Home / Opinion / Views /  Agnipath could be a path to vexing social problems
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On 14 June, the government of India introduced a new recruitment scheme for the armed forces, Agnipath. Under this, youths between the ages of 17 and 23 will be trained to serve in the Army for four-year commissions. (People under the age of 18 in any armed forces are considered ‘child soldiers’; the government, no doubt, has assumed that the training period will not count.) After four years, a quarter of these recruits may opt for and be admitted to the regular armed forces. The rest will get a post-release financial package, insurance, access to credit and an Agniveer Skill certificate. They will not be eligible for the usual Army pensions.

Since the announcement, protests have gathered momentum in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, mainly around temporary tenure and lack of pension. Retired military veterans have raised concerns about quality of service and consequences for national security.

What is the problem Agnipath seeks to solve and what are the problems it is bound to create? We are told that the scheme will bring in younger, fresh soldiers, and save India pension expenses. But it will also arm and could brutalize our youth in irreparable ways—a price we cannot afford.

Who will sign up to be an Agniveer? Most likely, the scheme will draw those who have the least prospects after school and cannot study further. Studies in European countries where there is compulsory military service show that such a disruption in studies is often permanent and that recruits often suffer mental health issues or have substance abuse problems. Some may commit crimes. Even if they are opting in, Agniveers will still be young and vulnerable. Without accessible support services in India, the discharged recruits and their families will have to cope alone, with spouses likely bearing the brunt of their maladjustment.

Unemployment in India is high. Young people are emerging from schools and colleges with certificates—that is, if they manage to complete schooling—but very little skill. After four years in the Army, having carried and learnt to use weapons, when they return to civilian life, they will be at a loss to find comparable placement. In a tweet by news agency ANI about this announcement, an official was quoted as saying that an “Agniveer" would have a unique resume and that he would stand out with “his attitude, skills and time" spent with the armed forces. As their primary role is to defend our frontiers, we may presume these would be fighting and defence skills. Apart from private security and the police, who will need these skills? If nobody needs them, where will these young men go and what will they do?

The “attitude" is more worrying. We are already a society prone to violence and a polity that in effect grants impunity to acts of barbarous violence committed in the name of caste and community. About 46,000 Agniveers are to be hired this year and 34,500 will retire in four years. Retired with a large severance package and access to credit, a small number will probably start their own enterprises. The rest will leave the barracks to start life in a polarized but aspirational society where their prospects will not match their hopes. Their disappointment and resentment would make it easy to mobilize them against their neighbours who may have studied further or apprenticed in a commercial trade—this could be a recipe for riots. Recall northeast Delhi, February 2020.

India has been witnessing declining sex ratios—a daughter deficit. Already, in some states, men find it hard to get married and have to import wives, sometimes shared by several brothers. About 20 years ago, scholars wrote about what happens when the numbers of unemployed, unmarried young men rise in a society. These ‘bare branches’—men who will not raise families—could become cannon fodder for civil wars. If we train and arm them to fight and then unleash them upon society, the consequences can only be dire. It was estimated that in 2017, in India, there were 71,101,000 privately owned (licit and illicit) firearms and 61,401,000 unregistered and unlawfully held firearms, placing India second globally in terms of private ownership of guns. We will soon have about 50,000 Indian men trained in combat every year with about 35,000 of them retiring annually. Now imagine 35,000 young men, immersed for four years in a masculine universe that valorizes violence, trained to shoot, coming out of their Agnipath service into an unwelcoming, uncaring world and chancing easily upon handguns. Otherwise marginalized, their only leverage in the world would be the ability to intimidate and hurt with a weapon.

We must not overlook the connection between guns and gender-based violence. Where people are comfortable with carrying, owning and using guns, we find a strong correlation with increased levels of intimate partner and domestic violence. Assault at gunpoint becomes a more realistic threat in public spaces.

Militarization creates more problems than it solves. Levels of violence, public and interpersonal, increase insidiously. Acceptance of violence as a legitimate language of interaction reinforces impunity for both citizen violence and state violence. As more matters are drawn into the purview of security, information is guarded, secrets abound, access is limited and surveillance becomes normal. Inequality and injustice become secondary concerns after state security, which may be defined in more personal and exclusionary terms. The means determine the end. Free, open democratic societies cannot seek militaristic solutions to social problems without sacrificing liberty and justice.

Swarna Rajagopalan teaches and writes on international relations and security.


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