India dispatch: military launches controversial new recruitment program that prompted protests
Indian Air Force / Wikimedia Commons
India dispatch: military launches controversial new recruitment program that prompted protests

Indian law students and young lawyers are reporting for JURIST on national and international developments in and affecting their country. This dispatch is from Vedika Kakar, a fourth-year law student at Jindal Global Law School in Sonipat.

Last wek India’s Air Force began ushering in new members under a controversial recruitment program that aims to reduce the average age of the country’s military forces, while also limiting career and pension prospects for new recruits.

The so-called Agnipath program, introduced by the Indian Government on June 14, 2022, aims to usher junior recruits into all three branches of India’s armed forces, replacing previous recruitment efforts. The government aims to bring in some 46,000 soldiers from across the country within 90 days of the program’s launch. Agnipath recruits, known as Agniveers, a term that translates to fire-warriors, will be given four-year contracts, after which point one-quarter of recruits will be offered 15-year career paths. The remaining Agniveers will be released into civilian life with little more than a skills certificate and a severance packages amounting to Rs. 11.71 lakh, which includes income earned during their military service. This amounts to about USD 14,800 as of the date of publication. The latter group will not be entitled to military pension payments.

New recruits who join under the hiring program will have 16 weeks of basic training, two weeks of sea training, and 16 weeks of professional training. The central government’s objective is to bring down the average age of personnel in the armed forces and reduce pension expenditure. The government further stated that this program will bolster the cohesiveness of the units.

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said that “the scheme will usher in a more youthful profile in the over [1.4 million-member] strong armed forces, with the average age of soldiers gradually being brought down from the existing 32 to 24-26.”  He added that it will “also make the forces more modern, tech-savvy and well-equipped” to deal with the myriad challenges ahead.

However, once the program was rolled out it led to a surge of violent protests across the country. It is popularly believed that this program, designed to recruit soldiers for only four years, will take a toll on the professionalism, regimental ethos, and fighting spirit of the armed forces. There is also a presumption that thousands of soldiers who are not retained will be rendered jobless after the expiration of their 4-year term. Several opposition leaders have also contested the program stating that it could potentially jeopardize the future of countless youths. There is also a belief that training armed men and not inducting them into the army would just create an opportunity for anti-national elements to recruit them.

Army aspirants in India are not pleased with the changes introduced under the new recruitment program, with many taking particular issue with the length of service and the lack of pension provisions for those released early. While on the one hand, corporate giants like Anand Mahindra have stated that they would be open to employing Agniveers in their companies following the completion of their service, on the other hand, many veterans have expressed that despite having already served several years in the army they remain unemployed after retirement.

To say the Agnipath program was well planned would be a reach. From subsequent alterations in the program to the government raising the age bar from 21 years to 23 years as a one-time waiver due to COVID-19, it is evident that the fashion in which the program was unveiled was disorganized. Policy experts believe that the government, in changing the age-limit, tried to make up for its “faulty decision,” especially after protests erupted, testifying that there was no coherent decision-making process, coordination, or consultation involved prior to unveiling the program.

In response to the program, several army aspirants raised arms and violent protests erupted across the nation. Around 9 railway stations were attacked, with the protestors setting trains on fire. Consequently, the special defense force was deployed in those areas. The Chief of Defense Staff gave strict instructions that those who participated in such acts of arson and violence would be blacklisted from the armed forces. Other forms of peaceful protests were also on display.

From the recent farmers’ crises to the opposition of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, the Indian public has been quite vocal of its criticism of arbitrary government policies. Similarly, creating a policy that does not guarantee jobs in a country with a soaring rate of unemployment is another difficult pill to swallow, especially when one understands that many army aspirants come from poverty-ridden areas, where armed forces jobs and steady pensions might be the only means of survival for an entire household.

Moreover, one of the hallmark principles of creating legislation is consultation with the stakeholders, especially those who would be affected by the decision. The Central government should have learned from its mistakes while implementing the farm bills last year, which was met with great public uproar, ultimately leading to their cancellation.

When making policies for an agrarian nation with sensitive territorial borders, we need to go back to the slogan by the Late Prime Minister of India, Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri of ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ (Hail the soldier, Hail the farmer). The slogan has time and again reminded the policymakers and citizens alike that the stalwarts of the nation are the army and the farmers. With steeping inflation and unemployment in the country, the Agnipath program comes off as a hoax. A program that would render the youth jobless and without any transferable skills or professional education after four years is a waste not only of their prime years but ultimately, of the nation’s resources.