Agnipath: A Frankenstein Monster of Demographic Anxieties and Neoliberal Solutions

As a fauji kid, it is easy to see that the Indian military has problems – but the Agnipath scheme is not a solution to any of them.

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I am an odd creature in some circles. I am a fauji kid who then got an education to become deeply critical of the state, and some would deem me a ‘lefty feminist academic’.

I do not come from a long line of academic intellectuals, but rather a long line of military officers (and am aware of and bear the guilt of all those historic burdens). A lot of my extended family has turned politically right in the recent past and me along with my immediate family further left, given what has happened to the very idea of secular India.

I straddle two worlds – one world where I hang out in gendered parties with my parents, where all uncles sit on one side and aunties on the other side of the room. And the other world is where I cannot imagine a gendered divide in my seminars or gender segregated conversations in intellectual debates or meetings.

And yet, in mid-June 2019 both these different worlds came colliding. My lefty academic and activist’s social media were abuzz with angry narratives that outlined the horrors of the police shooting of a young protesting Muslim man in less than two seconds but no accounting of the Agniveers burning down trains and mass protests by angry young men.

And my (mostly retired and conservative) army uncle and aunty networks (accessed through my parents) were angry at how these young men, the ‘Agniveers’, with so much potential had been turned into protestors by the state.

Both groups of people, pretty much always on the opposite side of most issues, were for different reasons angry at the Indian government for having failed to see the long-term impact of this scheme – on the military (for the conservatives) and on Indian society (for the progressives).

The demographic question

The Agnipath scheme aims to change the face of military recruitment and retention in the Indian army by recruiting young people (both men and women) at below-officer rank on short=term contracts. The scheme arrives after a freeze in recruitment for over two years, with the Bharatiya Janata Party proposing COVID-19 to be a reason. The scheme is also aimed at addressing the shortage of military human resources given the recent freeze.

However, while attempting to address the military concern, the government is also attempting to address the demographic bulge – that our working age population is larger than our dependent population. In fact, India has one of the largest working age populations in the world (and in our own history). Two-thirds of Indians are of working age – and if allowed to be employed in productive (not exploitative) labour, they could help the Indian economy grow dramatically by some accounts.

Historically, this large working population was called the demographic dividend. For example, Japan experienced its largest economic growth when its working age population was larger than its dependent population. But experts viewed this dividend with concern under declining economic conditions, which is currently the case in India.

Also, the inability of the Narendra Modi government to create the promised two crore jobs every year has led to the highest unemployment rate in 45 years, according to 2019 data.

Finally, India also has a declining fertility rate.

Yet, this demographic dividend will likely be squandered in the name of politics.

The current policy deprives young people of stable, long-term employment, and instead offers them four years of contractual labour with a chance of one in four ‘Agniveers’ being moved onto a permanent position at the end of the contract.

The deep competition and resentment this would create in each military battalion will not be ideal for any military force that is expected to be battle-ready. This said, I am more concerned with what this means for Indian society outside the military.

Ripple effects

The ripple effects of this short-term military training for a large swathe of young people will not only affect the military but also our everyday social lives. Three key points matter here:

1. An easy election win for the current BJP led government:

In 2024, this large cadre of young people who have thus far, in 2022, been failed by the promises of jobs and are getting angry at the BJP government will still be employed. They will likely be given fake assurances about jobs in the future because they have been trained as ‘Agniveers’. For young people living in the moment, fed a constant stream of hope, with disillusionment at least three years away, their choices will be quite limited because they will have been given jobs by the current government.

2. Angry young men without jobs in five years:

When these young people trained as soldiers rejoin civil society, with the added competition for jobs outside the army (remember, the number of people joining the workforce is only going to increase until 2044 given our demographic dividend), they will likely face many disillusionments. They will be upset and they will also have been trained to be violent. There is plenty of research that shows that men who return from military training and action are more likely to be violent – both with their intimate partners and also with others.

3. Fodder for the hate machine:

These men will seek out the comradery they have experienced in the military and they will most likely be welcome in hate-mongering organisations with no compunctions about public violence. The Agnipath scheme will thus become a training ground for the next set of foot-soldiers for these groups – with the exception that these men will be more disciplined, better trained and decidedly more dangerous.

Kicking the can

As a fauji bachcha who grew up and moved outside the military, and has continued to pay attention the nature of military forces in different parts of the world, it is easy to see how the Indian military is deeply antiquated and still tethered to their colonial legacies of class hierarchies and gendered biases.

The Indian military has problems – but the Agnipath scheme is not a solution to any of them. Instead, it will create more problems for the military, which then will be passed onto the civil society en masse.

There may or may not be options to stop the Agnipath scheme now but short-term schemes like this can be reversed.

Maybe a new government committed to providing productive and stable jobs for our demographic dividend, protecting gender rights and safeguarding the wellbeing of all Indian citizens can do the work of dismantling this Frankenstein monster of a scheme.

2024 is not far away, and even if we can’t stop ‘Agniveers’ from being recruited, we have to work to convince each ‘Agniveer’ that they need to vote for their and their families’ future – and long term, instead of on a five-year election cycle and on a contractual basis.

Nayantara Sheoran Appleton is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Science in Society at the Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. She is trained a medical anthropologist and a feminist STS scholar. She tweets at @nayantarapple.