Agnipath Protests Spread, Creating Pressure For Centre

Agnipath recruitment scheme: Rail and road traffic was blocked in parts of Bihar for the second straight day.

Crowds in Bihar set vehicles on fire and blocked rail and road traffic.

New Delhi:

Protests by army aspirants that have escalated and spread beyond Bihar to many states have created a new pressure point for the Centre after it launched a new military recruitment plan. Crowds in Bihar set trains on fire and blocked rail and road traffic for the second straight day. Stones were thrown at a BJP MLA by angry protesters demanding the withdrawal of the short-term recruitment scheme.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's party Janata Dal United (JDU), the BJP's Bihar ally, has emphasised that the government must reconsider the Agnipath system. Even the BJP's own leaders in Bihar, not willing to be named, hope the protests will drive the Centre to take steps that will spare everyone a prolonged crisis.

"Due to Agnipath, dissatisfaction, despair and a bleak future is on the minds of the youth and students of the country, including Bihar. The central government should immediately reconsider the scheme as this decision is related to the defense and security of the country," tweeted JDU national president Rajiv Ranjan Singh.

Another party leader, Upendra Kushwaha, also tweeted.

"We will request the central government, if there is so much opposition, then it should reconsider the scheme," Bihar Minister Vijendra Yadav, a senior JDU leader, told reporters.

Mr Yadav said the government should hold talks with protestors to address their worry.

For the BJP, it is almost a redux of the massive farmer protests that went on for nearly a year until the government retracted three controversial farm laws.  

The violence erupted on Tuesday after the government announced an overhaul of recruitment for India's 1.38 million-strong armed forces, looking to bring down the average age of personnel and reduce pension expenditure. The protests have spread to 10 states, including Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Delhi.

The new system will bring in men and women between the ages of 17-and-a-half and 21 for a four-year tenure, with only a quarter retained for longer periods.

Previously, soldiers have been recruited by the army, navy and air force separately and they enter service for up to 17 years for the lowest ranks.

As hundreds of potential recruits protested on the streets against the shorter tenure, the BJP faced anger.

Two offices of the BJP were vandalised and two MLAs were attacked, which triggered unease and panic in the party's rank and file, say sources. A BJP office in Bihar's Nawada was attacked and so were the homes of two party legislators, CB Gupta (Chhapra) and Aruna Devi (Nawada).

In an attempt to defuse the rage, the Chief Ministers of three BJP-ruled states promised jobs to "Agniveers" or the recruits under the new system after their four-year stint.

Senior Bihar BJP leader Sushil Modi urged the Bihar government to make a similar announcement.

For the BJP, it is increasingly awkward, with Nitish Kumar and opposition leader Tejashwi Yadav appearing to be on the same side once again.

"How can the country be safe if crores of brave jawans and soldiers start feeling insecure because of the government and its policies? Remember RSS and BJP, you are to be blamed. Every youth of the country has the desire, passion and heart to receive the Param Vir Chakra. Don't break their spirit by making them Agniveers," Tejashwi Yadav, RLD leader, tweeted today.

The government has launched an outreach campaign. In a series of tweets, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry posted facts related to the Agnipath schemes in the public domain. A detailed document titled "Myths vs Facts", which seeks to "dispel misconceptions", was also shared by government sources.

The government has also put out a 10-point defence of the scheme and assured recruits they will not find themselves in the lurch after completing their four years in the military.