Indian veterans and defense experts in America are cautious about ‘Agnipath’

Ritu Jha-


One of the major defense policy reforms initiated by the Narendra Modi government got launched, despite violent protests across major states, especially north and central India where the Prime Minister’s party holds sway, Friday, June 24 in a lukewarm manner.

Even the usually euphoric Indian diaspora on any initiative taken by the Modi government did not respond enthusiastically to the latest renovation in recruitment and service for those below officer rank. Defense experts believe the stipulated four years of service for “agniveers” under the Agnipath scheme would not be effective given its short life of four years.

“For perfection four years is too short,” Captain R D Singh, founding member of the Global initiative of Veterans, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization established in 2016 by Indian Armed Forces veterans settled in North America, told indica. “It’s a good start. The training would instill discipline, instead of the anarchy that we have seen the youth indulge in, burning trains and buses. It’s a better opportunity both for the country and army veterans. But it won’t bring perfection.”

The Indian cabinet approved ‘Agnipath’, a recruitment scheme for youth between the ages of 17.6 years to 23 who can apply into any of the three defense wings, below the rank of officers June 14. When the policy was announced the upper age limit was 21. It was revised after three days of violence across seven states, especially Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, both being governed by the Modi’s party and a steady source for defense recruitment traditionally apart from the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Regular recruitment in the Indian defense forces have not been held since 2019,

Enrolment will be held through an online centralized system for recruiting 46,000 Agniveers in all the three services, Those who meet the medical eligibility and education qualification will qualify. [For example General Duty (GD) soldier, the educational qualification is Class 10].

In the first year, the recruits will draw Rs. 4.76 lakhs [$ 6098.65] annually. By the fourth and last year, the annual remuneration could rise up to Rs. 6.92 lakhs (US $ 8866.11). On the completion of the fourth year, around 25 percent of the recruits will be absorbed in the regular cadre, depending on their willingness, service record, and medical fitness for a term of 15 years.

The remaining 75 percent will be released with the option of going for a second career, will be given a compensation of Rs. 11.71 lakh (US $ 15,003.20). There is an insurance cover (non-contributory) of Rs. 48 lakh (US $ 61,499.04). At least two senior BJP leaders have claimed that the Agniveers would be deployed as security guards at the BJP offices, drawing ridicule from a section of veterans in India.

“Four years are not enough to instill the feeling of serving the motherland. This sentiment takes time to develop,” said Capt. Singh comes from a family of servicemen and joined the Dogra Regiment of the Indian Army at the age of 21.

“The uniform attracts young blood. It is a sensation that can be expressed when one wears the uniform for the first time. My father was in the Army, so I had a reason,” he said. “When you join it still is just another job. In my experience, no one much thinks about the country, rather the uniform, the aura of being in the services that serve as an inspiration.”

Dr. Arzan Tarapore, a research scholar at the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University and author of the paper “The Army in Indian Military Strategy: Rethink Doctrine or Risk Irrelevance, sounded skeptical while talking to indica. “The Agnipath, scheme, as it has so far been defined, has raised many concerns, some more legitimate and serious than others,” he said.

“The Indian Army — and by extension, Indian defense policy more generally—is dominated by an orthodox offensive doctrine.”

When told the Agnipath scheme was breaking free from orthodox doctrine and stressed more on new technology, Dr Tarapore said, “The scheme seems to be an effort to get recruitment while alleviating some of the fiscal pressures (especially pension) that regular recruitment entails. But it’s not yet clear the scheme will succeed on this front.”

“This is not a silver bullet that will fix the military’s budgetary woes or enable its technological modernization. Those are bigger issues that require a comprehensive set of solutions, not one high-profile announcement,” Dr. Tarapore added. “As with so many of the initiatives launched by the current Indian government, much of the resistance stems from its sudden and splashy announcement. There was little to no public scrutiny of the proposal. Much of its success and acceptance will depend on whether it is amended, and how it is implemented. The government still has some room to test and adjust the scheme.”

Capt. Singh raised another concern.

“Army training is rigorous and tough. Even during regular recruitment, many leave in the first few weeks. With these new recruits, enduring so much hardship for four years will be a question that will bother them. Four years is too short a time,” said Capt. Singh added that the scheme was innovative if nothing else. “One soldier needs at least two years of training. Here they don’t have that much time. I would like most of them to stay and not leave in a hurry.”

Recalling his experience, Capt. Singh said his years in the Army had opened him to the plurality and diversity of India. “I was from Punjab and before joining the Army, I had only met Sikhs and Hindu Punjabis. I learned about the people from other states, and their cultures while in the Army. That experience is very important to maintain harmony in a multi-cultural country like India.”

Gen Raj Shukla, who retired recently as the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Army Training Command (ARTRAC) told indica, “I think the scheme is good.”