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Even though the initial furious din over the contentious Agnipath scheme to recruit other ranks (ORs) into India’s military has subsided and the registration of Agniveers into the Indian Air Force (IAF) formally launched, misgivings endure amongst a wide cross-section of service officers over the efficacy of projects.
Reservations over Agnipath are especially widespread amongst veterans who continued to voice strong objections to the proposed part-time soldier recruitment scheme on the grounds that it is “unworkable” and would depreciate the military’s operational competence.
Consequently, at the government’s behest, serving three-star commanders have been tasked 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.
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 services’ effort, prompted by the government, is to stimulate a wider consensus over Agnipath, about which even serving officers are skeptical, but unable to voice their reservations or disagreements,” says a former three-star IAF officer.
Besides, these ‘interactive meetings’ with veterans, he remonstrated such meetings should really have taken place in the months leading up to Agnipath’s announcement and holding them now only make the defence establishment appear to be on the defensive. Moreover, since they had not occurred earlier, it only reinforces their argument that the Agnipath venture was poorly “war-gamed” before being announced on June 14, he adds.
According to Lieutenant General Anil Puri, acting head of the newly created Department of Military Affairs (DMA) that has formulated Agnipath, the scheme was thrashed out over two years in 254 meetings lasting 750 hours, which involved officials from the ministry of defence (MoD), the three services and assorted government departments.
Obviously, consulting with either the prospective Agniveer stakeholders themselves or veterans was an option the DMA simply did not consider, till now. Not doing so has triggered violent protests and arson by potential recruits – mostly across northern and eastern India – and harsh and unremitting criticism by respected veterans, including some former service chiefs, which continues apace on television news channels and social media platforms and in newspapers.
‘Inherent capability drawbacks’
“No wise commanding officer will use these Agniveers for real soldiering, when it is a matter of life and death,” declares former Brigadier Advitya Madan categorically. “No operationally committed unit can sustain a high wastage rate of 75%, which will be a regular feature under the Agnipath scheme, and yet maintain high professional standards,” says the former Punjab Regiment officer, who has also served with the United Nations, recently in Hindustan Times.
He goes a step further to irreverently reinforce this point by relating an Agniveer-associated joke, which he claims, is “doing the rounds” in the Indian Army circles. It involved a company commander, in the rank of major, who after receiving intelligence regarding militants hiding in a village, asked one of his senior junior commissioned officers (JCOs) to assemble a quick reaction team (QRT) of soldiers to tackle the insurgents.
Weary of receiving such daily inputs, the grizzled JCO responded: “Saheb, is this information a hard intel input, or is it a run-of-the-mill input? If it is hard intel,” he said, “I will get a team of permanent soldiers ready. Or else, I could give you a pack of Agniveers.”
This apocryphal anecdote only reinforces the lack of confidence many veterans believe will suffuse the part-time Agniveers’ eventual unit deployments, after receiving merely six months of the instruction following their recruitment.
“It is anticipated that few, if any, units will entrust even basic tasks like KOTE or armoury duty to Agniveers, as these need handling by more experienced jawans with two or three years of training and supervision,” says defence analyst Major General Amrit Pal Singh (retired).
Similar doubts, he cautions, would persist in the Agniveers’ handling of varied ammunition and ordnance in infantry, armoured and artillery battalions and regiments, receiving and issuing weapons and managing assorted classified stores like radio sets, night vision devices, fuel and rations. Additionally, regular soldiers would also feel reluctant to entrust Agniveers with undertaking rudimentary repairs to tank and infantry combat vehicle engines or to field gun trails, he adds.
“Few, if any, in most regiments will be willing to invest in Agniveers for fear of something going wrong in the army’s rigidly enforced error-free milieu,” the former armoured corps officer states.
“All and any inquiries launched into slip-ups would be jeopardised,” he adds, “By 75% of Agniveers being demobilised with little or no accountability in addition to generating additional administrative and operational concerns for the army to resolve and to formulate new standing operational procedures.”
Considering these obvious inherent capability drawbacks, other veterans too anticipate the bulk of Agniveers being employed on menial tasks like sentry duty, amongst others, and possibly even assigned as orderlies – or ‘sahayaks’ and ‘buddies’– to sustain army officers in a feudal practice inherited from the forces British Colonial antecedents.
“For India to deploy part-time soldiers is not a good move, as it continually faces the prospect of a two-front war with collusive allies Pakistan and China, and an additional half-front internally from diverse militant groups,” says a former two-star officer, who was posted on both disputed borders and closely involved in counter-insurgency operations. “It could eventually be a burden than an asset.”
Besides, of the initial 48 months that each Agniveer would serve, six months would be taken up by training, four months in leave, a month for ‘young soldier’s cadre’ or orientation upon joining his unit, and yet another month in acclimatising, for deployment to high altitudes.
And if, as Brigadier Madan points out, any Agniveer displays potential as a sportsman, he would be entitled to another 30 days per year – or some four months – to indulge and sustain his talent for his unit. This estimated timetable totalled up to an approximate aggregate of 16 months, leaving the Agniveer a balance of just 32 months of active service. However, in the absence of hard data by the DMA, these statistics remain informed estimates, and the eventual time an Agniveer eventually served, could well be higher, but not significantly so.
Furthermore, Brigadier Madan also forewarns that commanding officers would need to exercise caution in not entrusting or exposing Agniveers with or to sensitive operational data, which could find its way into the ‘public domain’ after their demobilisation four years later.
In yet another drawback, over which other veterans and analysts too voice concern, this one-star officer says that after their discharge Agniveers would be “vulnerable to inimical elements like Naxalites, insurgents, militants, anti-social elements and gangsters, all of who may enlist them into their cadres to fulfill their nefarious designs”.
The Indian Army will receive the bulk of Agniveer, who by 2030-32 will comprise around half of the 12-odd lakh strong force, according to Army vice chief of staff, Lt Gen B.S. Raju. He recently told the Times of India that after inducting 40,000 Agniveers in 2022, their annual intake into the Indian Army would steadily increase to 1,20,000 by 2029-30. These numbers would be further augmented to 160,000 Agniveers by 2032-33, all recruited via the Agnipath scheme which will replace the decades-old enlistment procedure.
The IAF and the Indian Navy, for their part, are expected to annually recruit some 3,000 Agniveer’s each this year, with their numbers rising proportionately in the future, based upon their requirements.
Insignias, salary and other problems
Meanwhile, the fine print of the Agnipath plan that was publicised by the IAF on June 19 as the new “HR (human resource) management scheme for India’s armed forces” includes at least two ‘aviodable aberrations’ earmarked by veterans. The first palpable anomaly, they say, is the ‘distinctive insignia’ Agniveers would wear on their uniform, as officially stated, during their initial four-year service tenure.
However, for now, it remains unclear whether this insignia would or not extend to the 25% of Agniveers who would eventually be absorbed into the military to serve out an additional 15 years of ‘colour service’ in the Indian Army and their equivalent tenures in the navy and air force.
“One service and two uniform insignias are unheard of in military circles,” says a former one-star Indian Navy officer. Such steps create unnecessary divisions within a cohesive unit and are aviodable, he adds.
The second anomaly of salary could be more sensitive.
According to the Agnipath notification, Agniveers will, on paper receive a monthly remuneration of Rs 30,000 upon joining, whilst jawans in the army, according to the Seventh Pay Commission pay scales were in a Rs 5,200-Rs 20,2000 pay band. And though 30% of the Agniveers’ pay would be deducted each month as his mandatory contribution towards his eventual severance package of Rs 11.71 lakhs four years later, more or less equating it to the jawan’s top-end pay, it would still be notionally higher.
Besides, in his final and fourth year of service, the Agniveers’ salary is expected to increase to Rs 40,000, which after the 30% deduction would become Rs 28,000 or the near equivalent of a serving havildar’s pay.
“It takes a jawan an average of 8-10 years to become a havildar, and for an Agniveer to be in the same pay grade as him could foster resentment, even though the former’s employment was pensionable,” says a retired Indian Army officer. These are issues that could foster resentment and compromise unit cohesion and need rectification or tweaking, he adds.
Meanwhile, the IAF became the first of India’s three services to formally launch its two-phase Agnipath recruitment for some 3,000 Agniveers on June 24, which will conclude by the year-end, which is when the force’s first course will commence its training.
IAF officials tweeted on June 26 that they had received 56,960 online Agniveer applications which, no doubt, would have increased since then, and would rise even further when registrations closed on July 5. These will be followed by an online examination by the end of that month and after the physical and medical evaluations, the entire selection procedure is scheduled for completion by December. Immediately thereupon first IAF Agniveer six-month instruction course would commence.
The Indian Army and Indian Navy are expected to begin their Agniveer registrations in July and complete the entire analogous selection process also by the year-end. The chief of Army Staff General Manoj Pande had recently declared that the first lot of Agniveers would begin their training in December and commence active service by mid-2023.