Trains were set afire, public and police vehicles attacked and personnel injured as protests over ‘Agnipath’ snowballed and swept across several states on Thursday.
As the violence spiralled, the government raised the upper age limit to 23 years from 21 years for recruitment under the scheme for the year 2022, without making a reference to the turmoil.
”Cognizant of the fact that it has not been possible to undertake the recruitment during the last two years, the government has decided that a one-time waiver shall be granted for the proposed recruitment cycle for 2022,” a defence ministry spokesperson said, adding the upper-age limit for recruitment under Agnipath has been raised to 23 years. As violent protests against the new recruitment scheme Agnipath raged across several states, the government issued a clarification, asserting that the new model will not only bring in new 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 financial package they will get upon retirement. With many states in the grip of violence, partisan political voices emerged in favour and against the new recruitment scheme for the defence forces that has set off a firestorm. From Bihar’s Ara to Haryana’s Palwal, from Agra in Uttar Pradesh to Gwalior and Indore in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, hundreds of young aspirants for jobs in the armed forces took to streets, pouring their anger on public and private property.
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.
”So far we have arrested 125 people in connection with the violence. Two dozen FIRs have been registered. At least 16 police personnel have been injured across the state in clashes with the protesters,” Sanjay Singh, Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order), told PTI.
Protesters torched government vehicles in Palwal, forcing the authorities to impose prohibitory orders and suspend mobile internet services to stop the spread rumours through social media platforms. Altogether 20 young men were rounded up over the violence.
Five government vehicles were set on fire by the protesters while stones were thrown at the residence of the Palwal deputy commissioner.
Protests also took place in Gurugram, Rewari, Charkhi Dadri, Hisar and Rohtak of Haryana.
Violent demonstrations were held in Gwalior and Indore in Madhya Pradesh and Bulandshahr and Ballia districts of Uttar Pradesh. Protests were also held in Jodhpur, Sikar, Jaipur, Nagaur, Ajmer and Jhunjhunu districts of Rajasthan but no violence was reported.
In an apparent attempt to calm the frayed tempers, the government issued 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 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 the tested and tried personnel for supervisory ranks,” they said. The sources said 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, largely, reacted along partisan lines but there were contrarian voices as well.
BJP ally JD(U)’s national president Rajiv Ranjan Singh alias Lalan came out with an impassioned tweet urging the Centre to do an ”avilamb punarvichaar” (a rethink without delay) on the scheme which has ”given rise to fears and anxieties in the minds of a large number of youths in Bihar and other parts of the country”.
Former Punjab chief minister and BJP ally Amarinder Singh also struck a note of caution and suggested a rethink.
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, said.
The Congress hit out the government, saying the new scheme carries multiple risks and subverts the longstanding traditions and ethos of the armed forces, and may turn out to be a case of ”penny wise and security foolish”. Congress leader P Chidambaram said the government should keep the scheme in abeyance and hold wide consultations and then take further action on it.
”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, 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, Union minister and BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Choubey and BJP chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand defended the scheme.