More Guns and Boots: The Social Costs of Agnipath

With the rollout of the scheme, the gendered implications of further militarisation of society and the consequences of greater familiarity with the use and proliferation of small arms are conveniently being ignored.

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Attention has been riveted on the rage on the streets and fierce ‘insider’ debates on the operational and budgetary logic of the new short term recruitment scheme to rejuvenate the military – Agnipath.

Marginalised are civilian anxieties about the social costs of ever larger sections of youth getting imbued with the ideology of militarism, comprising of an aggressive masculinity, intensified nationalism and the normalisation of the use of coercive force for dispute settlement.

Ignored, too, are the gendered implications of the further militarisation of society and the consequences, public and private, of the greater familiarity with the use and proliferation of small arms. 

Contained within the disciplinary framework of the status and dignity of a military identity, such acculturation is a source of strength and security. But what will be the situation of the Agniveers, the 34,500 of the 46,000 youths who every year, after four years of service, will be disgorged back into civilian society, stripped off their military identity, status and perks, insecure and unemployed?

Decommissioned with ‘attitude’ and no doubt with valued traits of leadership, discipline and team spirit associated with the military way of life, what qualifications will these 21 to 25 year olds have in the struggle for jobs and security in a hostile labour market? Will they use a part of the Rs 11.7 lakh exit package to invest in higher education? Educationists such as Sukanta Chaudhuri are worried about ill-conceived schemes of customised courses bridging deficits in generalised education. What recognition will these dubious certificates and degrees have? Some will fall back on the uncertainties and obscurity of running small businesses.  

People block the Jalandhar-Delhi National Highway to protest against Centre’s ‘Agnipath’ scheme, in Jalandhar, June 18, 2022. Photo: PTI

Lt. Gen. Vinod Bhatia, a respected voice in military society has warned that, “75% of Agniveers, who will not be selected for regular services in the armed forces, will go back to the villages rejected, dejected and frustrated. The reservations the government is announcing now will only help about 20% of them”. 

Even this reservation is likely to be notional, as has been the frustrating experience of ex-servicemen when confronting the ‘horizontal’ interpretation of the quota system, explained Maj. Gen. Jagatbir Singh to the writer. Every year 60,000 skilled ex-servicemen retire of which about 45 % are within the age group of 35-40 years and back in the labour market. Less than a half are likely to secure positions in paramilitary and police forces, while others find placement in diminished positions of security guards in public and private establishments. 

Younger Agniveers, especially those with combat exposure could find lucrative openings as mercenary soldiers or in the contract armies of foreign private security service contractors as Rahul Bedi in The Wire alerted, but more likely, they would exploit their soldierly skills by spawning or bolstering local militias and armed gangs.

For instance, in the conflict troubled Northeast the default practice of imperfect decommissioning of armed actors in peace processes, and the proliferation of small arms has created a nexus between insecure political elites and local militias, which is used to manipulate political institutions and exploit opportunities for extortion.  

There are good reasons why in peace settlements, the disarming, demilitarising and reintegration of state and non-state militarised youth is vitally important, and why the management of veterans in conscript armies is a critical issue.

Moreover, militarised societies experience the normalisation of the presence and use of small arms in public and private spaces.  According to figures available for India at gunpolicy.org, the total number of guns held by civilians in 2017 was over 71 million of which less than 10 million were registered.  

Already, militarist ideological discourses and physical training, coupled with the spread of arms has resulted in widespread prevalence of violence in Indian politics and ominously its legitimation as a form of politics. Moreover, popular anger, outrage and mob violence have become integral features of everyday politics.

Youngsters block railway tracks in protest against the Centre’s Agnipath scheme, in Dhanbad, Friday, June 17, 2022. Photo: PTI

Political commentator Zoya Hasan has remarked about vigilantes feeling they are exacting Bollywood style justice beyond the procedures of law, with crowds of locals triumphantly watching the gruesome spectacle captured by videos that subsequently go viral. 

Sociologists such as Michael Kimmel in analysing the participation of young men in far right political violence have drawn attention to the need to reclaim manhood and restore a sense of masculine entitlement. Feminist analyses of the public performance of mob violence in communal episodes have emphasised the gendered role of aggrieved entitlement which makes men thwarted by political and economic change feel frustrated and emasculated. Aggressive participation in collective violence is a way of reclaiming hegemonic masculinity and male bonding embedded in the construction of a soldier’s identity. Such analyses alludes to the likely social risk that General Bhatia’s “rejected, dejected and frustrated” Agniveers could seek to reclaim the status and dignity of their lost masculine military identity and be drawn to violent political movements and mob vigilante action. 

Militarism privileges a violent form of masculinity and its corollary, increased gender inequality. Increasingly research has shown a correlation between gender inequality and violence prone societies. Also, the militarisation of societies has consequences for increasing rates of domestic violence. 

Surely, the gendered implications of the further militarisation of society should be a factor of some concern in this still evolving debate over Agnipath, along with the altogether elided concern of the democratic implications of the spread of militarist ideologies that normalise the use of coercive force against citizens in the name of security measures.  

Rita Manchanda is a scholar and activist. She can be reached at ritamanchanda2003@yahoo.co.in.