Agnipath: Path of Militarisation of Society?

Narendra Modi government just doesn’t seem to learn from its past mistakes. From demonetisation to Farmers’ laws with decision on Kashmir, Citizenship Amendment Act and Covid lockdown in the interim the citizens of this country have had to suffer because of not just the unwise decisions of the government but also the manner in which decisions are taken. Once again we’ve a characteristic high handed decision without any consultation with either the general public or the people’s representatives.

Agnipath scheme, in spite of its popular Bollywood title and its hyped launch, has set the Indian youth on fire against the government within a day of its launch. In the present environment of economic uncertainty, the young Indians are instigated with the scheme announced by our prime minister, as it shrinks their job opportunity in the defense forces further. The ‘hire and fire’ logic of cost cutting will not only hurt the careers in the army, but it will also reduce the professional competency of the defense forces in the long run. While all this is discussed by defense experts, one must explore another side of this scheme, that it makes thousands of trained ‘Agniveers’ -75% recruits who lose their jobs after four years contract is over – simply unemployed. Government is saying that they can be absorbed in the state police force or other professional security requirements, but that can turn out to be a half truth. Most of them are more likely to be absorbed as private security guards by agencies out to exploit them. One dangerous prospect is – they will become easy recruits for political ideologies that believe in violence, to be used in the capacity of foot soldiers.

This announcement is clearly in line with recruitment processes in other departments where short term contract employees working at much lower salaries with no liabilities for the government are preferred over regular employment. But then why should we assume that they will give their best for the country? The reason why armed forces are revered is that they are willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of country. If a four years recruit is faced with a situation where he is expected to make a sacrifice with economic insecurity of his family looming large, we cannot be sure what decision he will take? With economic policies of globalisation, privatisation and liberalisation some areas have been opened up for employment of foreign nationals – teaching posts in private universities, airline pilots, cricket players in IPL and coaches for various sports, etc. If armed forces too proceed in this direction then what prevents the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in recruiting Indian youth at better service conditions? Afterall, we do have a Gorkha regiment of Indian Army, who originally hail from Nepal.

Traditionally, our civil society and armed forces do maintain a distance from each other. The mingling happens only through defined channels for honouring and celebrating men and women performing their duty in military uniforms. Armed warfare is not an everyday thing for the average Indian. Neither there is social support for including military education in the school system nor the military leaders aspire much to occupy the top positions in civil and political life beyond a few exceptions. Still, we have managed to create competent and professional defense forces who have defended us well after independence.

But Hindutva nationalists come to power and armed forces – security issues get hyped and become the core of the political narrative. As if the rulers want every Indian to live in fear of imagined attack, issues around the army get hyped and politicized. Suddenly, retired military generals appear on TV shows or become ministers, campaigning in favour of nationalism. Narendra Modi made an appeal to youth to vote in the name of surgical strike at Balakot in response to Pulwama attack. We have to view the outcome of Agnipath in light of such a political environment. What will prevent a jingoistic leader to goad the jobless youth trained by Armed forces in their twenties and thirties not mature enough to discern national interest from the interest of ruling dispensation to take up arms for a particular cause?

Beyond the political motives, one can say that branding of Agniveers and hype that is created around this recruitment is also a bad idea. There is a difference in celebrating the sacrifices, bravery of our soldiers and painting them as Bollywood superheroes in the imagination of young Indians through vicious Whatsapp campaigns. We do not want our next generations to fight imaginary enemies and live in fantasy of the violence. Neither the knowledge of how to use guns and weapons should become the pursuit of teenage India. We do not want the culture of video game psychopaths getting into the schools and killing the innocents. The US is struggling with moral dilemma of gun control laws in the aftermath of recent killing in a school. Pakistan has also witnessed such indiscriminate killing of children. The government support to militia in Pakistan is an open secret, the biggest price for which has been paid by Pakistan itself. In the days of the internet, the knowledge and fad of weapons will travel from one cell phone to another at the speed of light, if we hype the armed forces in civil society. Finding Desi Kattas in black markets or guns from the gun manufacturing cottage industry of Munger in Bihar for cheap is not at all difficult if motivation for violence is created. In the name of cause of national security, the campaigns with undertones of violence will only do harm to peace and internal security. Army should have public support and backing, but they are expected to perform discreetly. The defense forces are our last resort to be used to settle political conflicts at the borders or inside the country. We must let them operate independently.