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Agnipath: After the Tour of Duty

A 3-bags full former diplomat quickly defends our external debt of USD 621 billion by citing external debt of other countries. But what would he say about the soaring unemployment which is also consistently tracked by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) – hide behind South Africa’s 29.20% unemployment rate?

Agnipath: After the Tour of Duty
Going by past experience, the CAPF would take in very few Agniveers, that too starting them at the bottom, not counting their 4-year military tenure. (Representational image: PTI)

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch.

Based on media reports, thousands of youth have registered for the Agnipath scheme. This response is partly because regular recruitment was stopped for two years but more because of the raging unemployment; one reason why Agnipath was launched and the prime minister directed 1,00,000 government posts lying vacant to be filled. The World Bank graph of unemployment in India and Bloomberg graph covering our current account deficit provide a dismal picture.

A 3-bags full former diplomat quickly defends our external debt of USD 621 billion by citing external debt of other countries. But what would he say about the soaring unemployment which is also consistently tracked by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) – hide behind South Africa’s 29.20% unemployment rate?

The din over high defence-pension bill is subdued with public exposure that a major portion is attributed to civilian-defence employees, in addition to the exorbitant expenditure on defence-related establishments. The Army for years has called for parallel induction of soldiers into CAPF, which would curtail defence pensions drastically but governments chose to remain deaf. The CAPF also spend huge money on pensions. How about an Agniveer or Shoorveer scheme for them?

According to an estimate, India annually spends over USD100 billion on its lawmakers and political party appointees in terms of pay, pensions, perks and security/Z-security, which will keep escalating periodically; former, sitting MPs’ train travel bill is Rs 62 crore in past 5-years (Rs 2.5 crore in Covid-hit 20-21) and Delhi Government has recently hiked the salaries of lawmakers by 66%. So much for cribbing about defence pensions and the rhetoric of minimum government, maximum governance. Will the Modi Government address this political loot?

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh now sheepishly says money is not the reason for Agnipath – so what is the reason? The younger and fitter Army is not correct because the Army was never lacking in fitness with soldiers perpetually conditioned with physical training and games.  The discipline and ‘desh-bhakti’ bit also is a laugh because these are needed by the politicians (not Armed Forces) who always give priority to votes above the nation.

NSA Ajit Doval talks of requirement of skilled persons even though Agniveers after the 4-year Tour of Duty (ToD) would unlikely find employment compatible with whatever little skills they picked – other than landing up as security guards? Doval also mentions the INA with fervour. But would he explain why no INA member was absorbed into our Armed Forces after 1947.

When PM Modi announced the ‘Skill India’ initiative on July 15, 2015, Rajiv Pratap Rudy,  Minister for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, said under the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikash Yojana (PMKVY), 24 lakh will be skilled “within one year”, the pilot phase of which had already begun. So, by July 2022, PMKVY should have skilled 168 lakh youth – where are they employed and how many are self-employed?

Scores of senior veterans have repeatedly said that it takes 5-7 years to learn required skills of professional soldiering. Then why are we tinkering with the combat effectiveness of the Services, Army in particular at the cutting edge, with some guys professing that conflicts in future will only be contactless? Do we understand what will be the psyche of an Agniveer given a “compressed” basic training capsule and unsure of a job after 4-years at the cutting edge in operations?

To top this, the annual leave authorized to Agniveers is only 30 days compared to 60 days of regulars. Doesn’t this call for policy makers to be posted to Siachen and tell them they can go home for only 30 days every year?

Polarization in the country has risen exponentially with calls to behead members of the other community, especially after the horrific beheading in Udaipur. Pakistan’s ISI and their radical organizations are being blamed but what is new?

Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan says, “Children are being taught in madrasas that punishment for blasphemy is beheading.” Why doesn’t he explain in his 50-year political career from a student leader in 1972, to joining Bhartiya Kranti Party and switching to Congress-Janta Dal-BSP and eventually BJP, what has he done about this issue other than promoting himself? Why has he not championed integration of religion-based educational institutions into the national education system?  

Much before the Udaipur beheading, an ideological zealot wrote on social media that veterans raising questions about Agnipath should be banned because they do not understand the hybrid and asymmetric war raging within the country (sic); ironically he is a mid-ranking veteran himself.

Another veteran wrote in an article that: Agniveers can never fail the country and the society; jihadis, communists (Maoists included) and their supporters are causing political subversion of national security; they (anti-nationals) used a BSF jawan to cause revolt in his organization on pretext of poor food  – Agniveers will discipline security forces, the nation’s problem is not employment but employability; Agnipath is answer to the problem, and Agniveers joining other organizations and enterprises will be national assets.

Is the ToD simply to hand over a skill certificate to Agniveers after 4-year military service and strike them off from the thousands of unemployment figures? Why is Skill India not doing this rather than taxing the Armed Forces with each service spending about Rs 40 lakh on each Agniveer during ToD? The manner in which Agnipath was launched made it evident that it is a political campaign, not military. That is why Doval jumped into the fray to earn more political brownies rather than the vital task of defining a national security strategy for which he was tasked four years back. Where is the Tri-Service Air Defence Command which was to be operational by now.

Any doubts that Agnipath is not a political movement should be viewed in context of the offices set up by the BJP to sponsor youth for Agnipath – similar to BJP-RSS control rooms opened in places BJP candidates are fielded during general elections. Admittedly, there is no opposition and whatever opposition is there is not united but such blatant politicization of the military has serious ramifications for command at all levels in the Army with every internal issue politicized. It is a dangerous precedence which must stop even if the deep state in the government which loathes the Army is overjoyed.  

Rajnath Singh has said that Agnipath will be reviewed every year – something like the promise of yearly revision of OROP. But 46,000 Agniveers inducted annually in Armed Forces and 25% retained after 4-years implies about 34,500 would be going out; 3,45,000 in 10 years. But this number may also go up exponentially with the first lot declared a resounding success with the services nodding their heads in unison, given that it is a political movement launched by the ruling political party.

Going by past experience, the CAPF would take in very few Agniveers, that too starting them at the bottom, not counting their 4-year military tenure. Some may be employed by the corporate – as security guards? Few may go for self-employment. Others may land up as policemen and security guards with political parties – a BJP leader has already said so.

But a large number Agniverers trained in handling weapons would likely remain unemployed – leaving them disgruntled. What is plan for them?  Are they to be used to go after the anti-nationals as some zealots want – some type of private militia for ‘black ops’? Some calls for civil war to sort out anti-nationals are disconcerting, as is the remark ‘Agar ek adh ko katney se bada maksad pura hota hai, toh kya harz hai’ (if slaughtering one helps the bigger aim, why not).

The VHP has given a call to arm the Hindus. No doubt if the Kashmiri Pandits were armed they would have resisted the ethnic cleansing in the Kashmir Valley – a national shame while we have done little to bring the perpetrators to justice in our own country. But the arming of Hindus must be as per the law of the land – proper licensed weapons which need to be deposited with the police during elections or when required. Any free-wheeling arming would result in horrific mayhem, far worse than the daily shootings in the US.

There also appears confusion over the definition of anti-national and ant-Hindu with some prominent persons saying Hindu ka sab se bada dushman Hindu hai (the biggest enemy of a Hindu is a Hindu). Moreover, are political opponents included in the anti-national, anti-Hindu or both?  For dealing with jihadis, we could study how President Sisi of Egypt tamed them after the US installed the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ (a radical terrorist organization) as the government to rule Egypt.

“Finally, General Bipin Rawat was asked to propose ToD before promoting him to CDS. This was worked out by Army HQ in December 2019 but the proposal was for a “pilot project’ (trial) for 100 officers and 1000 soldiers”, which has been cashed upon by the BJP hierarchy for above mentioned reasons. As regards the propaganda of Agnipath being “well thought out” and “transformative”, both these clichés have dual meanings. This politically motivated scheme leaves little scope for benefiting the Armed Forces or the nation and needs to be scrapped. Disgruntled Agniveers without jobs out after 4-year in ToD may even go for the politicians, as is happening in Sri Lanka.”

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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