Many retired army officers and politicians of parties other than the BJP have strong reservations against the government’s Agnipath scheme of recruiting youth between the age group of 17.5 and 21 years for a four-year stint in the armed forces with a provision of voluntary retention after this period, based on merit.
On Wednesday, a large number of aspirants to the armed forces blocked roads and railway tracks in different parts of Bihar to lodge a protest against the new scheme.
Earlier, responding to a media query, Union Minister and former Army chief General V.K. Singh said he was not involved in formulating the scheme and that he did not know much about it. He said things would be clear after it was implemented on the ground.
Targeting the Central government, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said on Twitter, “When India faces threats on two fronts, the uncalled for Agnipath scheme reduces the operational effectiveness of our armed forces. The BJP govt. must stop compromising the dignity, traditions, valour & discipline of our forces.”
CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury tweeted, “Instead of raising a professional Army Modi govt. proposes ‘soldiers on contract’ to save pension money! Training contract soldiers with no other prospects after 3-5 years but to serve private militias! Scrap this anti national scheme”.
Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav also took to Twitter to say: “What will the youth do if the biggest employers of the country, “Indian Railways and Army”, start giving jobs in the name of contract and lateral entry in the civil service? Will the youth do contract job of four years to guard the business bases of the capitalist friends of BJP in future?”
Rashtriya Lok Dal president Chaudhary Jayant Singh said temporary recruitment in the Army will be detrimental to the discipline and morale of the army. “It’s like a diploma crash course which will not be of much value for the very young recruits who come out after four years. Also, no transparency on what criterion will be used to select the candidates who can opt for full recruitment after four years.”
The scheme, he said, was an experiment to disband the regimental system in the Army and “goes against the long-established principle of naam, namak and nishan (honour, loyalty and identity)!”
Many veterans were quick to share their views on social media. Former Army chief General (retd.) Ved Prakash Malik thanked Union Home Minister Amit Shah for the announcement that the recruits, after completing their four-year tenure, would be given priority for induction in the Central Armed Police Forces and Assam Rifles. He tweeted: “Agniveer induction has to be based on the annual number of retirees plus deficiencies, if any. This is a small number at unit level. It will be a slow induction process.”
Air Vice Marshal (retd.) Manmohan Bahadur said: “The Agnipath scheme has been the subject of animated debates about its pros and cons. One only hopes that its implications have been thought through well beyond just the issue of cutting down the pension load on the defence budget. There would be many operational fallouts that would need to be tackled without compromising the deterrence and fighting capabilities of the forces”.
Former Northern Army Commander Lieutenant-General (retd.) D.S. Hooda told The Hindu: “Obviously, like any other scheme, there are some advantages... Junior leaders would get better, the government will save on the budget expenses. There are certain challenges as well, of people having apprehensions about the training period; whether the ethos would be strong enough; morale, motivation would be as strong as that of those who serve for a longer period of time.”
“We have to see how to make the scheme a success, let's wait for the first four years, then review, and go back to the government with recommendations. There is a need to adopt a balanced approach,” he said.
On Twitter, Major General (retd.) G.D. Bakshi said: “Was flabbergasted by the Agniveer scheme. I thought initially it was a trial being done on a pilot basis. This is an across the board change to convert Indian armed forces to a short tenure quasi-conscript force like the Chinese. For God’s sake, please don’t do it.”
“Let's not destroy our institutions in a time of great threats from China & Pak. Armed forces have performed well. Just for saving money let us not destroy what we have...,” he tweeted, adding, “If trained & young military manpower released is not absorbed, it could join terrorists or insurgents. 4 year contractual period militates against integration in unit & could make men risk averse. Cater for 6 months trg [training] period & 8 months' annual leave, residual service will be just 3 years.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant-General (retd.) Zameer Uddin Shah described the Agnipath scheme as a “retrograde step” and “the most detrimental measure inflicted on armed forces”. “With a year spent on training and six months on pre-release formalities, the soldier will get only 2.5 years to serve which is inadequate to inculcate regimental ethos, affiliation, and discipline,” said the veteran, who retired as the Deputy Chief of the Army Staff (Personnel and Systems). On the view that it could offer employment opportunities, he told The Hindu, “You can’t choose welfare at the cost of the Army’s discipline and regimentation. It is these qualities that have helped us in winning wars.” He recalled an Army maxim, “If it works, don’t fiddle with it.” The veteran said the bulk of retired officers felt that the “step was taken without adequate forethought and consultation with the stakeholders.”
Lieutenant-General (retd.) Vinod Bhatia echoed his sentiment. In a tweet, the former director of Joint Warfare Studies, described it as a “death knell for armed forces”. He said, “No pilot project, straight implementation. Will also lead to militarisation of society.”