Anti-Agnipath protests turn violent

Trains set afire in Kaimur and Chhapra districts of Bihar; MLA’s vehicle attacked in Bihar, BJP office vandalised; Railways cancels 34 trains amid uproar in several States; 15 police personnel injured, vehicles torched in Haryana

June 16, 2022 09:35 pm | Updated June 17, 2022 07:34 am IST - New Delhi

Smoke billows from a train set on fire during a protest against the Agnipath scheme at Chapra Railway Station in Bihar’s Saran district on June 17, 2022.

Smoke billows from a train set on fire during a protest against the Agnipath scheme at Chapra Railway Station in Bihar’s Saran district on June 17, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

Thousands of youth across the country hit the streets demanding a rollback of “contractualisation” of jobs in the Indian Army, and Opposition parties, trade unions, farmers’ associations, youth organisations, and students’ outfits of various political affiliations joined in chorus to support the protests against Agnipath, the scheme to recruit soldiers on a four-year contract basis. These organisations started consulting each other on Thursday for forming a national platform against Agnipath. Opposition parties urged the Centre to withdraw the scheme considering national interest. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) own trade union, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), though termed the protests politically motivated, and distanced itself from Agnipath.

Youth protested against the scheme in States like Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, and Rajasthan, where the bulk of the army recruitment takes place. In Delhi, too, youth organisations held protests in solidarity with their counterparts in other States.

The Indian Railways said 34 trains had been cancelled and 72 trains are running late due to the protests and attacks against trains.

Violent protests continued in Bihar for the second day as protesters set afire train bogies in Kaimur and Chhapra districts, blocked train movements in Siwan, Ara (Bhojpur), Jehanabad, Nawada, Saharsha, Chhapra, and other places while road traffic too was disrupted at some places. As many as 22 trains were cancelled and five were stopped mid-way, said East Central Railway officials. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Aruna Devi’s vehicle was attacked by protesters in Nawada, leaving her and some people accompanying her injured. The BJP office in Nawada too was vandalised by the violent protesters who were demanding the restoration of the old system of recruitment in defence services.

Fifteen police personnel, including two Station House Officers, sustained serious injuries and five government vehicles were torched at Haryana’s Palwal during the protests against the scheme. Districts such as Rohtak, Rewari, and Charkhi Dadri witnessed massive protests. Demonstrators blocked the Delhi-Jaipur highway in Gurugram for over six hours. Traffic was diverted at several points in Haryana and Rajasthan.

Protests broke out in different parts of Uttar Pradesh, too. In Bulandshahr, hundreds of youth gathered at the busy Bhood crossing demanding a rollback of the scheme. Holding the Tricolour in their hands, the youth raised slogans against the government and said the government was playing with their future. When the protesters blocked NH91, the police had to use mild force, and at least eight persons were taken into custody. Similar outbursts were also seen in Unnao, Gonda, and Bareilly districts.

Opposition parties asked the Centre to withdraw the scheme immediately. Congress said the Agnipath scheme makes a mockery of military training. “It appears to us that the scheme makes a mockery of training; inducts into the defence forces an ill-trained and ill-motivated soldier, and discharges a disappointed and unhappy ex-soldier into the society,” former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram told reporters at a joint press conference along with Ajay Maken and Sachin Pilot. The Congress leaders said that given the situation on the borders, it’s imperative that soldiers in defence forces are young, well-trained, motivated, happy, satisfied, and assured of their future. Stating that Agnipath scheme did not achieve any of these objectives, the party suggested a wide consultation.

The Communist Party India-Marxist (CPI-M) said the scheme does disservice to India’s national interests. “Professional armed forces cannot be raised by recruiting ‘soldiers on contract’ for a period of four years. This scheme, to save pension money, severely compromises the quality and efficiency of our professional armed forces,” the Left party said in a statement.

Youth and student organisations have decided to step up the protests. “We are in touch with all youth and student organisations who are fighting against unemployment and the Agnipth scheme. This government is bringing a contract system even in patriotism. A national platform will soon be formed to take these protests forward,” Indian Youth Congress president Srinivas B.V. told The Hindu, drawing parallels to the protests against Citizenship Amendment Act.

Students Federation of India general secretary Mayukh Biswas said his organisation is part of the protests in Bihar and Rajasthan. “It will spread to Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, and other States in the coming days. This policy will result in generating around 35,000 jobless recruits looking for other work each year, leading to a militarisation of society over time,” Mr. Biswas said, confirming that youth and students organisations are talking each other on the matter.

Trade unions have also voiced their concerns. BMS general secretary Binay Kumar Sinha said the BMS welcomed the announcement of filling 10 lakh posts in government but opposed the Agnipath scheme. “It is as good as making army personnel contract workers. This is not quality employment that will be provided under the scheme. This is a political announcement ahead of the 2023 Assembly elections,” Mr. Sinha said, adding that the ongoing protests were politically motivated and not a trade union action.

Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) leader Tapan Sen said the move would severely compromise as well as negatively affect the efficiency of the armed forces, militating against the country’s security as a whole and also the quality of employment, determination and professionalism, to the detriment of national interests.

Hind Mazdoor Sabha general secretary Harbhajan Singh Sidhu termed the move anti-national. “We have the highest rate of unemployment and inflation. This scheme is making a mockery of the plight of unemployed youth. We will form a joint strategy against this after a meeting with all like-minded students, youth, and farmers’ organisations. It is the responsibility of all citizens to fight this scheme. Where are they taking this country to? This is worse than the colonial regime,” Mr. Sidhu said.

The Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) has also come out against the scheme. Addressing a meeting in Haridwar, Rakesh Tikait, the BKU’s national spokesperson said farmers suffered for 13 months because of the wrong policies of the government, now the erroneous step would make youth suffer the consequences. “The government should know that the youth that joins the armed forces are sons of farmers. We will fight for the interests of our children till our last breath.”

(With inputs from Sandeep Phukan in New Delhi, Amarnath Tewary in Patna, Ashok Kumar in Gurugram and Anuj Kumar in Ghaziabad)

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