Agnipath: Government goes defensive as protests spread and turn violent

The Union Government was on the defensive as protests against its much touted Agnipath scheme  has run into severe opposition from youth of different parts of the country. Protesting against the scheme of recruiting 46,000  Agniveers to serve the defence forces for specified term of four years each, the protesters are challenging the basis of the scheme saying that tenure was too short. They have been also criticising the wage structure as envisaged in the scheme. Though initially the government announced that the youth belonging to 17.5 years to 21 years  would be recruited, the upper age limit has been relaxed by a year.  The Union Government has also come out with a detailed clarification saying that military officers had vetted the scheme before it was put out. Further, it said that the future of Agniveers will not be insecure  and that such schemes were common in many countries. The protests, which have spilled into the third day now, seem to be the Central government’s biggest challenge. It looks going the way  the contentious farm laws  went and sparked anger across vast swathes of north India. Various ministries have come out in support of the scheme saying that they would work on collateral absorption of the Agniveers as they come out of defence forces after completion of their four year term. The Ministry of Home Affairs has said that these Agniveers would be given preference for recruitment to Central Armed Forces while the Ministry of Telcom had called a meeting of the top companies who offered to recruit Agniveers in case they were given some preliminary training by defence forces. The Ministry of Human Resource decided to offer credit for their defence forces attachment to help them complete their graduation. These offers have failed to enthuse the youth as they want either the scheme to be withdrawn or amended to give the youth a fair chance to  secure their future. Protests and demonstrations in parts of north India  have been  spreading. Numerous youth and student outfits, Opposition parties and trade unions of various political affiliations  have taken to the streets  in various parts of the country in general and states like Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab in particular. Even when Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to BJP ruled Himachal Pradesh, there were protests by the youth of the State against the Agnipath scheme. At some places even Internet services have been suspended to control the spread of protests. One of the rallying points for the protesters has been against “contractualisation” of the armed forces. Their main concerns are lack of job security and lack of post-service benefits under the new scheme. Only 25%  of 46,000 to be recruited in the first phase will be selected as regular cadre and will have to serve for a minimum of 15 years after selection. In Bihar, train coaches were set on fire, forcing the Railways to cancel 34 out of 72 trains. The protesters also  attacked a BJP MLA’s vehicle and vandalised a BJP office in Nawada; attacked police officers, leaving 15 of them injured in Haryana’s Pawal; and brought traffic to a grinding halt for over six hours on the Delhi-Jaipur highway. The protests  have also led to some dissenting voices within the NDA and its allies too. The JD(U), a BJP ally, wants the government to review the scheme. Captain Amarinder Singh, who had entered into alliance with the BJP for the 2021 Punjab elections, too, has made some suggestions to the NDA government.  He has been quoted saying that a  “four-year service is too short for a soldier” and the policy will “dilute the long-existing distinct ethos of regiments”.  Maneka Gandhi’s son and BJP MP Varun Gandhi also expressed reservations about the scheme, saying it will bring dissatisfaction among the youth if 75% of ‘Agniveers’ are left jobless after four years.