Unhappy over the government's Agnipath scheme to induct soldiers on short-term contract into the armed forces, aspirants protested in Bihar on Wednesday, blocking a highway in Muzaffarpur and railway tracks in Buxar.
They termed the scheme, announced on Tuesday, detrimental to their long-term prospects because only up to 25 per cent of the recruits or Agniveers under the scheme may get regular commission.
"Bharti do ya arthi do (Give us jobs or have us killed)" was among the slogans as the protesting young men burnt tyres and hoardings in heaps on National Highway 28, which links Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh to Barauni in Bihar, in Muzaffarpur.
Similar scenes were witnessed at Chakkar Chowk near the city's railway station, merely half a kilometre from Chakkar Maidan where army recruitment rallies are held.
The protesters said they were waiting for regular recruitment rallies to resume after two years but were given this scheme instead. Regular recruitment rallies were stopped around two years ago after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, but have not resumed. That too had led to protests at several places in the country over the past few months.
"The army should relax the age bar so that those who have spent the last two years waiting should get a fair chance," said one of the protesters in Muzaffarpur.
Age requirement for recruits under the Agnipath scheme is 17.5 to 21 years.
"The government is playing a game with us like PUBG," said another protester, adding, "No BJP leader has said anything even when their government has been holding back recruitment for so long. We will continue to protest until the government takes some big decisions to help us."
In Buxar, a protester told reporters, "Even MPs and MLAs get five-year terms; what will we do with just four years?" The tracks were cleared after police pacified the demonstrators for now. At least one train was held up for an hour.
The government has called the Agnipath scheme "historic" and announced that about 45,000 soldiers will be recruited into the army, navy and air force largely on a short-term contract. This will enable a youthful profile of the armed forces and reduce the ballooning salary and pension bills. Both men and women are eligible, according to the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.
Recruitments will begin within the next 90 days, it has been announced. The first batch will be ready by July 2023.
Speaking with NDTV hours after the announcement on Tuesday, aspirants in Patna had criticised several aspects of the scheme; some even called it "a ploy to fool young people". They said they would now prepare for other jobs.
The aspirants who praised the idea of a younger army also raised a demand for "20-30 per cent reservation" for Agniveers in other jobs once they are let go after four years.
There are reports that the armed forces will try to give a Class 12 certificate to a Class 10 student who joins as an Agniveer. So far, there is little clarity on educational qualification certificates, though the University Grants Commission has also said it will try to accommodate the scheme into its degree system.