State after state has been engulfed by incidents of arson and vandalism in the last four days with India’s youth out on the streets to protest against the ‘Agnipath’ programme announced earlier this week. Trains have been set ablaze, the deputy chief minister’s house of Bihar was attacked, two stationary railway compartments were set on fire at Secunderabad railway station and the station vandalised leading to cancellation of trains, protestors occupied tracks and held buses to ransom at several places across the north, police stations were set on fire, the ruling party’s office was set ablaze and at least one person was killed in police firing as India’s young unemployed took to the streets to show their anger against the programme.
There is no room for violence in any protest and every act of vandalisation or arson deserves to be condemned, but if there was ever a moment of pause and reflection for the Narendra Modi government, it is this. What explains such a large and violent backlash across India, including from the Prime Minister’s constituency, against the ‘Agnipath’ programme touted as revolutionary? What is the core message of the young and predominantly male anti-Agnipath protestors to the government, many of whom might be hardcore supporters of the government or its ideology? If the government was taken by surprise, it is time to ask if it is losing touch with the sentiment on the ground?
The merits and demerits of the military recruitment programme deserve a deeper analysis than what is in the public domain so far – supporters believe that this would help make the defence forces younger and fitter while critics point to the negative impact of short-service recruitment on the ‘Agniveers’ as well as on the resilience of the defence forces. Retired defence personnel are divided down the middle and the jury is out on whether this will reduce the operational effectiveness of the forces. This is a necessary debate but it should have been had with all stakeholders before the rollout. In essence, the ‘Agnipath’ programme recruits, trains and employs 40,000 to 45,000 young men and women – between the age of 17.5 and 23 – every year but retains only a fourth of them in long service; the rest are ‘retired’ after four years with a package of Rs 10-12 lakh and preference in government jobs.
The programme turns defence jobs into contractual employment – hardly recommended. The anger on the streets is about what will happen to those pushed back into civil society after four years, albeit with money. Why should ministers enjoy pension all their lives when ‘Agniveers’ cannot, why is the defence job now coming without the promise of usual perks and lifelong benefits, they ask. There are deeper societal issues too. Trained for defence forces, having first-hand knowledge of some of the systems and processes of India’s forces, and frustrated at not finding jobs they believe are worthy of them can lead the young ‘retirees’ into dangerous terrain. What happens then to India’s civil society already fissured on religious and caste lines?
There is scope to believe that the ‘Agnipath’ programme is a cleverly-designed ruse to militarise the country’s young, which when mixed with narrow ideas of ‘nationalism’ propounded by the ruling party and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, can easily turn them into trained foot soldiers of the ideology. Even if the ‘Agnipath’ programme had unqualified merits all around, this is hardly the time to roll it out when social strife – especially anti-Muslim sentiment – runs so deep. Why light a fire that can turn into a social conflagration? This is where the government’s decision seems based on bad faith or myopic short-term gains. And calls into play its propensity to make major decisions or announcements without the preparatory groundwork and the socio-political perspective called for.
This template of big-ticket decisions made without broad consultations and announced with great fanfare, initially praised by the faithful in the ruling party but called out by others, which throws the nation into chaos, strife and suffering needs urgent modification. Decisions on demonetisation, Covid-lockdown, farm bills – to name a few – used the template now applied in the ‘Agnipath’ announcement. The government or the Prime Minister believed that shock-and-awe tactics, gimmicky nomenclature, and smart marketing will allow it to sail through but it has had to roll back decisions or silently brave its errors. This template has clearly and repeatedly hurt the nation without signs of the benefits that were grandiosely marketed, even the most ardent supporters of the Modi government would have to agree.
This time, the young are not buying into the flamboyance and promotion; they seem to have seen through it already and are demonstrating their anger – unlike the tenacious but calmer farmers – which undoubtedly is fuelled by high unemployment and super high inflation. Their frustration at the state of affairs and impatience with the government has clearly broken through their reservoir of support for the ruling party or the Prime Minister. There may well be a rollback of some kind in the ‘Agnipath’ programme, on the lines of farm laws, but the rethink must not stop there. It should lead the government to reflect deeply on why it functions with this template time and again, and how its big-ticket decisions end up hurting the nation rather than making it a strong, stable and inclusive society. It’s time to invoke the sentiment in the popular yesteryear film song: Balwano ko dede gyaan (Give wisdom to the strong).