Soldier Interrupted: Taking armed forces aspirants for a ride

Sombre mood in which the presser started, and somewhat patronising air in which Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh announced the scheme Agnipath, it seemed as if Government has given the youth of this country a gift of life time – four year service contract in armed forces.

A clutch of reporters sitting there hardly put any probing questions. Next morning, chaos broke loose. Boys preparing for years, waiting for the moment of their life to arrive, took to streets. Protests were particularly wild and emotionally charged in the states like Bihar, Punjab, and Haryana which send a high number of young recruits to the army. So intense was their sense of being cheated that they smashed vehicles, torched trains, hit whatever came their way.

The only job that was considered to provide lifelong livelihood to the family, make ends meet, was up for thekedari (contract). No pension, a measly 30K per month with 21K in hand, Rs 11 lakh in hand at the end of four years, back to square one, overaged, ineligible for most jobs. One will not know what to call himself, an ex-serviceman, or axed serviceman?

This happens when you do not think necessary to bring the issue before the Parliament for discussion. Monsoon Session is just a month away. Government could have waited and brought it before the Parliament, given the far-reaching nature of the proposal for India’s armed forces and the very sovereignty itself.

Damage control efforts had the Government further tied itself in the knots. A day after the announcement, Government said it is going to give one time relaxation of age for Agniveers because recruitment could not take place for two years. The announcement failed to placate the youth. Then Government came up with more sops – 10 per cent  reservation of jobs for Agniveers in Indian Coast Guard,  Defence Civilian posts and 16 Defence Public Sector Undertakings, bridge courses for higher degrees, access to canteen facilities, etc, etc.

But ironically, the Government has also kept its big stick ready for those who protested. The recruitment terms now include a clause that requires a candidates an undertaking of non participation in “arson and vandalism.”  This effectively means all those who are named in the FIR can not get in. Government has also made it categorically clear that all recruitment will be done through Agnipath channel only and it will not be rolled back. This effectively means curtains down for lakhs of youth across country who see armed forces service as a lifelong career. Nearly 4.5 lakh youth prepare every year to get into the armed forces.

Worrisome part of the damage control is, it has suddenly exposed the blind spot of the Government that we have a Government which really does not understand the spirit of India’s youth who willingly want to join the armed forces and serve their motherland. It does not really understand what goes in the making of spirit of world’s largest all-volunteer army. The very offer of contract service is demeaning to this country’s youth who are raring to put their life at stake for the country.

The Government should take a lesson from what happened in Punjab. Many of the gangsters there are those who could not make it to ranks after getting trained in the police academy. Just think, where would all those trained for four year in armed forces will go?

Since contract system has already entered into the core business of armed forces – soldiering, what stops the training schools owners to become bulk suppliers of contract soldiers in the near future and government finds it a better deal.

If the Government is really serious about getting out the pit it has fallen into, it should stop digging it first. Stop offering sops to force accept the scheme. If the Government is really serious about seeing these Agniveers taking up Police and Railways jobs, why not give them right now?