Govt grants age waiver for Agnipath amid stir
The Centre on Thursday extended the upper age limit for the Agnipath scheme from 21 years to 23 years amid massive protests against the scheme throughout the day. The age waiver will be given only one time for the proposed recruitment cycle for 2022.
The government late on Thursday granted a two-year age relaxation for the short-term recruitment of soldiers in the defence services through a one-time waiver to assuage concerns as thousands of young men broke vehicles, blocked rail and road traffic, pelted stones at government buildings, burnt trains, cars and political party offices, and violently clashed with police across parts of northern India in protest against the scheme announced on Tuesday.
The defence ministry’s announcement makes those who are 23 eligible for a career in the military for the next round of recruitment given that the process was stalled for more than two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, officials familiar with the development said.
“Cognizant of the fact that it has not been possible to undertake the recruitment during the last two years, the government has decided that a one-time waiver shall be granted for the proposed recruitment cycle for 2022. Accordingly, the upper age limit for the recruitment process for Agnipath scheme for 2022 is increased to 23 years,” the defence ministry said in a statement.
The new recruitment model, Agnipath, replaces the legacy system of recruitment with the aim to lower the age profile of the three services, ensure a fitter military and create a technically adept war fighting force capable of meeting future challenges.
On Thursday, angry demonstrations roiled seven states, stretching from Uttarakhand in the north to Bihar in the east and Madhya Pradesh in central India. At least 180 people were injured. The row also took a political turn with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) courting criticism from several Opposition parties and ally Janata Dal (United) – which rules Bihar, the site of the most violent protests, in a coalition -- even as the government moved to reassure agitators.
The protesters were angry with changes introduced under the new scheme, particulary the length of service, no pension provisions for those released early, and particularly the fact that restricting the age limit to 21 would have kept many of the aspirants completely out of the fold considering the recruitment was halted for two years.
The government’s late-night decision was meant to address this key concern.
The government also clarified earlier in the day that the 75% candidates who will not be absorbed into the military after a period of four years, need not be insecure about their future as they will get other benefits. It asserted that the new model will not only bring in fresh capabilities to the armed forces but also open up avenues for youth in the private sector and help them become entrepreneurs with the aid of the severance package they will be entitled to on retirement.
“The scheme will bring in new dynamism to the armed forces. It will help the forces bring in new capabilities and take advantage of the technical skills and fresh thinking of the youths... It will allow the youths to serve the nation,” the Press Information Bureau said in a Facebook post.
On Tuesday, defence minister Rajnath Singh, along with the three service chiefs, announced the Agnipath scheme for induction of soldiers between 17.5 and 21 years for a four-year period. In the new policy, only a quarter of the initial intake will eventually be absorbed into the forces and allowed to serve for an additional 15 years after a second round of screening.
The government argues that the scheme will boost intake to 46,000 a year. It has also said that Agniveers will be absorbed on priority in other central security forces and be eligible for government jobs such as in the railways.
But some veterans raised concerns about the combat-readiness of the new recruits, their levels of motivation, and whether the prospect of a short tenure will make them risk averse.
Army recruitments – which are a major draw in the countryside and smaller towns because they guarantee prestige, a secure job and social status along with the honour of serving the country – were suspended for two years due to the pandemic. This had caused massive discontent among young men in particular, who rely on these recruitments and often prepare for years for the examination.
Under the old system, young men aged between 17-and-a-half and 21 years were selected for a minimum of 15 years. After their retirement, they received pension, medical and canteen facilities.
Several Opposition parties on Thursday demanded that the scheme be scrapped owing to its limited tenure and multiple risks, with the main opposition party, Congress, saying that the new scheme subverts the longstanding traditions and ethos of the armed forces. The Janata Dal (United), an ally of the BJP, also sought a rethink of the scheme.
“With regard to the Agneepath scheme, the fear of dissatisfaction, despair and bleak future (unemployment) is clearly visible in the minds of the youth and students of the country, including Bihar. The central government should immediately reconsider the Agniveer scheme because this decision is also related to the defence and security of the country,” JD(U) president Rajiv Ranjan Singh said in a tweet in Hindi.
Protests first broke out in three districts of Bihar on Wednesday and a day later spread to Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh.
In Bihar, train bogies were burnt in three districts, two BJP lawmakers, Aruna Devi and C N Gupta, were attacked in separate incidents, and a BJP office was torched in Madhubani.
Protestors burnt tyres at several places to block traffic, a train station was vandalised in Chhapra and passenger trains were blocked at many places, resulting in the railways cancelling 30 passenger trains and 40 others getting delayed by several hours. Police resorted to lathicharge and tear gas shells at many places to disperse protesters.
Additional director general (law and order) Sanjay Singh said at least two dozen First Information Reports (FIRs) were filed against protestors and at least 15 police personnel injured in stone pelting. Eastern Railway spokesperson, Birendra Kumar, said train movement became normal only around 3.30pm.
In Haryana’s Palwal, about 85km from Delhi, police posted at the district collector’s office fired several rounds of bullets to disperse young men who started hurtling stones at the building. At least 15 police personnel were seriously injured. The mob torched five police control room vans and blocked the national highway to Agra.
Mukesh Malhotra, Palwal’s superintendent of police, said some young men gathered around 11am near the residence of the deputy commissioner and were protesting peacefully but some antisocial elements instigated the mob.
In the evening, Haryana suspended internet services for 24 hours in Palwal and formed two special police teams to investigate the incident. In Rewari, police had to use mild force to disperse the angry crowd. Protests were also reported from three places in Gurugram and Rohtak.
In Gwalior, at least 20 vehicles were torched, and two train bogies and a train station were vandalised during protests at three places. Police arrested 10 people and detained 50. Two people, including a passenger and a journalist, were injured and police used 50 rounds of tear gas shells to control the mob.
Roads were blocked in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr and Ballia towns and agitations reported from Ghaziabad, Meerut, Unnao, Gorakhpur and Gonda, the state police said. “We strongly opposed the new recruitment scheme. We want the old recruitment scheme back,” said a protestor, Sagar Tomar, in Meerut. Police said the protestors were largely peaceful.
At two places in Jammu town, police resorted to lathi charge, and detained army aspirants. “It takes years of training to get into the army. We cleared physical, medical and our documents were verified by the authorities in the past two years. And, today they are telling us that our written exam stands cancelled,” said a protester.
In Himachal Pradesh, angry protestors clashed with police on a day Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived on a two-day visit to the state. Demonstrations were held at Gaggal, Kangra, Nagrota Bagwan, Mandi, Hamirpur.
In Rajasthan, peaceful protests were reported from Jodhpur, Sikar, Jaipur, Nagaur, Ajmer and Jhunjhunu districts. Protests were also reported from Jharkhand’s capital, Ranchi, Nangoli railway station in Delhi and Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand.
The most violent protests were reported from Bihar, which accounts for about 10% of the army recruitment. Protestors set on fire bogies of three passenger trains at Bhabua Road railway station, Sidhwalia (Gopalganj) and Chhapra railway stations.
In Nawada, BJP lawmaker Aruna Devi, who was on her way to local court, was attacked by agitators. who hurled stones at her car, leaving five people, including her driver, injured. Later, a group of agitators torched the BJP’s district office at Atau in the same district. Another BJP MLA, CN Gupta, found his house ransacked in Chhapra town. In Madhubani, protesters torched the BJP office after ransacking it.
“After four-year training, the so-called Agniveers will be nowhere, hunting for jobs in the prime of their life. There is neither any guarantee for jobs, nor there would be any medical or canteen facilities for them. There will no security for the family,” said Ram Niwas Singh of Saran.
(With inputs from HTCs in Lucknow, Dehradun, Bhopal and Jaipur)