‘It is a do or die situation for us,’ say Army aspirants

Army aspirants in Nawada, Bihar, say the Centre has with one stroke crushed all their dreams

Updated - June 21, 2022 07:08 am IST

Published - June 20, 2022 10:55 pm IST - NAWADA:

Protesters during a protest against the ‘Agnipath’ scheme near Patna, on June 17, 2022.

Protesters during a protest against the ‘Agnipath’ scheme near Patna, on June 17, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

Under a huge banyan tree on a village ground in Nawada district, Sahil Kumar, 20, is one among the 30 Army aspirants mulling over the uncertain future that lies ahead of them ever since the Union Government announced the ‘Agnipath’ scheme for recruitment of soldiers into the armed forces.

“Life is meaningless now,” he murmurs while lowering his head and fighting back tears. For the past two-and-a-half years, he has been preparing for a job in the Army, running five km on the ground in the morning and four km on a nearby dry riverbed in the evening, every day. Being the only son of an agriculturist, Sahil says his father had big dreams for him and wanted to see him as an Army man. He too was working very hard, planning to marry off his two younger sisters as an Army man. “But this government has crushed all my dreams with one stroke, I’ve lost sleep, lost interest in life,” he says. His friends, who appear equally disheartened, try to console him, pat his back and chant in chorus, “Either the government withdraws the Agnipath scheme, or we all will withdraw from life.”

Also read | Bandh against Agnipath hits normal life in some parts of country

Over 100 Army job aspirants from over a dozen surrounding villages practise every day at the village ground chasing their dream job.

Office set afire

Nawada is the first district in Bihar where protesters set the local BJP office on fire and attacked the local BJP MLA Aruna Devi’s vehicle on June 16. Thousands of students preparing for the Army job and living in lodges in Nawada town had come out on the streets against the Agnipath scheme. They vented their ire on the local BJP office located on the outskirts of the town, ransacking the three-storey building and setting it ablaze. Even after three days, when The Hindu reached the party office on June 19, broken plastic chairs, tables, switch boards, burnt files, posters of party leaders and other furniture were lying strewn around.

In a corner of the ransacked meeting hall on the first floor of the office, a poster of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a victory sign says, “Azadi ke baad, pehli baar... kada parishram, bade parinaam (First time, after Independence…hard labour, big result).

“Luckily, there was no one in the office at that time, otherwise the protesters might have killed them. I reached here seeing columns of smoke billowing into the sky and informed the police and party leaders about the incident,” said local BJP leader Vinay Kumar. Now, three security personnel have been posted at the BJP office, which is without electricity, water, sanitation and other facilities.

The passion for an Army job is so intense among the aspirants that one of Sahil Kumar’s friends, Sanjit Kumar, has affixed “Army Lover” before his name. Though Sanjit is 23 years old, he wants “a two years relaxation in recruitment age as there was no vacancy in the Army in the last two years because of COVID-19”. “We who come from such rural and poor background eat, dream and sleep thinking about an Army job,” he says. “The sheer thrill of wearing the Army uniform makes us mad about the job. An Army job automatically earns you respect in society,” he says. His friends Rohit and Mohit Kumar, both 21 years old and sons of marginal farmers, too nod and say, “Unless the government withdraws this short-term scheme of Agnipath, we’ll continue our protest in a peaceful manner”.

Asked why trains and offices of a particular political party were being attacked and burnt down during the protests, one aspirant said, “It might be handiwork of some anti-social elements masquerading as students. How can we who aspire to die for the nation, harm national property? Like the kisan aandolan (farmer’s protest), we’ll continue our protest peacefully and force the government to relent.”

Vikramshila Express train set on fire by a mob in protest against the Centre’s ‘Agnipath’ scheme, in Lakhisarai, on June 17, 2022.

Vikramshila Express train set on fire by a mob in protest against the Centre’s ‘Agnipath’ scheme, in Lakhisarai, on June 17, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

Qualification criteria

“First we’ve to pass the physical test, then the medical test and finally the written exam,” says Sahil Kumar, pointing out how difficult it is to get into the Army. In the physical test, aspirants have to pass the 1,600 meters race, perform a long-jump of 12 feet and do pull-ups, he adds. “But the medical test is the toughest one,” he says and most of the aspirants under the banyan tree agree. “But all the hard work put in over the years now goes for a toss with this Agnipath scheme with a four-years job security. In the same way, the Prime Minister, the Chief Minister, MPs and MLAs term too must be fixed for just one term and that too without any pension or other retirement facilities,” says another aspirant.

Also read | Army issues notification for Agnipath scheme

In Bihar, protesting Army aspirants have set over a dozen trains, railway stations on fire, attacked BJP leaders' residence, vehicles and party offices in Nawada and Madhepura. They have blocked movement of vehicles on highways at some places and clashed with the police. The police have had to open fire and baton charge them at some places. Internet services have been suspended in about 20 districts of the State. Over 700 protesters have been arrested and hundreds of FIRs lodged against them at different places. At Paliganj, the local police have released a poster of 40 protesters who indulged in violence on Monday and appealed to the people to identify them. And, it is because of the police action against them that the aspirants don't want to speak to the media as it will reveal their identity. “The police reprisal is brutal... We come from poor families. Who will get us released from jail and fight the cases?” said one of the aspirants in Nawada.

However, speaking to The Hindu, a young IPS officer posted in Patna, who earlier served in the Air Force for seven years, suggested that the Central government should extend the four-year service tenure for Agnipath aspirants to at least seven years and provide them their graduation and Master's degree with provision of priority in other armed forces, either at the Centre or in the States. “Most of the protesting students we’ve rounded up support this suggestion,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But nobody has yet come forward to listen to us, neither sought our views,” rued another aspirant while adding that “the media too does not care for our views. It’s a do or die situation for us”.

(Names and location of aspirants have been changed as they fear police reprisal)

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