Arshad Shaikh analyses the reasons for the sudden eruption of nationwide violent protests against the Agnipath Yojana 2022, a recently announced short-term recruitment scheme for the Indian Armed Forces. The controversial scheme is dividing experts on its pros and cons with some critics even going so far as to allege that it will lead to the militarisation of society with disastrous consequences for our social fabric. Agnipath is a major reform of the armed forces but is causing more concern than assurance. Will it be rolled back by the government like the farm laws? Only time will tell.
India has seen major agitations in the recent past. 2019-20 saw the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests popularly known as the Shaheen Baugh protests followed by the long- drawn but successful farmers’ protests. Earlier this year, students agitated over the RRB-NTPC exam. The current turmoil that has engulfed large parts of North India is because of a new ‘Tour of Duty’ (TOD) recruitment scheme for the Indian Armed Forces called the Agnipath Yojana 2022. Those recruited under this scheme will be known as Agniveers.
The process of recruitment will start within 90 days and induct about 46,000 youngsters. Currently, recruitment is on a Permanent Commission basis, which means a career in the Armed Forces until retirement. The Army also runs a ten-year service under the Short Service Commission with an option for a four-year extension. However, in a stark departure from the above, under the new Agnipath Yojana, boys and girls between 17.5 and 21 years shall be recruited only for a period of four years. This contractual engagement shall be without any pension and other regular benefits. After four years, only 25% shall be absorbed in regular service based on merit and organisational requirement.
The sudden launch of the scheme incensed the youth, especially those who aspired to get jobs in the government sector and the armed forces. They felt betrayed by the new scheme. Thousands of such armed forces aspirants registered violent protests against the scheme by damaging public properties, uprooting railway tracks, burning trains and buses, blocking roads and pelting stones. Many offices of the ruling party were ransacked and burnt.
The violent protests were seen in the states of Bihar, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. The government is trying to assure the retired Agniveers shall receive preference in para-military services and the state police and security services. The government has even relaxed the upper age limit to 23 years and announced a 10% reservation in jobs at the Ministry of Defence. However, the protests continue unabated.
The bitter truth is that despite high GDP growth, India has been reeling under massive unemployment for many years. The Prime Minister had promised to deliver two crore jobs a year but it did not materialise. With the economy on a downward spiral since demonetisation and the Covid-19 pandemic, the Agnipath Scheme seemed to rub salt into the wounds of the unemployed and ignited a violent response.
We need to understand the background of the scheme and look at how this will reform the armed forces. Are the apprehensions being expressed by some regarding the scheme correct? And, will the scheme be rolled back as demanded by the protestors and the Opposition?
THE GENESIS OF THE SCHEME
According to publicly available data, the Indian Army (active and reserve) is more than 20 lakh strong. The Indian Navy is little more than a lakh while the Air Force has close to three lakh personnel. We are only second to China in terms of having the largest active military. China has over 2 million while we have around 1.4 million. However, there is consensus among defence experts all over the world that large armies do not win small wars. We need lean and agile armies that are able to move fast and defeat the enemy quickly. Moreover, a major portion of the defence budget for any country (in the case of India, it is more than half) goes into the salaries and pensions of its defence personnel. So reducing the size of the armed forces will save a lot of money for any government.
Defence policymakers are also influenced by futurists philosophers who predict that we are entering a phase where there will be “fifth-generation warfare” (5GW) marked by non-kinetic military action. This will be conducted via social engineering, misinformation, cyberattacks using emerging technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence) and advanced robotics. This requires a drastic reduction in the military manpower and greater investment in cutting-edge technology.
In May 2016, the then Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar appointed an 11-member committee headed by Lieutenant General D.B. Shekatkar (retired) to suggest ways to enhance the combat capabilities of the armed forces. The report has not yet been made public but in a recent interview to India Today, the former Lt. General revealed, “We have said very clearly in bold letters (in our report) that obesity of numbers does not win wars. The committee had recommended that India should have a lean and slim army, more agile, more effective, more battle-oriented army. For that you should be able to reduce the number of people working in the armed forces.”
APPREHENSIONS AND CRITICISM
A valid criticism of the scheme is that it is a major departure from the idea of a welfare state. Army jawans have now been reduced to the status of contractual labour that will be hired, tired and then fired. Some point out the recent failure of the Russian army in Ukraine. Those fighting the war for Russia are mostly conscripts and this could very well happen in India too if the Agnipath is implemented. Another hard-hitting reality is that no matter how lean, or trim your army might be relying on AI, and the latest technologies cannot deliver victory unless you have boots on the ground. The saga of the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan proves this assertion.
There are also concerns being voiced that the entire scheme is designed to create a class of soldiers who will be essentially working in private armies that will be created to provide security for the corporate sector both in India and abroad. Another major apprehension voiced by critics of the Agnipath scheme is that it will lead to the militarisation of society. This has been the cherished dream of the founding fathers of the Hindutva ideology that guides those in the highest echelons of power.
Since a majority of the Agniveers (75%) will be retrenched, they will return to their villages fully trained in combat and the use of advanced weaponry. Given the state of our polity and the relentless pursuit of communal and casteist politics, there is every possibility that the retired Agniveers will be officially deployed to train people in the use of weapons and arms to prepare them to attack the minorities and the oppressed classes in the name of tackling internal security threats.
As pointed out by Sushant Singh in his latest article for Al Jazeera, “Research shows that the most violent ethnic cleansing occurred when members of the majority community gained combat experience as soldiers while the minority community was unorganised. Even ethnic cleansing in places such as former Yugoslavia and Rwanda depended on the availability and skills of the specialists in violence, particularly in environments where the state’s coercive power had been weakened. How different could it be in India’s case?” Will the government agree to roll back the Agnipath Yojana? It might if it stops looking at defence-related policymaking solely through the prism of cost-reduction and hi-tech-warfare.