Agnipath scheme was brought after consultations: Army chief

General Manoj Pande says there is zero tolerance for human rights violations in J&K, says the Army is taking steps to improve human and technical intelligence in the U.T.; he adds that situation along border with China is ‘stable but sensitive’

Updated - January 12, 2024 01:58 am IST

Published - January 11, 2024 01:09 pm IST

Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Pande addresses a press conference ahead of Army Day in New Delhi on January 11, 2024.

Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Pande addresses a press conference ahead of Army Day in New Delhi on January 11, 2024. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Acknowledging concerns about the situation in the Rajouri-Poonch sector of Jammu and Kashmir over the last five to six months, as well as the high attrition rate among Army personnel, the Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Pande said on Thursday that local support was crucial. The Army is engaging with the local community there, he said, emphasising that there will be “zero tolerance” for human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir.

On the Agnipath scheme, he reiterated that its final framework came about “after an iterative process, after consultations, and it took into account whatever issues we had to put across”.

The Army chief outlined the problem in the Rajouri-Poonch sector, in response to a question from The Hindu at the annual press conference ahead of Army Day. “If we look at the entire Jammu and Kashmir, in terms of the number of terrorists neutralised in the entire State in 2023, it is is 71, of which 51 are in the [Kashmir] valley and 21 in the Rajouri-Poonch region. Our own casualties in Kashmir have been seven; in Rajouri-Poonch, it has been 20. The figures, especially in Rajouri-Poonch, is something we have taken note of,” Gen. Pande said.

Respect for human rights

“My guidance to soldiers and commanders there is unambiguous, in terms of respect for human rights and zero tolerance for any actions on that account,” he said. The Army Chief’s statement comes in the wake of allegations of recent civilian deaths in Army custody.

“We have clearly laid down guidelines which spell out what you must do, and what you must not do in those areas and for soldiers to be able to act in a professional manner and whatever they’re doing. This is something which I have emphasised and re-emphasised. But let me assure you that our counterterrorism operations in those areas will continue in a relentless fashion so that we get back to normalcy at the earliest,” he added.

“Robust deployment…” Army Chief Gen Manoj Pande on India’s Northern border | Video Credit: ANI

Improving intelligence

Gen. Pande highlighted several measures being taken to improve the situation, of which the first is the strengthening of the Army’s human intelligence network, as well as those of other agencies, and also outreach to the local population. “We have increased or enhanced our deployment in those areas as also reorientated some of the units which were earlier operating in the last five to six months,” he said.

Strengthening the Army’s ability to get technical intelligence in terms of communications and better synergy with other agencies, and the local and central police forces is also key, the Army Chief said. Technical lessons are also being drawn from each operation to incorporate into future operations, he said, adding that another important aspect is to improve the Army’s use of technology to better deal with the situation.

Also Read | J&K Police told to follow protocol to avoid attacks

Moving forward on Agnipath

Gen Pande declined to comment on his predecessor’s remarks that the armed forces had been “taken by surprise” regarding the Agnipath scheme. Launched in June 2022, the scheme is aimed at short-term recruitment of soldiers, sailors and airmen for a four-year period.

Agnipath had taken the Army “by surprise” while it was a “bolt out of the blue” for the Navy and Air Force, former Army Chief Gen. Manoj Mukund Naravane has written in his upcoming memoir, Four Stars of Destiny. He recounted that it had taken him some time to explain to the Navy and Air Force Chiefs that his proposal had only been Army-centric and that he had been equally surprised by these developments.

“It would be unfair for me to say anything on that,” Gen. Pande said, when asked about Gen. Naravane’s observations, adding, “From here on, we need to move forward.”

He elaborated on the current status of the scheme. “As I said, the acceptability, the positivity and integration of the Agniveers in the units is happening well. There are few challenges in terms of training, most of which are at the tactical level which entail tweaking of our policies, limited training period, harmonising firing standards between Agniveers and regular soldiers,” Gen. Pande said. “These are some of them, more in the realm of management issues, pay and allowances, which as we are moving forward, we are picking these issues up as we go along based on the feedback,” he added.

‘Stable but sensitive’

The Army Chief characterised the situation on the northern border with China as “stable but sensitive”. He added: “We continue to talk to find a solution to address the balance issues between the two sides. Operational preparedness is very high, and deployment is both robust, and balanced.”

On the situation in Myanmar and the impact on the border, Gen. Pande said that it has been of concern. The activities of the Myanmar Army and ethnic groups have resulted in 416 Myanmar Army personnel crossing over to India, as well as some civilians crossing into Mizoram and Manipur, he said.

“We also have some of the insurgent groups who are feeling the pressure and who have now attempted to come onto our side of the border in the State of Manipur. That, combined with the situation in Manipur, is something we are keeping a close watch on. We have close to 20 Assam Rifles Battalions which are deployed at the Indo-Myanmar border. There is also talk of further strengthening our fence along the border,” he said.

Also Read | Army signs deals for 130 tethered drones and 19 tank driving simulators

Monitoring Bhutan-China talks

On relations with Bhutan and its discussions with China to resolve their boundary dispute, the Army Chief said, “We have a unique bilateral relationship based on trust, goodwill and mutual understanding. This also transcends into the military domain.”

Referring to the Indian Military training team, which has been in Bhutan since the 1960s, he noted that the two countries also share “mutual security concerns”. He added: “The ongoing talks [with China], we are closely monitoring. We are interacting with friends in Bhutan on a transparent and regular basis.”

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