Lok Sabha polls reopen old wounds from anti-Agnipath protests in Bihar

Youngsters have lost interest in joining the Army after the introduction of the scheme, say coaching centres; activists assert the protests were spontaneous and none were instigated, want the government to withdraw Agnipath as Army service primarily draws youth from poor backgrounds

Updated - May 10, 2024 02:58 am IST

Published - May 10, 2024 02:32 am IST - Buxar/Arrah

 Applicants undergo a physical test during an Army Recruitment rally under the Agnipath scheme at Danapur, in Patna, on Dec. 1, 2022.

Applicants undergo a physical test during an Army Recruitment rally under the Agnipath scheme at Danapur, in Patna, on Dec. 1, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

Raushan Kumar Sinha, 37, a national secretary of the Left-leaning All India Youth Federation (AIYF) was in jail for about 10 months for allegedly instigating protests against the Agnipath scheme that turned violent in the three days between June 17 and June 20 in 2022. Mr. Sinha says he had posted a statement on Facebook a day earlier on behalf of his organisation that the AIYF will oppose “contractualisation” of Indian Army. The next day, two trains were torched in his home town Lakhisarai and he was named in two FIRs registered by the Bihar Police in the case. By March 2023, another case was registered under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and he was jailed on March 16, 2023.

When he was released on bail on January 13, 2024, he yet again plunged into the campaign against the Agnipath scheme, trying to remind the youngsters to vote against the present government. “I was targeted for political reasons. All youth organisations announced protests. Students who were preparing for Army joined the protests in their thousands. Even now, the administration and the police pick up youngsters saying they were part of the protests,” Mr. Sinha says.

“Agnipath” and “Agniveer” are the key points of discussion in Buxar and Arrah, the two areas bordering Uttar Pradesh in Bihar. Hundreds of students and youngsters prepare for defence, paramilitary and police jobs in these places, where unemployment among youth is higher than the national average. The latest Periodic Labour Force Survey says the Unemployment Rate (UR) in Bihar in the age group of 15-29 years is 18.7%, when the national rate is 16.5%.

Ritesh Srivastav, a lawyer and activist who has worked among the protesters, says areas like Arrah, Buxar and Sasaram have a number of hard-working girls and boys aspiring for government jobs. “But there are no facilities for them. They even sit at railway stations, but crack examinations, including the civil service. Often, their hard work goes in vain,” he said.

When Agnipath was announced, Mr. Sinha and Mr. Srivastav said, boys who were preparing for Army service opposed the scheme. “The question they asked was why should we join the Army for just four years? What will happen to our jobs after four years? No one from the government could give satisfactory answers to these questions,” Mr. Srivastav said.

These questions resonated with every group of aspirants. Slowly, they started organising and the movement took a massive shape. They hit the streets and blocked the trains. Vinay (name changed) was one of them. Talking to The Hindu from Buxar High School, situated at the heart of the city, he says he worked hard for Army selection for more than four years. A government school, established in 1887, gives a reading room and sports ground for the aspirants for free. There are private libraries too which students who can afford utilise. “Here, we get a chair and a table and those who practice for physical examinations use the school ground,” Vinay says. On a regular day, about 200 students from poor backgrounds came to the Buxar school to participate in these practice sessions, before every recruitment rally.

In 2022, the recruitment rallies were over and aspirants, including Vinay, were waiting for the results. “I was passionate about serving the Army. There was none in the Army from my family. I was confident of passing the physical tests. I had trained for four years. I was part of the National Cadet Corps [NCC]. I had won several medals and received NCC’s ‘C’ certificate,” he said adding that a case was registered against him for participating in the protests against Agnipath. He cleared all tests and only had medical tests pending in the 2022 Army recruitment rally but the process was cancelled due to Agnipath. “Now I have crossed the age limit. Tears come to my eyes when I think of this. It has been a personal loss,” Vinay said adding that he is now preparing for exams for certain State government posts.

Most of the students in Buxar School or the Maharaja Bahadur Ram Ran Vijay Prasad Singh College, Arrah, are from poor families who cannot afford to go to Patna or Delhi and join big coaching centres. “We are all voters here. We are also aware of the promises of the Opposition that Agnipath will be scrapped. Poor people will be ready for any work and may do four years of Army duty. But we protested against the scheme. We are not criminals. The administration thought we will start violence but we had no such plans. We hope this scheme will go,” said another student, who also wished anonymity.

The protests were spontaneous. No one invited or instigated the students, they said, even though the administration put the blame on some coaching centres. “We were preparing for Army jobs. So we were not scared, but we were concerned about the plight of our parents and family members,” said Mahesh (name changed), another aspirant who participated in the protests. He said the thought that family members were waiting for them at their homes and the arrests naturally took a toll on the movement.

Now, a huge number of students have stopped dreaming of joining the Army and diverted their attention to State government jobs. “This is not good for the country and for the Army,” says Sudhir Singh, who runs a coaching institute named Commandant Academy. Mr. Singh’s father and grandfather were in defence services and an accident turned his focus towards coaching. “I have been training Army aspirants for more than 20 years. Agnipath is injustice to the youth who wanted to choose Army as their career. People here want to serve the country. Since the launch of Agnipath, the interest of the youth has come down. The country will lose the service of passionate people if their job is limited to four years,” Mr. Singh says. He established an NGO, Strength of the Youth, to provide physical and soft skills free of cost for aspirants. “Students are depressed. If government wants to do something good for the people, they should stop this scheme. A nationalist view cannot be uplifted by such schemes,” he said adding that the Opposition cannot absolve themselves from the blame of high unemployment rate in the State.

Bihar used to have Army recruitment rallies once every year. The State contributed about 10,000 soldiers through the recruitment rallies held in the three years before 2022. Students used to form groups of 50-60 to train and one could see such groups in every village of Bihar. When cases were lodged against students, police had come in search of youngsters to this Buxar school and Maharaja College too.

What they have heard is that Agnipath was introduced due to budgetary constraints. “We still don’t know how the Army can prepare a soldier in four years. Now, even Territorial Army recruitments are not taking place,” Vinay said adding that talks of filling 30 lakh posts in the Union government are encouraging, but he is doubtful if the promises will turn into reality.

In the Maharaja College that houses about 10,000 students, more than 500 students used to turn up every day at the college ground to train. “Now students are not showing much interest in Army recruitment. For poor families, it was a big hope. The preparation used to be cheap compared to other posts,” said Subhash, another aspirant. He says the Opposition’s promise of scrapping Agnipath is welcome but the issue of unemployment should be addressed seriously. “We will have to wait and watch what they are going to do,” he observed sceptically.

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