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Agnipath: Congress asks govt to keep in abeyance

While the scheme will ease the armed forces’ huge salary and pension bills, veterans fear it will hurt the forces’ ethos and endanger national security
Rahul Gandhi.
Rahul Gandhi.
File photo

Sanjay K. Jha   |   New Delhi   |   Published 17.06.22, 03:47 AM

The Congress on Thursday asked the government to keep in abeyance the Agnipath scheme, underlining flaws that it said would endanger national security and society.

“It is our duty to warn the country of the consequences of a hastily drawn-up scheme,” the Congress said.

The Congress told a news conference addressed by P. Chidambaram, Ajay Maken and Sachin Pilot: “We would urge the government to keep the Agnipath scheme in abeyance, hold wide consultations with serving and retired officers, and address the issues of quality, efficiency and economy without compromising on any of the three considerations.”

Rahul Gandhi had set the tone a little earlier by tweeting: “Neither rank, nor pension. No direct recruitment for the last two years. No stable future after four years. No respect on the government’s part for the armed forces.

“Mr Prime Minister, listen to the voice of the unemployed youth. Don’t subject them to an ‘agni-pareeksha’ by forcing them to traverse the ‘agni-path’.”

Under the Agnipath scheme, around 46,000 youths aged 17.5 to 21 will be recruited to the armed forces every year, with three-fourths of them demobilised after four years without pension or ex-servicemen status. All recruitment of ordinary soldiers will be through this scheme.

Thousands of youths who had applied for regular armed forces jobs, or were planning to, hit the streets in protest against the scheme on Wednesday.

While the scheme will ease the armed forces’ huge salary and pension bills, veterans fear it will hurt the forces’ ethos, professionalism and morale, and endanger national security.

At the news conference, Congress leaders underlined how Prime Minister Narendra Modi had tried to impose three new farm laws on the country, only to have to withdraw them after a yearlong movement in which over 700 farmers died.

They said the Agnipath scheme too was being thrust on the youth and the armed forces without a thorough examination of its pros and cons, and demanded punishment for those who had conceived it.

Maken said the protests were spontaneous and the government could not this time accuse the Opposition of instigating them.

He appealed to the youth not to resort to violence, saying the Congress under Rahul would fight this battle on their behalf. The Congress had extended full support to the farmers’ movement too.

A Congress statement said: “The Agnipath scheme is controversial, carries multiple risks, subverts the longstanding traditions and ethos of the armed forces and there is no guarantee that the soldiers recruited under the scheme will be better trained and motivated to defend the country.

“We have heard the views expressed by retired defence officers. Almost unanimously, they have opposed the scheme and we believe that many serving officers share the same reservations about the scheme.

“Our first concern is that the Agnipath soldier will be trained for six months and will serve for another 42 months when 75 per cent of the recruits will be discharged. 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 society.

“The age of recruitment — 17 to 21 years — raises numerous questions. A large part of our youth will be totally excluded from serving in the defence forces.”

Chidambaram’s advice to the government was: “Prepare a status paper identifying the problems. Share it with experts, (with) Opposition parties if you wish. This ill-conceived scheme is not the solution.”

He added: “They are giving simplistic solutions without thinking. How do you train a soldier in six months? There are complex psychological issues that need to be examined. You don’t want an unhappy, dissatisfied and insecure youth in the armed forces and in society when he has to quit his job after four years.”

Pilot said: “There are lakhs of vacancies in the armed forces which should have been filled first instead of this gimmickry to win momentary applause. This will entail huge losses for small gains.

“An emotional bonding with the forces and the country cannot be created (in the recruit’s heart) in such a short time. The army is more precious than parties and governments. The government should not play with the nation’s security and the youth’s future.”

The Congress statement said the stated objective of cutting the pension bill was a weak argument.

“The short period of training (6 months) and the unusually short period of service (42 months) may have negative consequences on quality, efficiency and effectiveness. We fear that the scheme may turn out to be a case of ‘penny wise and security foolish’,” it said.

“Several distinguished defence officers have pointed out that a fighting soldier must take pride in his unit; must be willing to lay down his life for his country and comrades; must not be risk averse; and must be capable of exhibiting leadership. They fear that each one of these objectives will be in jeopardy under the scheme.”

It added: “The announcements by the ministry of home affairs and the ministry of education on post-discharge opportunities appear to be afterthoughts. They show that the scheme was poorly conceived and hastily drawn up.”

Chidambaram said: “The mindsets of the army, paramilitary forces and police are entirely different. Their training is different. There are a large number of ex-servicemen in the country and there are still over six lakh vacancies in the central paramilitary forces. Why were they not filled?”

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