infantry, learning practical soldiering in six to eight months training or, more likely, learning on the job under fire. The principal focus would be that this form of officer/ Other Rank entry would be without the huge financial sting that past schemes had invited. The soldier post tenure would ‘meld into Civvy Street with nothing to take home except for a cherished Badge of Honour and, for a minority, the odd bravery medal(s), may be physical maiming/ loss of an appendage or other injuries but no severance benefits other than an anticipated Rs five to six lakh gratuity for officers and Rs two to three lakh gratuity for Other Ranks.’ The advantage of being trained and disciplined for whatever next career that the TOD inductee could enter post demobbing would be there without any guarantee of suitable placement by GOI/ private industry.
The paper then went on to establish the financial veracity of this TOD scheme which, for officer entries alone would result in a staggering eight-fold reduction in costs when compared with a 14-year SSRC entry of 14 years. The Other Rank savings were even more impressive. It went on to suggest that, if the pilot scheme worked, it should be extended by the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) to the sister Services, thus saving substantial money for acquisitions and modernisation.
Eight months down the line, when the co-authors did a follow-up TOD podcast in May 2020, serious unease was expressed on officer induction on the plea that a TOD officer inductee would need more time and skilling to handle men, weapons and comprehend the operating environment(s)—in sum, understanding the basics of the art of war. This, against the need of the scheme to deny the TOD officer basic courses of instruction/ temporary duty routinely available to other officers to improve their skills and Professional Military Education (PME) in order to make best operational use of his limited time.
The podcast however insisted that so far as the Other Ranks were concerned, ‘the rationale for inducting them to reduce pension bills makes financial and operational effectiveness sense’. The podcast ended on a sombre note, suggesting that government would have to think through multitudes of released TOD personnel who had weapons expertise and were back in Civvy Street making a living in whatever manner they could in the near absence of government support as has happened with legions of EC/ SSRC officers since 1962.
One can deduce that the scheme in its theoretical construct had fallen between a rock and a hard place; fallen between two stools; one focused primarily on savings above all else and the other demanding operational capability and army ethos developed over time. The co-authors radical change in outlook occurred within the span of a few months during which the rush-of-blood euphoria for saving bucks was measured against harsh ground realities. One presumes that environmental feedback from serving and veteran fraternity could have contributed to the radical change in outlook which found reflection in the podcast.
Given the overlaps between the 2019/2020 TOD blueprint and the Agnipath/ Agniveer scheme as unveiled, one presumes that the paper did indeed provide the panacea that the late CDS and Secretary DMA Gen Bipin Rawat was seeking so energetically for better defence spending along with force reduction. In the absence of any government clarification/ white paper, the emergence will however remain confined to guesstimates.
The Agnipath/ Agniveer Offerings
- Aim: Enhance youthful profile; provide fresh Josh/ Jazba; bring in transformative tech-savvy youth.
- Open to all three Services across gender in All India All Class (AIAC) mode.
- Restricted to Other Ranks/ Jawans
- Induction permitted in all arms.
- Candidates must be between 17-and-a-half to 21 years of age. One time waiver to 23 years due COVID delay.
- Education from 8th-12th
- Four year tour includes six months training at Regimental Centres.
- Annual leave restricted to 30 days and 20 days Casual Leave per year.
- During service, Risk/ Hardship allowances entitled.
- Agniveers rejected and retained will wear a distinctive Badge of Honour.
- No basic weapons/ tactics courses/ TD other than unit cadres permitted.
- 46,000 personnel to be recruited yearly.
- Salary in Rs 30000-40000 per month pay band.
- ‘Sewa Nidhi’ of Rs 12 lakh (savings plus matching government contribution) to demobbed tax free.
- No pension benefits/ membership of welfare/ canteen/ medical treatment/ education schemes for demobbed.
- Insurance for Rs 48 lakh for service duration.
- One time death/ disability payment applicable to Agniveers at current rates.
- 25 per cent of intake will be offered permanent commission for 15 years. No benefit/ seniority will be carried forward from the four year tour.
- For the remainder 75 per cent demobbed Agniveers reservation for lateral employment in Assam Rifles/ CPO/ PMF/ central government jobs/ PSUs being worked out.
- Government approved equivalence-to-Std-12 certificate will be given to demobbed candidates.
- Civil industry requested to offer demobbed Agniveers suitable employment.
The Heart of the Matter
One is reminded of Robert Frost’s famous if ambiguous poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ where the protagonist, forced to make a choice between divergent roads, takes the plunge and chooses ‘the one lesser travelled by’. A road is necessarily man-made. It is an assertion of will, not accommodation. By comparison, a path (Agnipath) differs from a road in that it obeys the natural contours and goes around the obstacles that it meets. The ambiguity lies in the fact that though the choice has been made and is under implementation, where this life-altering decision will take us—so far as the armed forces operational effectiveness is concerned—is impossible to predict. This is particularly applicable to the army being most affected.
It is as hard to call the intake of 46,000 Agniveers ‘experimental’ as informed comments suggest. That’s because the task of unifying soldiery divided between trained/ educated jawans for whom soldiering is a way of life and Agniveer ‘volunteer conscripts’ will be painful. The effort could degrade the operational capability of one of the world’s finest combat forces.
An umbilical cord connects a soldier to what is loosely termed ‘Training’ and ‘Education’. Training is a function of spontaneous response to stimuli as illustrated in Pavlov’s ‘conditioned response’ experiments. A soldier subscribes to soldiering as a ‘way of life’ only after he is ‘educated’. This demands a thinking response which will vary with the challenges one faces in war. Thinking responses emerge from Army ethos and ethics which are values, belief sets, attitudes and principles. These, if followed bond/ bind soldiery together in life and in death. The very nature of war demands a lethal mix of trained-and-educated soldiery. Clausewitz in his study ‘On War’ says that war is uncertain. Plans collapse with the first bullet. Chaos, the power of personality, luck, chance, weather, climate, visibility, ‘friction’ (between self, with peers, subordinates, seniors, with orders, with health, injury), fear, fearlessness, shared dangers all affect battle outcomes. These are functions of education and need fully trained soldiers to apply corrections to their training with thinking responses and win.
On the CI grid, faced with impending operations, the Officer/ JCO/ NCO doing encounter/ ambush planning mustn’t be made to choose between ‘asli’ and ‘mehman’ faujis to execute them. Since ‘How’s the Josh?’ epithets only happen in reel life, the leader focuses on capability, military ‘sense’ to adapt, trust, faith, guts, grit, resilience and, most importantly winning without losing lives. Tank crews are dual-trade specialists. A tank driver on the LAC should get into gunner/ operator mode under fire unhesitatingly and deliver. An NCO must be able to command a tank or troop in crisis. He must be trained and educated to do so.
The Agnipath scheme regretfully only caters for truncated training. It excludes skilling through weapon/ tactical courses. Limited time availability forecloses the benefits of education as a way of life for Agniveers. It thus puts a serious question mark on their operational usefulness. ‘Hosh’ is needed to put Agniveer’s ‘Josh’ and ‘Jazba’ to optimal use. This evolves as a function of education needing mentoring/ experiential time.
The ongoing technology-driven Revolution in Military Affairs has imposed demands of younger/ tech-savvy/ modernized/ leaner and meaner force levels. The primary resources needed are money, time and world-class trained and educated forces. To pinpoint areas of improvement and value addition to its ongoing Agnipath/ Agniveer scheme, a 360 degree Blue Ribbon Panel is recommended. It should include serving/ veteran officers including SSRC officers awarded permanent commission or demobbed.