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Why protests against Agnipath scheme for entry in the armed forces don’t make sense?

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Two days after the announcement of the Agnipath scheme, large parts of North India including Bihar, Haryana, UP, Himachal, J and K, Punjab, Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan experienced protests, some peaceful, largely violent. These regions are the main catchment areas for recruitment. The demands of the protestors were two. Firstly, those who had cleared the selection process prior to stopping recruitment desired that their cases proceed as hitherto fore.

The government disagreed with this and stated that they should apply afresh under Agnipath. It also announced an extension of the age limit by two years as a one-time measure for them. This has not satisfied the affected. The second demand was rolling back the scheme as it provided employment on a contractual basis without future security. The government refuses to bend to this aspect and insists it will go ahead with the scheme as announced.

The protestors were provided a voice by the opposition. Chidambaram of the Congress stated, ‘It appears to us that the scheme makes a mockery of training; inducts into the defence forces an ill-trained and ill-motivated soldier and discharges a disappointed and unhappy ex-soldier into society.’ Simultaneously the CPI claimed that the scheme does a disservice to India’s national interests. There were comments that even patriotism was being placed on contract. The sparking of simultaneous protests indicates they were not spontaneous but organized.

Whatever objections the protestors may have, those seeking to don the uniform, despite any provocation, have no right to resort to violence. Peaceful protests to convey their message should have been the norm. Those who become members of the armed forces fraternity join in nation-building and not in national destruction. Protestors must understand that destructive action does not display discipline and patriotism. It displays hooliganism and un-military-like character. As a first, those identified and being at the forefront of protests must be segregated and banned from being considered for the forces. This must be enforced by state governments when police verification is sought.

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Political parties must also avoid motivating youth towards violence, especially where it concerns the armed forces. Simultaneously, the government must push for a healthy debate on the subject as counterviews equal those supporting the scheme. It is well known that the scheme was pushed down without debate and wider views as is the norm in a democracy. The armed forces are part of the government and have limited choice in countering its directions. They are compelled the make the best of a disadvantageous position. They would be able to tweak very limited changes into this hare-brained idea.

The concern of the youth on options available after four years is genuine and must be addressed. These are but natural as they have a life ahead after serving their contractual service. There is a need to comprehend that youth are most vulnerable aged between 17- 21, years — the age at which the armed forces recruit. They must not be exploited. Currently, the intention appears to be to hire, utilize and dump. Finally, after prodding, multiple ministries announced reservations for Agniveers. How effective will it be and the numbers which will be absorbed would be known four years hence.   

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An additional alternative is increasing retention rates in the armed forces from possibly 25 to 50%. The numbers than needed to be reemployed would be manageable in other central services. This would bring additional satisfaction. As numbers inducted increase, the retention rate could be steadily reduced. With the passage of time, the concerns of youth could be resolved, and the scheme accepted.

Course corrections, based on experience in the next few years, could make it more acceptable for the masses. Further, as an incentive, those retained may be permitted to carry their service seniority, rather than recommence from scratch. The intention of Agnipath should be to attract ideal candidates rather than select the best from those who were rejected by other central and state government organizations.

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The government’s claim that youth are desirous of joining the armed forces because of their love for the nation and hence would flock in droves is by itself flawed. In today’s age, individuals initially seek the armed forces as a career and for job security. It is grooming within the system which changes an individual’s outlook from a job seeker to a soldier and creates the motivation to sacrifice life not primarily for the country but for his regiment/ battalion and his buddies in arms. Those protesting today would be vastly different humans once they are put through their basic training and join their units. Expecting people to be nationalistic even before they don the uniform is living in Utopia and can only be the views of a politician, cut from reality.

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Therefore, breaking the existing regimental system because it is a British legacy, not adopted by most countries or limits recruiting districts is looking at the armed forces and national security with blinkers. 75% of the army, the complete navy, and the air force are all-India all-class. Changing the balance by 25% for illogical reasons is being hasty and short-sighted. The battle cry of the regiment carries the soldier towards the last few hundred meters of the objective filled with the desire for success or death. It is this that turns a soldier into a super-human at the most critical juncture in operations.

In case regimentation is interfered with now, the next question which will be raised is why do different regiments wear different accruements? This again is steeped in history and enhances pride in those who do it. For a politician, it means nothing and would also come in for a change. Traditions of the regiments of the armed forces must remain as it is these which develop camaraderie and warrior ethos.

The government needs to be realistic when dealing with the youth. It must comprehend their anxieties and seek to redress them. Change is never easily accepted, especially when change enhances uncertainties. Leadership is addressing concerns resulting from the change. Firing the gun from the shoulders of service chiefs, while those who initiated the scheme hide in the background, displays a lack of confidence in their own hare-brained concept.      

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Maj Gen Harsha Kakar
Maj Gen Harsha Kakar
Maj Gen Harsha Kakar was commissioned into the Regiment of Artillery. In course of his military service spanning over 36 years, he held a variety of appointments in J&K and North East in addition to UN peacekeeping operations in Mozambique. He was head of the department in strategic studies at the College of Defence Management and was the first Indian Army officer to attend the prestigious National Security Studies Course at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.



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