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Chandigarh: The fundamental reason underlying the continuing and widespread violent protests by army aspirants over the Union government’s Agnipath scheme to temporarily recruit personnel below officer rank into the military for four years, is their visceral distrust of the state when it comes to providing promised employment to the demobilised servicemen.
Hundreds of agitated youngsters across several states in India have refused to believe official assurances of successfully re-employing 75% of over 45,000-50,000 ‘Agniveers’ (literally, fire warriors) – who will be discharged every four years – in either the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), state or railway police forces or other attendant security agencies.
They remain equally dismissive of the Union government’s intent to urge public sector banks, insurance companies and other related financial organisations, among others, to absorb, in due course, the discharged Agniveers.
Senior veteran military officers said that for decades the armed forces, particularly the Indian Army, had been demanding ‘lateral entry’ into India’s CAPF for jawans – a majority of whom retire at 37 years – but to no avail. They said successive Indian Army chiefs had periodically mooted proposals on maintaining a youthful army by ‘diverting’ jawans, even before they retired, into the CAPF and replacing them with fresh intakes.
But all such propositions, these veterans said, remained stillborn. They also warned that any attempt to initiate any changes, at present, would trigger a rash of litigation which, in India’s notoriously sluggish judicial system, could take years to resolve. Consequently, tens of thousands of potentially jobless Agniveers could end up jobless with accompanying risks.
Besides, for its part, the home ministry, even in recent years, had steadfastly maintained that the terms and type of service in the CAPF differed widely from that of the Indian Army, and that the two could not operationally and administratively collate. It also backed up this logic with the even more forceful argument that ‘fauji culture’ contrasted adversely with the CAPF ethos, and hence inducting army personnel into the latter, was simply ‘unworkable’.
It is difficult to classify annual CAPF hirings, but the intake of 54,000 jawans into several paramilitary forces was approved by the home ministry in July 2018. The CAPF inducts recruits aged between 18 and 23 years, with the upper age limit for Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe candidates relaxed by five years, and those of Other Backward Caste (OBC) aspirants eased by three years. All CAPF personnel superannuate at the age of 60.
However, for many anti-Agnipath demonstrators, the abiding image of scores of ex-servicemen in their village, small town or city, re-employed as lowly security guards, doormen or contractual auto-rickshaw operators, endured, as they set about rioting, burning vehicles and clashing with the police to express their displeasure with the new scheme.
Such demoralising visualisation also fuelled their hostility towards the government’s decades-long yet feeble efforts to re-settle ex-servicemen, and one with which a wide cross-section of serving and veteran military officers privately concurred.
Created in late 2004, the eponymous Department of Ex-servicemen Welfare (DEWS) is one of the five departments comprising the Ministry of Defence, and according to its website, it is tasked with overseeing matters related to veterans pension, medical benefits, assorted welfare schemes, and above all, their re-settlement.
But many agitated youngsters told news reporters that DEWS had done little or nothing to resettle ex-servicemen, and that it was only their monthly pensions which had helped them maintain some modicum of dignity in their essentially menial jobs. Some demonstrators in Rajasthan and Haryana regretted that Agniveers would not even have that fallback financial option to salvage their moustaches, which across India were culturally associated with respect, privilege, honour and above all, machismo. Retired jawans at present receive an average monthly pension of Rs 30,000, alongside subsidised commissary facilities and access to free medical assistance, all of which amount to a considerable pecuniary package.
“Even though senior officials like home minister Amit Shah had promised absorption of potential Agniveers into the CAPF, these remained merely pledges, with no designated quotas or allocations yet specified,” said an 18-year old youngster in Punjab who had long aspired to join the army, but is now discouraged by the Agnipath plan and the consequent obstacles of re-employment. “The BJP government’s credibility on the job front has been highly questionable, as it had failed in living up to its promise of annually providing employment to over two crore people,” he said, declining to be named.
Furthermore, senior Indian Army officers pointed out that the government and all public sector companies had collectively cut back drastically on fresh recruitment, further depressing employment prospects for Agniveers.
Alongside, private sector corporations too, despite government fiats and veiled threats to provide jobs, had remained impervious to officialdoms’ employment schemes. In February, for instance, the Punjab and Haryana high court had granted an interim stay on a Haryana government statute demanding 75% reservation in private sector jobs for locals, which many analysts consider an ominous indicator of things to come.
The Agnipath scheme which, September onwards, will permanently replace decades-old military enlistment practices, involves annually recruiting over 40,000 Agniveers aged between 17.5 and 21 years for all three services for a four-year tour of duty (ToD).
Thereafter, all Agniveers would be discharged, but a quarter of them would be re-inducted soon after to complete 15 additional years of ‘colour service’ in the army, and its equivalent in the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy, rendering them eligible for pension and related settlements. The remaining 75% of Agniveers would be discharged, each receiving Rs 11.71 lakh as a severance package, to which they would have contributed 30% whilst in service.
From thereon, tens of thousands of Agniveers would be at the mercy of the apathetic DEWS for re-employment.
“Each Agniveer could end up enduring a triple whammy of tension and insecurity,” said defence analyst Major General A.P. Singh (retired). Initially, he would face anxiety in anticipation of being selected, four years hence in expectation of being absorbed for permanent service and eventually, in the event of not making it, confront enhanced unease over re-employment, he said. “Disappointment at either stage would impact the Agniveer’s dignity in society and eventually even his marriage prospects for starters,” Major General Singh added.
A troublesome future awaits if promised re-employment does not materialise for some, once discharged. “With limited avenues for employment, the possibility of weapon and combat-trained Agniveers resorting to criminal activity cannot be ruled out,” warned a youngster from Rohtak in Haryana where anti-Agnipath protests on Thursday, June 16 were amongst the severest, with police vehicles and buses set on fire and scores of people injured in the day-long violence.
Tractors full of protesters arrive outside the BJP office in Rohtak, Haryana to join the protest called by farmers union leader Gurnam Singh Charuni
Protest despite Section 144 being imposed in Rohtak@ndtv pic.twitter.com/ZXD3WVJd9Y
— Sukirti Dwivedi (@SukirtiDwivedi) June 17, 2022
Unemployment for men in their 20s with military training, who have been accustomed to a reasonable monthly salary for four years, would be ‘nightmarish’ in a country rife with militancy, caste tensions, land mafias and gang wars, the protester added.
Meanwhile, in the light of the widespread protests, a clutch of senior military officers conceded that the entire scheme had not been ‘cogently’ evaluated or rationally considered, despite governmental claims to the contrary. They said a ‘pilot project’ could have been initiated, instead of abruptly and arbitrarily altering the services’ time-tested recruitment procedures, which were intrinsically opposed by a large number of service officers who were either too intimidated by the politicians to openly voice their concerns, or eager to curry favour with them for carrier advancement.
It is widely believed in military circles that the government is unlikely to either back down or majorly alter Agnipath – protests notwithstanding – convinced, that this too will pass.