Pan-India protests erupt over Agnipath recruitment scheme
Many states in India witnessed widespread protests and violence against the two days ago announced new recruitment scheme – Agnipath – for Army, Navy, and Air Force. Trains were set afire and blocked, and public vehicles were attacked as protests over ‘Agnipath’ swept across several places in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Haryana on Thursday amid partisan political voices in favour and against the new recruitment scheme for the defence forces.
Bihar bore the brunt of the violence with trains set ablaze, window panes of buses smashed, and passersby, including a ruling BJP MLA, pelted with stones on Thursday, the second day of the protest against the scheme which envisages a short four-year term for soldiers in the three Armed Forces entailing no gratuity or pension upon retirement. Police fired teargas shells and used batons to break up protests by angry youngsters who blocked railway tracks, threw burning tyres on roads, and performed push-ups and other drills on the streets against the new recruitment policy. Railway property was vandalized and protesters set fire to stationary carriages at Bhabhua and Chhapra stations and smashed window panes of coaches at many places.
Over 34 trains were cancelled and eight more partially cancelled due to the protests and delays in the Railway Recruitment Board (RRB) exams, railway sources said in New Delhi. They said 72 trains were also running late due to the agitation. At Nangloi in Delhi, protesters blocked the railway track and raised slogans against the scheme.
As violent protests raged in multiple states, the government issued a clarification, asserting that the new model will not only bring in fresh capabilities to the Armed Forces but also open up avenues for youth in the private sector and help them become entrepreneurs with the aid of the severance package they will be entitled to on retirement. Agnipath’s scheme of selecting youngsters at the age of 17 to 21 for four years of service in the Forces was announced on Tuesday.
Apart from issuing a ‘Myth vs Facts‘ document to address the concerns raised about the scheme, the government’s information dissemination arm issued a series of social media posts in its support. “The scheme will bring in new dynamism to the armed forces. It will help the Forces bring in new capabilities and take advantage of the technical skills and fresh thinking of the youths… It will allow the youths to serve the nation,” the Press Information Bureau said in a Facebook post.
Referring to the financial package of around Rs.11.71 lakh to be given to each of the recruits at the end of the four-year tenure from the ‘Seva Nidhi Package‘, it said it will provide financial independence to the youth and even help them venture into entrepreneurship. On the criticism that the short tenure of ‘Agniveers’, the defence personnel recruited under the new system, will harm the effectiveness of the Armed Forces, government sources said such systems exist in several countries, and the one introduced in India is already “tested out and considered best practice for an agile army”.
The numbers of ‘Agniveers’ to be recruited in the first year would only make up three percent of the Armed Forces, they said, adding their performance will be tested before re-induction into the army after four years. “Hence Army will get tested and tried personnel for supervisory ranks,” they said.
Political parties, predictably, reacted along partisan lines with the Opposition stepping up its attack on the government and demanding that the scheme be scrapped. “No rank, no pension, no direct recruitment for 2 years, no stable future after four years, no respect shown by the government for the army,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said in a tweet in Hindi. “Listen to the voice of unemployed youths of the country, don’t take ‘Agnipareeksha’ of their patience by making them walk on ‘Agnipath’, Mr. Prime Minister,” the former Congress chief said.
The Left parties demanded that the scheme be withdrawn and taken up in Parliament for discussion, alleging that it does a “disservice” to India’s national interests. “The Polit Bureau of the CPI(M) strongly disapproves of the ‘Agnipath’ scheme that does a disservice to India’s national interests. Professional armed forces cannot be raised by recruiting ‘soldiers on contract’ for a period of four years. This scheme, to save pension money, severely compromises the quality and efficiency of our professional Armed Forces,” CPIM general secretary Sitaram Yechury said in a tweet.
CPI general secretary D Raja tweeted, “Finding jobs has become literally a ‘Path of Fire’ under Modi. Govt is trying to hoodwink the restive youth by Agnipath Scheme. It’ll make our army contract-based & jeopardize the future of our youth. It should be withdrawn immediately! Youth deserve proper, secure jobs!” Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, BSP leader Mayawati and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also voiced displeasure over the scheme which the government insists is “transformative”.
However, former Punjab Chief Minister and BJP ally Captain Amarinder Singh (who was Captain in Indian Army) struck a note of caution and suggested a rethink on the Agnipath scheme. In a statement, he wondered why the government needed to make such “radical changes” in the recruitment policy, which has been working “so well for the country for so many years”. “Hiring soldiers for four years, with effective service of three years, is not at all militarily a good idea,” said Singh.
[with PTI inputs]
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