Agnipath, other questionable schemes under scrutiny : The Tribune India

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Agnipath, other questionable schemes under scrutiny

The adage that a soldier is never off duty was applied literally by the ruling party to boost its political prospects and force-multiply its message via the country’s soldiery.

Agnipath, other questionable schemes under scrutiny

Fresh blood: Under Agnipath, personnel below officer rank are being recruited for all three services for a four-year tour of duty. ANI

Rahul Bedi

Senior Journalist

THE advent of a genuine coalition government has kindled hope among a cross-section of defence veterans and security analysts regarding a salutary makeover of some questionable schemes and directives imposed upon the military by the political leadership over the past decade.

The foremost among these is the Agnipath scheme, launched in mid-2022, to recruit personnel below officer rank (PBOR), known as Agniveers, for a limited tour of duty (ToD). The Janata Dal (United), a critical constituent of the National Democratic Alliance, has demanded a review of the scheme amid public disaffection with it in Bihar and other states. According to reports, the government has tasked a group of secretaries from 10 ministries to review Agnipath and suggest ways to make the recruitment programme more attractive.

Under Agnipath, PBOR are being recruited for all three services for a four-year ToD, following which just 25 per cent of them would be retained to complete 15 years of military service. The remaining 75 per cent — the demobilised Agniveers — would reportedly be provided employment in the paramilitary, state or railway police forces or other attendant security agencies. Public sector banks and insurance companies and other associated state-run financial organisations, too, would be called upon by the government to absorb these disbanded soldiers, airmen and sailors, each of whom would receive around Rs 12 lakh, tax-exempt, as their severance pay.

Meanwhile, a series of directives from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to the armed forces, which triggered unease within the services as well as among veterans, are likely to be reassessed or quietly abandoned.

One such was the mandate issued last May by the Army headquarters at the MoD’s behest, requiring all soldiers on home leave to promote ‘nation-building’ endeavours in their respective village, town and city neighbourhood communities by publicising the merits of government welfare schemes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. The scheme was to be monitored by the soldiers’ individual units through a quarterly feedback, supported by photographs and video clips.

Additionally, these ‘soldier ambassadors’ were directed by the Army’s Ceremonials and Welfare Directorate, which functions under the Adjutant General’s office — responsible for the forces’ overall administration — to instil patriotism and nationalism in their respective circles, motivate and mentor the youth and organise sports events for them.

Senior military officials said the Army Training Command in Shimla had issued guidelines for these soldiers to follow with regard to these ‘educative’ tasks with the aim of ‘leveraging’ their skills and innate discipline towards augmenting nation-building. Senior veterans had estimated that at any given time, the armed forces would have 3,50,000 ‘social warriors’ engaged in this government-led mega publicity drive. All soldiers are entitled to two months’ leave annually, in addition to 30 days of casual leave, but for now it remains unclear how successful this scheme has proved to be.

At that time, many veterans had said that this scheme had been foisted upon the services, its instructions framed by the MoD to make it appear voluntary to ward off protests and court cases. In short, the adage that a soldier is never off duty was applied literally by the ruling party in a bid to boost its political prospects and force-multiply its message via the country’s soldiery.

Concomitantly, the MoD had also directed the installation of geo-tagged ‘selfie points’ by its various departments and related organisations to showcase the achievements of the government in the military realm. The proposed 820-odd selfie points, in most instances carrying PM Modi’s picture, were focused on defence public sector undertakings, the Border Roads Organisation, the Coast Guard, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Sainik schools and the National Cadet Corps, among other associated bodies.

In its directive, the MoD had declared that these ‘selfie points’ would also be located at prominent locations with the “maximum footfall and the potential of attracting public attention”, like war memorials, rail and Metro stations, bus terminals, airports, malls, schools and colleges and even festival gatherings. The ministry had also suggested a ‘feedback mechanism’, including a dedicated app which would enable people to upload selfies and post them on social media platforms to further transmit the ruling party’s message in the election season.

A bunch of veterans, all of whom requested anonymity, criticised Project Udbhav (genesis), launched late last year to “synthesise ancient wisdom with contemporary military practices to forge a unique and holistic approach to address modern security challenges”. This joint venture between the Army and the United Services Institution think tank, aimed at capitalising on India’s 5,000-year-old civilisational legacy to “comprehend its enduring connect, relevance and applicability in modern times” is in consonance with the BJP’s penchant for invoking India’s ancient glory.

This included studying, examining and analysing the writings of Chanakya (Arthashastra), post-Mauryan Kamandaka (Nitisara) and Tamil saint-poet Thiruvalluvar (Thirukkural), all of which the Press Information Bureau (PIB) declared “aligned with modern military codes of ethics or just war and principles of the Geneva Convention”.

The PIB went on to state that Udbhav was a “visionary initiative by the Army seeking to integrate age-old wisdom with contemporary military pedagogy”, in addition to enhancing “strategic thinking, statecraft and warfare”. In short, Udbhav, according to the government, was poised to “foster deeper understanding of military matters and contribute to enriching military curricula”.

Regrettably, it was left to veterans, albeit sotto voce, to flag these political and contentious enterprises, and to those still in service to implement this publicity blitzkrieg. Perhaps after the recent electoral verdict, both domains will breathe somewhat easier.

#Agnipath #Agniveers

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