Centre defends Agnipath scheme as violence, arson engulf multiple states
Trains were set afire and blocked, and public vehicles 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 that has set off a firestorm.
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 baton 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.
In Nawada, the vehicle of BJP MLA Aruna Devi, who was on her way to a court, was attacked by the agitators, leaving five persons, including the legislator, injured.
Railway property was vandalised 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 the national capital, 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 severence package they will be entitled to on retirement.
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 would 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 per cent 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.
The sources said most armies across the world depend on their youth and the new scheme will bring about a right mix of “50 per cent-50 per cent” youth and experience in the supervisory ranks in the long run.
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.
In a tweet in Hindi, Priyanka Gandhi said there are many dreams for the future in the eyes of those preparing for recruitment in the armed forces such as serving the country and their parents.
“What will the new army recruitment scheme give them? After 4 years, no job guarantee, no pension facility = no rank, no pension. @narendramodi ji dont crush the dreams of the youth,” she said.
The Left parties demanded that the scheme be withdrawn and taken up in Parliament for discussion, alleging that it does “disservice” to India’s national interests.
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”.
There was the lone voice of disapproval from the BJP–MP Varun Gandhi– who said the new reform would give rise to more disaffection among the youth.
In a letter to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, he said the young population had shared their questions and doubts with him about the radical changes in the recruitment process which also proposes that 75 per cent of the recruits will retire after four years of service without pension.
However, Union minister and BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Choubey urged the youth protesting against the Agnipath scheme to stop their agitation and keep away from those inciting them, as he asserted that the initiative is in their interest and that of the armed forces and the country.
Choubey, a senior party leader from Bihar, where protests started first on Wednesday, also claimed that some people are using students for their own political gains.
In a statement, he said Prime Minister Narendra Modi always thinks and works for the welfare of the youth and the nation.
“We assure you that this programme is a constructive step to bring in long-term positive results. Lakhs of youngsters will not only benefit from this but nationalistic sentiments within them will also be strengthened,” Choubey said.
Urging youngsters to not get “deceived”, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said the scheme would give a “new dimension” to their life.
“Agneepath Yojana will give a new dimension to your life as well as give a golden base to the future. Dont be deceived. Our Agniveer, determined to serve Mother Bharati, will be an invaluable fund of the nation and @UPGovt will give preference to Agniveers in police and other services, ” tweeted Adityanath in Hindi.
His Uttarakhand counterpart Pushkar Singh Dhami said, “Uttarakhand’s association with the armed forces is well known. The history of the country’s Armed Forces is full of the stories of the valour of soldiers from our state, which is also called sainyabhoomi (the land of soldiers).
Almost every family in Uttarakhand has someone in the armed forces. The Agnipath yojana is a good opportunity for the youth,” he told a press conference. However, former Punjab chief minister and BJP ally Amarinder Singh 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 Amarinder Singh, a former Army captain whose party Punjab Lok Congress is an ally of the BJP in Punjab.