Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Genesis of the ‘Agnipath’ scheme for recruiting ‘Agniveer’ was a proposal sent up by the Army Headquarters for trial of 1000 soldiers and 100 officers for short tenures in the Army. How the policy makers converted the proposal using the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to recruit 45,000 Agniveers in one go is already in public domain.

Mark Twain once said, “If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed, if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” So the media was used to obfuscate the real motive behind this move.  

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh publicly said financial expenditure is not behind the move but the media said the exact opposite. Rajnath knows that cumulative expenditure on CAPF and other government services in terms of pay, allowances and pensions is much higher than the military  They have much faster promotions and are granted NFU (even Railways) and all retire in the HAG/HAG+ grade enjoying OROP  thereafter. Combined with all serving till about 60 years of age, expenditure on them is enormous (serving and retired) which is kept under wraps. About 45 percent of defence pension bill still goes to civilian-defence employees.

Those coming under the National Pension Scheme (NPS) get 15 percent additional pay while in service and a package on retirement far more than what soldiers earn in service because they retire many years earlier. Each of the seven lakh serving civilian-defence employees is five times more expensive than his/her uniformed counterpart. Even civilians from the Ministry of Finance (MoF) on attachment with MoD are paid from the defence budget pay and pensions.    

During public announcement of the Agnipath scheme, the DMA said the scheme is to “discipline” the youth. Isn’t this government acknowledgement of having failed to discipline youth through educational institutions and organizations like NCC/NSS and turned to the military as the last resort?  

Next is the explanation that Agniveers are to learn military skills, which drew responses that it takes 7-8 years to acquire military skills. Is ‘Skill India’ incapable of teaching skills for nation building, and if not, why has it not expanded? MoD’s Year End Review 2022 says Agnipath scheme is for a “transformational shift towards a more tech-savvy military”.  What transformational shift is expected when even the basic recruit training has been drastically shortened to mere four months?

The galloping unemployment obviously weighed heavily on the government. Despite many announcements, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy revealed that India’s unemployment rate in urban areas was 10.09 percent in December 2022 and in rural areas 7.44 percent;  a huge percentage in a mammoth population. On January 20, 2023, the prime minister distributed 71,000 job letters but on January 25 a post on Twitter said 80,000 Indians have been laid off jobs in the US and if they do not get jobs within two months, they will have to leave the country.  

There is little doubt that Agnipath is a political move considering the following:

  • Regular recruitment in the Army was stopped for two-years to push the scheme amid frustrated youth without jobs.
  • Canvassing blitz by politicians and the NSA vociferously speaking against the Army’s regimental system; showing how poor his understanding of matters military is.
  • RSS stalls sponsoring prospective Agniveer candidates – photos all over social media.
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually addressed and interacted with the first batch of Agniveers on January 16, 2023.
  • Agniveers in the military contingent in Republic Day Parade 2023 despite government ruling they continue to be civilians until they have been formally inducted after completion of training and solemnization.

Agnipath is “done and dusted” but the drastically reduced 4-month basic recruit training will certainly weaken the man behind the machine and hurt combat efficiency at the cutting edge. Wouldn’t poorly trained Agniveers become a liability, as is apparent, because of political skullduggery, bureaucratic inertia or mix of both?

Ramon Colon-Lopez, Senior Enlisted Advisor Chairman (SEAC) to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, says he is convinced after one year of conflict in Ukraine of “the decisive advantage that the human brings to combat”. Having spent most of his career in special operations, he notes the number one rule in the military community is “humans are more important than hardware”.

EAM Jaishankar says China is a bigger economy than India and we cannot go to war with them. None of China’s neighbours would attack China but here the question is not just denying loss of control of some 1,000 sq km in Eastern Ladakh and PLA intrusions during 2020, but can Jaishankar explain why we vacated the Kailash Range?

Also Read: Agniveers – Advantage China

Do we realize that the $100 billion bilateral trade balance in China’s favour is funding the 7 percent increased Chinese defence budget of $225 billion? Forget waging war but can we draw a line for pusillanimity? Can we stop being pacifists at the cost of national security and safeguarding territorial integrity? 

Agnipath is “done and dusted” but we need to read the signals of conflict emanating from the third time Chinese President Xi Jinping. Denying Nepalese youth regular employment in our Army will also be exploited by Beijing.

It would have been better NOT to reduce the basic recruit training to four months and increase the short-term military tenure to 7-8. This would have reduced mental insecurity which is widespread in rural India, avoided country wide protests and destruction of public property. But given the political connotations of the scheme, no change is likely. One post reads this fulfills Mohan Bhagwat’s plan to have RSS pracharaks in every village of India by the time Agniveers constitute 50 percent of Army, or earlier.

The government should have applied Agnipath to all CAPF also but then the focus remains on placing the Army ‘below’ other security forces.

It would be naïve to think that Agnipath has done all the damage it can. Worse can be expected through the “unknown” SOP to implement the 25 percent selection of Agniveers for continuing in the military after 4-years service, and how it will affect the caste factors under political directions. As a veteran-scholar says, this 25 percent selection will be a veritable “minefield” in all-India-all-class (AIAC) mixed military units.   

The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.

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