The government had learned its lesson and moved fast to quell the violent agitation against the Agnipath scheme with a tailored message and effective action
Coaches of the Farakka Express set on fire in Patna in a protest against the Agnipath scheme, June 17, 2022 (Photo: Getty Images)
WHEN THE UNION GOVERNMENT announced a new mode of recruiting soldiers for the armed forces on June 14, it could not have imagined the scale of protests that would grip large parts of north India. The protests were violent and public property worth hundreds of crores of rupees was destroyed. In key zones of recruitment, states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Uttarakhand, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, potential recruits took to the streets against what they deemed were “unfair” features of the Agnipath scheme.
The lasting images were those from Bihar where extensive damage to railway property was reported as protests raged across Gopalganj, Chhapra, Arrah, Danapur, Lakhisarai, Kaimur and Samastipur districts. By June 20, some 800 persons had been detained and more than 145 FIRs were registered. There was extensive overlap between areas where protests against the Agnipath scheme turned violent and where similar protests against changes in the pattern of examination for railway recruitments had been reported some time ago.
In that week, it seemed the government had bitten more than it could chew. After two years of different protests, it had got its comeuppance for not consulting stakeholders in reforms of a different kind. Some of the fears seemed valid on the face of it. Unlike regular—life-term—employment for what are known as “other ranks” in the armed forces, the Agnipath scheme changed the nature and terms of employment drastically. Of the roughly 46,000 troopers to be recruited every year, only 25 per cent would be retained after four years. The rest would be demobbed at the end of a four-year tour of duty. The retiring Agniveers would also not be eligible for a pension unlike the regular enlisted men. The protests were exacerbated by these features that many potential recruits thought were detrimental to their prospects after they left the armed forces.
In the days after the protests began, the armed forces’ brass swung into action and launched a large outreach exercise in which they explained the rationale for the scheme and also assuaged many misgivings that were inflamed by rumours that began spreading as soon as the scheme was announced. On June 21, Lt General Anil Puri, additional secretary in the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and the person spearheading the Agnipath scheme, elaborately explained the features of the scheme and debunked many lies that had become associated with it. At the end of his interaction with journalists, Puri was military-like in his message: Start preparing for Agnipath, stop wasting time.
Within days of Puri’s message being conveyed, the protests abated and by June 25 they were over for all practical purposes. But a lot more went into assuaging fears than just a straight talk by a military professional. On June 18, four days after the scheme was announced, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) announced 10 per cent reservation for exiting Agniveers in the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) and the Assam Rifles. Some states announced a quota for them in their state police forces as well. A one-time age relaxation enabling recruitment of candidates up to 23 years of age (the intake age for the scheme is 17.5 to 21 years) was also announced.
By then, the anxious protesters had returned to their normal lives and the political ‘protest’ took off. On June 30, the Punjab Legislative Assembly passed a resolution moved by Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann. The resolution stated: “The Punjab Vidhan Sabha strongly feels that the scheme where youth will be employed only for a period of four years and only upto 25% will be retained, [is] in the best interest neither of national security nor of the youth of this country. The policy is likely to create dissatisfaction among the youth who wish to serve the armed forces of the nation for a lifetime.”
The resolution that demanded a rollback of the Agnipath scheme “immediately” was voted along partisan lines, with Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLAs voting for the resolution while the two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members opposed it.
In Bihar, which was the epicentre of the protests, the issue rocked the state Assembly where the opposition disrupted proceedings after the speaker refused permission to discuss the subject as it fell outside the purview of the Assembly.
These were just two formal protests. But in a politically charged environment, the opposition was unwilling to let go of a rare opportunity to put the government on the mat. Practically, the entire pantheon of opposition figures opposed the scheme tooth and nail. Some even went as far as indulging in conspiracy theories. Far simpler, and accurate, explanations were eschewed as they made no political sense.Only the lurid ‘explanations’ could be sold. But even that did not work.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) began its recruitment on June 24. Three days later, by June 27, nearly 95,000 applications had been received. Another three days later, this number had swelled to 2.72 lakh applications. By July 5, this number had risen to nearly 7.5 lakh, more than the highest in any recruitment cycle according to IAF. The Army’s recruitment began on July 1 and the force has an elaborate calendar of recruitment rallies in the weeks and months ahead. Going by the current trend, the scheme—far from being a damp squib—is witnessing keen interest from the pool of interested youth. Only opposition politicians seem determined to describe the scheme as a failure. As expected, some people have banded together to mount a legal challenge to Agnipath and the Supreme Court is expected to hear a petition soon.
On June 18, the Union Home Ministry announced 10 per cent reservation for exiting Agniveers in the central armed police forces and the Assam Rifles. Some states announced a quota for them in their state police forces as well. A one-time age relaxation enabling recruitment of candidates up to 23 years of age was also announced
IN THE LAST two-and-a-half years, there have been three major protests in India. The Shaheen Bagh protest that lasted from mid-December 2019 to March 2020; the farmers protest against the three farm reform laws that lasted more than a year (from early August 2020 to December 2021); and the protest against the Agnipath scheme whose active phase lasted not more than a week. Of the three, the Agnipath protests were the shortest and the most violent. There was some violence during the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, but that violence was contained quickly. For example, in UP, the violence was quelled in a matter of days.
One reason why the Agnipath protests were short and could be contained quickly was their non-political nature. The state where the protests were violent—Bihar—is also beset with probably the highest levels of economic insecurity: a large pool of educated youth and the slow pace of recruitment to government jobs make a volatile combination. The violence seen in late January against changes in the pattern of recruitment in the railways—more qualified candidates could compete for jobs meant for lower qualifications—fed into these fears. The Union Government learnt its lessons well. In the case of the Agnipath scheme, it moved quickly after it realised that protests were afoot and ameliorative action was necessary if these were not to spiral out of control.
The contrast with the farmers’ protest could not be more glaring. The farmers stayed put at their protest sites—along NH1, virtually barricading the national capital—for more than a year, a degree of ‘staying power’ that economically insecure aspirants for armed forces jobs cannot even dream of. The motivation for the farmers’ protest was misleadingly described as economic insecurity born of agricultural reforms. That was hardly the case. As later events, such as the attack on the Red Fort on January 26, 2021 showed, the protest had a strong element of identity politics. That combination of active participation of rich farmers motivated by identity politics enabled a long protest.
The Shaheen Bagh protest against CAA in 2019-20 was wholly motivated by identity politics. No amount of persuasion, including ‘engagement’ by a sympathetic committee of interlocutors set up by the Supreme Court, was able to wean off the protesters from the path they took. It was the pandemic that finally forced their hand in March 2020.
There are varying explanations for protests in India, their longevity and their motivations. But one overlooked issue is that of the political moral hazard inherent in such situations. Take the case of the farmers’ protest. The three farm reform laws were passed by Parliament. But farmers took to the street dubbing the three laws as “illegal” as they were not “consulted”. This was a dangerously anarchic sentiment, one that was made worse by the government engaging in 11 rounds of talks with farmers’ representatives. Far from any good-faith negotiation, the farmers’ obduracy rose with each round. The calculation being that continuous protest and an unbending attitude were likely to force the government to retreat. Ultimately, that paid off. In November of that year, the government was forced to retreat after holding fast to the three laws since September 2020.
The trouble for any government faced with such protests is how to respond. In case protests are violent, the law and order machinery takes its own course. But what if the protests are peaceful but go beyond mere attempts to persuade a government to change course? Here explanations diverge. Ordinary citizens, who abhor violence and anarchy unleashed by special interests, don’t have much of an opinion on what the government does in handling these ‘protests’. This explains the sudden bouts of violence during protests and then long periods of quiescence in which normal citizens go about their lives. Intellectuals, though, have a different perspective.
The spate of registrations—the Army hasn’t put out a number yet—indicates the desirability of a career in the military services for most young men, especially in certain parts of the country. There is no complicated explanation behind the lure of a life in uniform in India. For instance, more than one crore candidates appeared for the railway recruitment examination conducted in 2021 for 35,000 non-technical posts. A government job, even today, remains the most secure profession for the aspirational youth, complete with a promise of pension and lifelong health cover.
Within days of Lt General Anil Puri’s message being conveyed, the protests abated and by June 25 they were over for all practical purposes. By then, the anxious protesters had returned to their normal lives and the political ‘protest’ took off. On June 30, the Punjab Legislative Assembly passed a
resolution against the Agnipath scheme
NEARLY 30 YEARS after economic liberalisation, the state remains the principal provider of jobs as well as the means of social and economic mobility. So, it wasn’t difficult to predict that the Agnipath scheme, which aims to change the services’ recruitment policy, would be met with resistance. However, no one was prepared for the scale of violence that followed. One person died, trains were set on fire, buses pelted with stones as well as traffic disrupted, primarily in UP, Bihar, Haryana and a few other states. The fact that these states also compromise the bulk of India’s low-wage migrant population is no coincidence.
Protests, it is often thought, have long been the language of the dissatisfied, often angry, and sometimes very desperate Indian citizen. The right to protest is enshrined in the Constitution, derived as it is from Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19. And just as long as there has been the right to protest, there has been violence.
“The tradition of non-violent protests fashioned by Congress has continued. But as expectations grew from the post-colonial government and it failed to meet those growing aspirations, the nature of the protests also differed,” says Indrajit Roy, senior lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of York. The nature of the protest came to be defined by the actors spearheading it. There were the political protests, spearheaded by political parties, usually the ones in opposition against policies of the government in office. Social movements, be it anti-caste or environmental protection, took on the form of entrenched protests, the kind that came to dominate Janpath in central Delhi for decades. “When protests spilled onto the streets, destruction of public property became a part and parcel of their organisation. This was something you see from the 1960s, with the language movement to separate Maharashtra and Gujarat and the cow protection movement in 1966-67 offering prominent examples,” explains Roy.
In a plural society, also marked by deep fissures, protests have also emerged as a way of addressing grievances or of expressing deep-rooted frustration with systems in place. Over the past decade-and-a-half, India has seen more than a couple of mass mobilised protest movements that have sought answers from patriarchy, the judiciary and society at large. The reference here is to the Justice for Jessica (Lal) campaign, the Nirbhaya protests that led to a rewriting of laws and examination of the way women are treated in this country, and the anti-corruption movement which contributed to the defeat of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the 2014 General Election. These are also what can be broadly categorised as ‘good protests’. A candlelight vigil against the state but led by the middle-class, white-collared professionals and marked by soft resistance.
“We are a state-driven society but historically the state has also been inaccessible to the people. Public property is often seen as no one’s property. You make the state listen to you by damaging state property. A vast number of people don’t have access to visible markers of the state’s infrastructure like parks and gardens. We have multiple levels of public with multiple levels of access and hence multiple levels of investments in public infrastructure. Hence, the attacking of symbols associated with the state,” explains Sanjay Srivastava, professor of anthropology at SOAS, London.
Violent protests are seen to serve a twofold purpose. They create a spectacle, thus drawing the attention of even those who may be indifferent. And they convey the deep unhappiness of those protesting; in this case, thousands of men who see a job in the forces as their ticket to a more secure life. Pensions form a disproportionately large part of the defence budget. The Agnipath scheme, even with the promise of a bulk payment at the end of the four-year tenure, seeks to trim this budget as well as to induct more young people in the Army.
The Indian Air Force began its recruitment on June 24. By June 27, nearly 95,000 applications had been received. Another three days later, this number had swelled to 2.72 lakh. By July 5, the number had risen to nearly 7.5 lakh, more than the highest in any recruitment cycle according to IAF. Only Opposition politicians seem determined to describe the scheme as a failure
In India, a government job is still often the only way out of poverty and ensuring some sort of future for one’s family. At the end of the day, it is the promise of upward mobility that pushes the middle-class student to aspire for engineering or the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). And it is the same promise, although with considerably different stakes, that pushes a young man in northern and central rural India, where land holdings are scarce, to seek a career in the armed forces.
But all this still doesn’t explain the suddenness with which the protests died down. Coaching-centre owners in cities like Aligarh and Patna were eventually arrested on charges of fanning the protest, even as the forces announced that those who had indulged in arson and destruction of public property would not be given a chance.
What eventually decides the success of a protest is just how much it can carry public opinion and sympathy with it. The violence against the Agnipath scheme, according to academic PK Datta, could also be interpreted as a demand to be heard: “Taking to the streets requires taking a risk, particularly for the poor man who knows the cops will come for him. We need to understand why people take these risks but also balance it with the ethical consideration of what is appropriate behaviour in a protest.”
The social constituency of the protester or the cause also plays a very important role in the pan-India impact of a protest. The farmers’ protest will remain a landmark for the way it sustained itself for over a year. While opinions remained deeply divided over the legitimacy of their concerns, several factors worked in their favour.
Farmers also occupy a unique position in the Indian mind and society, often seen as the ones who feed the country. So any criticism would always be muted and tempered. “Also, remember that farmers are not exclusively rural. The movement was led by farmers from a range of socio-economic classes. They mobilised strategically against the state. They embodied hope, but also drew on a legacy of largescale protests,” says Roy. He refers to the original farmers’ protest of 1988-89 when over 500,000 farmers gathered on the lawns of the Boat Club and refused to leave. This was just days before Parliament’s winter session. The protests, according to Roy, exposed the weakness of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government. “The state could not unleash violence on the farmers even if it had wanted to,” he says.
With the CAA protests, on the other hand, it was easy for the state to single out another which ensured that while there was support, it was restricted to pockets that were already critical of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Public sympathy never mobilised in favour of those protests.
But violence in a protest is not always visible and physical. A non-violent protest, according to Datta, has a far more complicated dynamic. Especially if it’s in the form of a hunger strike or a dharna. “Violence against the self brings out the violence of the state in terms of lack of moral legitimacy.
Even in a peaceful protest, if people die, the responsibility of it lies with the state. The farmers’ protest was very effective because it had huge amounts of violence against the self,” says Datta.
As public opinion becomes more and more unsympathetic towards protests—as was evidenced during the student protests and the anti-CAA protests—the forms of protest will evolve. “A good protest is one which factors in class [of the protesters], is intergenerational, and has a complete lack of violence. We will find that protesters will mask their grievances in economic terms rather than a critique. The language will change,” says Srivastava.
For now, the path seems clear for the Indian armed forces to proceed with what is arguably a necessary reform: modernisation and equipping the forces with weapons necessary to defend the country and ward off external enemies. This is not possible unless the armed forces are restructured from a manpower-intensive system to a nimble and lethal military.