Defence Minister Rajnath Singh formally announced a new recruitment policy for the military on 14 June. Called “Agnipath”, the novel scheme offers youngsters between the age of 17 ½ and 21 an opportunity to serve in the military for four years. It carries an extremely attractive financial package, and is designed to teach the recruits various technical skills, which would then allow them to seek further prospects in the private sector, on the strength and security of a hefty bank balance.
Importantly, a quarter of those recruited under this scheme would be absorbed into the armed forces for career service.
It is transformative, creates a massive pool of young reservists, meets the military’s personnel needs, provides further education, addresses rural unemployment, and reduces the burden on the exchequer, since recruits under this scheme are not eligible for a pension.
This is significant, since, at present, around a quarter of the annual defence budget goes towards pensions. Thus, once the scheme enters its cycle, it would then release large monies for desperately needed capital expenditure.
Unsurprisingly, the scheme attracted reproval and censure from the usual quarters as soon as it was announced. In a sly, and needlessly-ominous allusion, Ashok Gehlot, the Congress Chief Minister of Rajasthan, innocently wondered where youths recruited under the Agnipath scheme might end up after four years of weapons training – in the BJP, or the RSS?
Gurdeep Singh Sappal, a national spokesperson of the Congress, echoed these fears in an irresponsible Twitter thread loaded with cautiously-worded alarmism.
He asked if the social consequences of the Agnipath scheme had been thought through, since the brutality of Partition was perhaps exacerbated, in his opinion, by the presence of war-hardened veterans in the villages of the Punjab.
This was a deplorable argument, since it inferred that letting loose thousands of youths with weapons training onto Civvy Street each year, was somehow a risk to social harmony and Nehruvian secularism.
Generally, the apprehension flagrantly stoked was that the Agnipath scheme would eventually give rise to sinister, saffron forces in mufti.
But what was surprising, was the number of senior, retired military officers who publicly inveighed against this new policy, the vehemence of their fulminations, their distinct, political bias, and sadly, the poor quality of their arguments. No names will be taken here, out of respect to the uniforms they once wore.
One said that the length of service under Agnipath ought to have been seven years, rather than four, with half being absorbed into regular service, rather than the quarter announced. This is the old tactic of rebutting numbers with numbers, without needing to offer reasons; it has no legs – just a parade ground blare.
A second said that the policy was flawed because it left youngsters at the start of their adulthood, even after four, rigorous years of skill-building, without further avenues.
Perhaps that officer missed a letter to the Prime Minister in April 2022, from the head of CAPSI (Central Association of Private Security Industry), guaranteeing placement for products of the Agnipath scheme (It also had an excellent suggestion, that the four-year tenure include a short course on corporate security).
A third pounced on the CAPSI offer and denounced it as a great fall for the Army. You didn’t spend four years moulding boys into lions, only for them to then waste their lives as ‘lowly’ security guards. The snobbery and elitism in this excuse of an argument is probably matched only by its utter ignorance of policy making. Besides, the private security sector is one of the largest employers in the country, and is expected to grow rapidly in coming years.
A fourth said that a four-year scheme wouldn’t meet the Service Corps’ requirements, since specialist drivers of tank-transporters need 8-10 years to gain full proficiency.
In logic, this is a derivate of what is called the ‘causal fallacy’, since the stated objective of the Agnipath scheme is to give youngsters a leg up in life before they start building their futures; it is not – repeat, not – intended to develop a permanent cadre of experts. So then why argue over what the policy is not about?
A fifth, a retired two-star general with a penchant for hot takes, argued that four years was grossly insufficient to instil valour and ‘paltan ki izzat’ (esprit de corps) in a trooper. Unfortunately for him, and his public image, others promptly pointed out that Hon. Capt Yogendra Singh Yadav was just 19 when he was awarded the Param Vir Chakra!
These are but a few examples of the lamentable manner in which, distinguished men who spent decades in uniform, recklessly employed ineffective arguments to run down the Agnipath recruitment policy. Even high school debaters would have done better.
Consequently, such efforts to paint the recruitment policy either as a non-starter, or as a counterproductive plan, or worse, as a knee-jerk effort to cut the pension bill, ended as an unwarranted display of churlish antipathy. It was clear that their opposition was less to the policy, and more to the government which announced it; meaning, that it was political.
And that is deeply regrettable, because India has always prided itself on producing generations of highly professional, wholly apolitical military officers. Hardly anyone bothered to contest the Congress’s negativism because that is a political party, and little else is expected of it.
But the sight of retired officers holding forth on such flimsy lines of argumentation, with such spite, is unwelcome. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth. This sort of baseless cavil does the image of the military no good, primarily since it shows such retired types up as precisely the sort of politicised officers which the system has to guard against.
Such hubbub around the Agnipath recruitment policy exposes its critics more, and questions the policy less. The detractors are only detracting from themselves, and their credibility.
Therefore, this is probably a good time for such sorts to stop pontificating without merit, or devising specious arguments by desperately grasping at straws, because the respect they command in public, solely on account of once having defended this realm, will otherwise evaporate faster than they can cut a salute.
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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