Roll Back Agnipath

  • Capt. Praveen Davar

“Recently, I had the privilege of meeting a group of young men and women who had been selected for service with the Indian Armed Forces but were cruelly denied the opportunity to serve their country. They told me that between 2019 and 2022, almost two lakh young men and women were informed that they had been accepted into the three ‘Armed Services’: the Indian Army, the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force. These young men and women had struggled against all odds to pass grueling mental and physical tests and a written exam. Until May 31, 2022, they believed that they had fulfilled their dreams and were awaiting only on their joining letters. On that day, their dreams were shattered by the Government of India’s decision to end this recruitment process and replace it with the Agnipath Scheme.”

The above is an excerpt from a letter dated February26, 2024, (inset) written by Congress President, Shri Mallikarjun Kharge to the President of India, Smt. Droupadi Murmu. A week later, on March 3, Congress leader Shri Rahul Gandhi addressing a meeting of the affected youth and ex-servicemen at Gwalior emphatically stated that if INDIA Alliance comes to power, the ‘Agnipath Scheme’ would be withdrawn. Earlier, the former INC President had an interactive session with the youth and ex-servicemen of Madhya Pradesh. In the meeting arranged by the Chairman of the MPCC Ex-Servicemen Maj. General (retd.) Shyam Srivastava, participants explained the drawbacks of the ‘Agnipath Scheme’ and problems related to the welfare of Ex-Servicemen, including OROP and lessening of canteen, medical and other facilities.

The Modi government announced the shortsighted and illogical ‘Agnipath Scheme’ on June 14, 2022. Soon afterwards I tweeted: 'It is shocking the Agnipath scheme has been launched despite strong reservations by the military veterans and defence experts. Obviously the Modi govt. has some hidden agenda that will play havoc with the elan, regimental pride and secular ethos of the Army.' A few days later a poster with the caption "Life of Agniveer after 4 years of contract" went viral on the social media. It depicted ex-Agniveers doing physical training wearing khaki shorts of the RSS that was enough to draw the ire of not only military veterans, but also historians and many sections of the intelligentsia. I tweeted again: 'This is one of the primary reasons for the stiff resistance to the ill-conceived ‘Agnipath Scheme’. Will the Modi govt. give the assurance that the discharged Agniveers will not be taken in RSS or any of its affiliates? Scrap the scheme and offer a secure future.'

Former Finance and Home Minister P. Chidambaram wrote 'the ill-conceived Agnipath scheme must be rolled back and the government must go back to the drawing board.’ His views found an echo in the voice of Col Uday Bhaskar, well-known strategist and columnist, who wrote that the 'institutional rectitude and much cherished apolitical DNA of India fauj may be adversely impacted.’

Two reasons were cited by the government for the introduction of ‘Agnipath’. Firstly, to maintain a young profile of the Forces and secondly, the salaries and pensions had become a huge and rising percentage of Defence budgets. In the February 2022 Budget, the allocation for Defence was Rs. 5.25 lakh crores, of which Rs. 1.2 lakh crores was in pensions. In contrast, the corresponding figures for 2012-2013 were Rs. 2.38 lakh crores and Rs. 39,000 crores. This shows that, like its most policy decisions, the government lacked the vision to foresee the economic consequences of the OROP which in any case has not been fulfilled as per the definition of the OROP accepted by the Parliamentary High Powered Committee.

The country is now paying a heavy price for the RSS dictated policies and avoidable expenditure on projects such as statues, new Parliament building, Central Vista, PMs Memorial, huge convention centres and multi crore advertising budget on PM’s image building.

Since only 25% of Agniveers will be absorbed in the regular Army, Navy and Air Force, what will be the fate of the remaining 75%. Many veterans fear that discharged Agniveers with arms training might fill the ranks of private militias. Some may even fall in the trap of terrorist organisations and foreign intelligence agencies. They could join criminal gangs, insurgency movements and other antinational platforms. Many may land up as security guards in private companies; worse, in the office of political parties. Is that intention of the ruling party in the Centre? According to Lt. General Vijay Oberoi, a former Vice Chief of the Army: "It is now fairly clear that it was a plan to bolster electoral prospects with all trappings of fancy names and slogans." Another senior military veteran wrote: 'Any doubt that Agnipath is not a political movement should be viewed in the context of the offices set up by the BJP, to sponsor youth for Agnipath.' Union Minister for Culture Kishan Reddy stated that 'the military would be training Agniveers to be good drivers, cooks and barbers.' A BJP general secretary declared that his party would give preference to Agniveers for the job of security personnel at BJP offices.

Considering that BJP has now offices in every district (the plan to do so was hastily conceived and executed on the eve of demonetisation to utilize ill-gotten old currency), atleast a few thousand Agniveers may be comfortably absorbed by the ruling party. Many more will be accommodated as security guards in industrial establishments as was announced by Anand Mahindra, a tycoon close to the establishment. But the Mahindra group, only a few years ago had refused to entertain the application of a Navy sailor who had tweeted earlier: "I am still unemployed after 15 years of service. I saved 185 lives in Taj Mumbai including that of Gautam Adani (in 2008) during 26/11. What job are you going to provide me?"

Those business houses, who under government pressure, are promising to employ these retired Agniveers in their establishments are unlikely to offer them pay and perks they would get in military service. There are already thousands of regular army personnel seeking jobs and none of these business tycoons have found any of them worth employment. So, their assurances cannot be relied upon by the Agniveers.

It is political sophistry to say that Agniveers will benefit with a huge sum at the end of four years of service. Given the rate of inflation, and an economy on the downslide, how far will the 11.5 lakh rupees go to feed and clothe them and their families for the rest of their lives? The question also to be asked is if these Agniveers will in those four years put their lives to risk to protect our borders when a future out of the military service holds little for them and their families?

In the above quoted letter to the Rashtrapati, the Congress President, Shri Mallikarjun Kharge also pointed out that the scheme is discriminating among our jawans by creating parallel cadres of soldiers who are expected to work on similar tasks, but with very different emoluments, benefits and prospects. There is also ‘discrimination in death’ as the chart (inset) shows:

As the AICC General Secretary (communications), Shri Jairam Ramesh recently stated that 'as presently designed, the ‘Agnipath Scheme’ is detrimental in all respects and is an anyay (injustice) to our servicemen and to our youth.'

A few months ago, General MM Narvane, the last Chief of Army Staff (COAS) has written in his memoirs that all the three forces were taken by surprise by the new formulation of the scheme. The General has written in his yet to be released book 'Four Stars of Destiny' that 'while the Army was taken by surprise by this turn of events, but for the Navy and Air Force it came like a bolt from the blue.' The former COAS has further written that the government did not accept their suggestion of retaining 75% Agniveers instead of the proposed 25%. It also, after great coaxing, agreed to raise the monthly salary of the Agniveers to Rs. 30,000 from the proposed Rs. 20,000. Ultimately, however, Rs. 9,000 from the soldier's salary is being deducted for an individual's contribution to his final financial package at the end of his four year service. This means the ‘Agniveer’ himself is paying 50% for the amount he will get at the end of his service.

The Modi government must realize that ‘Agniveers’ who leave the Armed Forces after 4 years of non-pensionable service will become national liabilities and not assets as is being claimed. It must therefore withdraw the ill-conceived scheme lock, stock and barrel.

It may be appropriate to conclude by recalling the words of the legendary WWII American General George Patton: ‘The soldier is the army, no army is better than its soldiers.’

(The writer is a former Secretary of both AICC and AICC Ex. Servicemen Dept.)