The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. That perhaps is the most charitable comment one can make on the ill-conceived and terribly bungled launch of Agnipath. Trying to kill several birds with one stone, this disastrous brainwave has only succeeded in scoring another self-goal and caused huge collateral damage.
The government is busy with damage-control deploying ill-prepared spin masters to change the narrative. From frying pan to the fire is another phrase that comes to mind. What was the haste? Call it hubris, arrogance, ignorance, or a blend of all three.
Trains and buses are being burnt and public property valued at crores of rupees has been destroyed. The state of Bihar is tottering on the verge of infectious anarchy with the Chief Minister neither visible nor audible.
Sadly, the protestors have indulged in such wanton violence and vulgar abuse that they have lost all sympathy. Stone pelters and arsonists have not spared innocent passengers and bystanders. Law enforcement agencies, for once, seem lost. Only the CP in Varanasi, the PMs constituency, could mumble, “They are our kids. We are confident that we can talk to them and persuade them to see reason.” Such empathy can kill irony many times over.
Criticising the scheme should not be misconstrued as fanning fire, inflaming passions, jeopardising the nation’s security, or maligning the army. Those designated Agniveers are not going to be regular soldiers. Regardless of the gloss that is being put, 75 percent of those who are selected will at best be on contract to serve for four years. Let’s keep aside for the moment the ‘lucrative’ severance package and promises of 10 percent reservation in CAPFs etc, it’s difficult to see how this is going to accomplish the objective of changing the age profile of the Indian Army or to render it in a blink into a tech-savvy lean and mean fighting machine. What is more likely is that the Agniveers wearing a different uniform will be akin to Home Guards compared to the regular police. You can match a frying pan biryani to the real thing slow-cooked on dum!
With some sleight of hand, a great reduction in payouts in salaries and pensions may be accomplished but the real cost of the abridged/condensed training is going to impact national security and can turn out to be unbearable.
It takes years to make a recruit battle-worthy. Does anyone really believe that the lumpen anti-social hooligans who are baying for blood on the streets can be transformed into disciplined soldiers, ready to lay their lives for the nation after a crash course of a few weeks? And, here is our government bending backward to placate them with all kinds of sops—fringe benefits—in lieu of canteen privileges and access to health care for self and dependents in military hospitals and education for their wards in army schools. They will, if they choose, be given specially designed degrees by IGNOU or the tenth-class pass will be gifted a 10+2 certification by various boards of education. Sure beats the old slogan earn while you learn. Studying for life after Army between training, parade, and maybe real combat takes multi-tasking to another level.
It’s not amusing to see serving Chiefs of Army and Navy springing to support the scheme that they haven’t designed or contributed to. Other decorated generals and war veterans who have been vocal supporters of the NDA-BJP regime have been constrained to protest at tampering with the proud traditions and professional culture of the army. It is difficult to dismiss them as misguided tool kit operators manipulated by foreign conspirators.
Our distress is caused by different concerns. Why policy decisions that impact millions of lives are increasingly being taken by executive fiat, bypassing the parliament where incidentally the government has more than the comfortable majority? Why is there such—almost pathological—resistance to debate and discussion? Why must time and again a botch-up be explained away as a little miscommunication and misunderstanding? Be they the farmers or unemployed impoverished youth whose patience has worn thin, they know what is good for them. Their anger explodes only when some decision is arbitrarily forced down their throat with gratis advice that they are dimwitted not to rejoice at their good fortune.
Of course, we are told that Agnipath is a voluntary scheme. No one is compelled to sign up to serve the nation in uniform. The trouble is that it will extinguish the vacancies for the recruitment of regular soldiers. People are beginning to ask why the option of a draft-compulsory service in the army for all physically fit youth, men and women, is not considered? (With no exception for the progeny of politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists, and sundry celebrities.)
The age limit can be suitably raised to 35 years and, beyond as in the case of members of the youth wing of various political parties.
Former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University