Will Agnipath energise or demoralise the military? 

The scheme is too massive a change and first needs to be put through a testbed 

Updated - June 25, 2022 03:51 pm IST

Published - June 24, 2022 12:15 am IST

Rashtriya Janata Dal leaders protest against the Centre’s Agnipath scheme in Patna.

Rashtriya Janata Dal leaders protest against the Centre’s Agnipath scheme in Patna. | Photo Credit: PTI

On June 14, the government announced the Agnipath scheme, which fundamentally transforms the process of recruitment of soldiers, sailors and airmen into the three services. Agniveers, the recruits, will be employed for four years, after which 25% of them will be selected for enrolment in the regular cadre, while the rest will be given a certain amount of money and be shown avenues to get back to civilian life. The scheme has generated a lot of debate, and protests against it have been violent in several parts of the country. To discuss and understand the nuances of the issue, Dinakar Peri spoke to Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda,(Retd.), former Northern Army Commander, and Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (Retd.), former additional director general of Centre for Air Power Studies. Edited excerpts:

Can you provide an overview of Agnipath and put things in context, given the concerns?

Lt Gen D.S. Hooda: Let me try and take a very dispassionate view and look at both sides. Just like any scheme, there are advantages and concerns. Let me briefly cover both. The advantages, as have been brought out by the government and the military leadership… they’ve been talking about a younger military, the average age going down from 32 to 26. The rapid turnover of Agniveers in the system, they are hoping, will attract people who are more technologically savvy and are therefore more capable of handling new kinds of modern equipment. That is why they’re also hoping to exploit some people from the Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) and other technical institutes. What has not been stated by the military and the government, but which is obviously a big factor for the adoption of this scheme, is the fact that at some stage, maybe not immediately, Agnipath is going to help reduce the salary and pension budgets. That could go into capital expenditure and for the modernisation of the three forces. Also, by picking 25% of the whole lot of Agniveers, you will possibly get people who can then be trained as non-commissioned officers (NCOs), etc. And with our shortage of officers, it is essential that we have better NCOs in the military.

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There are genuine concerns. Will people who join only for four years, and who are possibly looking at the military as a stepping stone for a future career, have the same levels of morale and motivation that you find among soldiers who are permanently in the military? Is the scheme going to, in some ways, impact unit cohesion, which is absolutely essential? Is the shortened training period good enough to turn a recruit into a soldier who can fit in and function well within a unit?

There are also, in my view, different aspects of different services. Everybody is not going to face the same conditions. Someone in a technical service in a peace station is obviously not going to face the same conditions as someone who is going to spend two-three years deployed along the borders with an infantry unit. So, how will these different conditions impact the Agniveer? Some are saying it could have an impact, while some are saying it will not have an impact on operational effectiveness and readiness. I think it’s too early to tell. My suggestion would be that the scheme be put through a testbed. See how it works. Then we can adopt whatever lessons we learn from the testbed.

About treating it as a testbed, wouldn’t that have been a better way to begin? And then the scheme could have been rolled out on a larger scale?

Lt Gen D.S. Hooda: The government has said that we are not going to roll it back, that we are going to implement it. So, even if you do it in this manner, use the first four years as a testbed. The argument that is being made is that the Defence Minister has the authority to make changes where required. But I think the approach to what we are doing currently, and to a testbed, would be different. If we say this is a testbed, I think we will be more open to major modifications wherever required. I am glad the Vice Chief of Army Staff did say something similar, that they are looking at it for the first four-five years as a pilot project.

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With respect to the Navy and Air Force, which are highly technology-intensive, what is going to be the impact, given the short tenure of the scheme and only six months of training?

AVM Manmohan Bahadur: When you’re talking about technology, and you have studied something in your school or college or an ITI, and then you’re absorbed into a military formation, the systems there are totally different. The basis may remain the same. And it takes a lot of time — in my experience, at least four-five years — for people to be trusted to work on systems in their own individual capacity. For four-five years, you’re actually under the tutelage of a senior person. No airman, no air warrior signs for his trade in the clearance form for an aircraft going for flight. It is similar for radars, anti-aircraft missile systems, and so on. I’m sure a similar thing goes for the naval systems too. So, at the ripe time of four years, when they are ready to be exploited to their full potential, you’re asking 75% of the people to go. And then you get a new lot coming in and you have to start from scratch. A person who would become a supervisor after five-six years of service leaves. A lot of money and, more importantly, effort and knowledge as well as wisdom are going out of the system. This is something that has to be catered for.

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And since we’ve talked of a trial period, in my opinion, the initial lot who come in should go into non-critical streams of the Air Force and Navy. The same goes for the Army too. Let’s see how the people respond. And thereafter, in the next lot, or maybe from the third lot, you tweak the system and modify it to take into account the issues that may have arisen. For example, we’ve done this with the Short Service Commission. It was initially for five years. It was increased thereafter to 10 years, etc.

The terms and conditions state that Agniveers will form a distinct rank and will sport distinctive insignia on their uniform during the duration of their service before some of them come back into the regular cadre. This is a clear demarcation. How is that from the point of view of motivation, especially where there is close camaraderie?

Lt Gen D.S. Hooda: I wish they had not done this. There is absolutely no difference in the kinds of jobs that they will do in units, there is no difference in how they will be treated. Having a separate insignia sort of signifies two classes of soldiers in a unit. You shouldn’t make any sort of distinction at this stage… Because when you do that, even individuals within the unit will look at each other as a separate class, which is not good. As I mentioned, one of the key factors is unit cohesion. That comes in with a sense of common purpose. Everybody feels that everybody is equal.

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AVM Manmohan Bahadur: A different rank or a unique insignia actually hits at the very basis of unit cohesion. The armed forces are a classless lot. You wear a uniform, whether in school or in college or in the armed forces, to remove all economic and societal disparities, and say all are one. And here you have two people fighting, say in the trenches, the enemy is in front, and you have one person wearing one type of uniform and the other one has an insignia signifying him to be somebody who is different. That is not right. I feel the government can do a simple modification, which is to remove this clause. In any case, when the Agniveer leaves after four years, you may call him Agniveer, but he’s not an ex-serviceman. The rule says he’s not an ex-serviceman.

A major concern that has been expressed on social media is the issue of national security as young military-trained men will be going back to civil society in large numbers every year.

Lt Gen D.S. Hooda: I don’t think it’s as much a concern as it is being made out to be ... militarisation of society. First, the numbers are not that high that we’re looking at huge militarisation in society. There could be some who could be exploited [by anti-social elements], yes. And I think to allay these fears, if we are able to give them some decent, honourable second career, that to a large extent would help overcome these issues about how these armed forces-trained people will behave once they’re out in society.

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AVM Manmohan Bahadur: When we are talking in terms of militarisation, the pressures of a jobless existence weigh against the ethos, or the morality, that you may have learned in those four years. That really stretches the elastic, the malleability of one’s character, and some may, unfortunately, fall for it. So, the point is, it is not such a big problem — but to say that there is no problem, I think that too would be incorrect. And the way out is we have industry falling head over heels saying that we will give them jobs. I like Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd.)’s reply to a tweet from one of the industrialists, where he said, what have you been doing till now, please give us numbers? Even now as we speak, ex-servicemen are looking for jobs. We have to move beyond the optics and statements, and do something on the ground to help these people.

What would you say in conclusion?

Lt Gen D.S. Hooda: I want to reiterate what I said in the beginning. This is a massive change that we have brought about in the recruitment process. I am not sure there has been enough discussion and debate even within the services on how we are going to take people, train them, inculcate in them the ethos of the military, and how long they will serve. I know the service chiefs and service headquarters have been discussing it. There have been discussions with the political leadership. But has it been debated enough within the organisation, at the level of commanding officers and company commanders who are actually going to be bearing the brunt of what is going to happen? My suggestion again is to put the scheme through some kind of a testbed and be open to major changes, if and when required. As AVM Bahadur has also said, you will probably find that there are certain areas, certain pockets, certain traits that are more suited for Agniveers, and some are not. So, this across-the-board option could also be changed a little bit.

Also read | Services rule out rollback of Agnipath, reveal hiring plan

AVM Manmohan Bahadur: We need to look beyond four years. The issue — and rightly so — is that the decisions have been taken by people at the top. When you’re talking of the armed forces, the top brass would have retired in four years. And the fallout, if any, good and bad, will be faced by the next set of leadership within the military. I think they need to be taken on board in all the decisions that are going to be taken now — the way this scheme is going to be rolled out and implemented on the ground — because they’re going to face the proverbial music.

Talking Politics with Nistula Hebbar | Understanding the Agnipath scheme

Additionally, do we need to set up another organisation to look after the people who go out? We have the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare, and there are enough [complaints] from the existing ex-servicemen that nothing much has been done. Now we have a larger mass going out every year, a younger lot.

Lieutenant General D. S. Hooda (Retd) is a former Northern Army Commander; Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (Retd.) is former additional director-general of Centre for Air Power Studies

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