Recruitment overhaul plan behind Agnipath stir

You’re overhauling not just the military recruitment system, but radically altering the class composition of the manpower-intensive Army that will rebound on its operational capacities. Make no mistake, the operational challenges confronting India are unique: two-and-a-half front live situation plus several internal disturbances. Israel, South Korea and Brazil are not in the same league of threats and challenges as India.

Recruitment overhaul plan behind Agnipath stir

IN TRANSITION: The new system for enlisting in the defence forces under the Agnipath scheme has encountered vehement opposition. - File photo

Maj Gen Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Military Commentator

WITH friends like those in the government, who needs enemies? With the whole of the government now fire-fighting to rescue the Agniveers, it is abundantly clear that the claimed ‘consultations’ with veterans must have been only with the consenting ones. The IAF and Navy Chiefs, who are less affected than the Army by the unwise scheme, have admitted they were surprised at the violent reaction which they attributed to ‘misinformation’ and ‘misunderstanding’.

Failure to properly gauge the four-year term of Agniveers bereft of pension and other perks, most of all, izzat, are the reasons it is floundering. The operational defects accruing from the system which by 2032 will have 50 per cent regulars and 50 per cent Agniveers are too obvious to be overstated. Pliant serving Generals and their equivalents have become His Master’s Voice and Agniveer, a political football. Some ministers are even thanking the Prime Minister for the one-time waiver of the age limit from 21 to 23 years.

In an extraordinary briefing on Sunday, less than five days after the revolutionary project was announced, the three services were once again briefing the media, emphasising that ‘youthful profile’ was the main driver for the systemic change. Not once was the grand rationale for Agniveer — reduction in pension and salary bills — mentioned. Covid is the big untruth for suspending recruitment for over two years and incurring a shortfall of 1.25 lakh manpower in the Army alone, when in fact Agniveer was being prepared. The government saved on salaries in revenue account for two years. The youth on the streets are questioning: when several elections and Kumbh Melas could be held, why not recruitment rallies? And as was evident from the Q&A from the Sunday briefing, many Army aspirants had cleared medical and physical tests but were not called for written examination. In the IAF, all procedures were completed, but still no call up. Let us be clear. The main reason for manifest anger by youth is the radical recruitment replacement system of just four years, instead of a longer sustained military career. “No rollback, youth will give a pledge they did not indulge in indiscipline and obtain police verification when they arrive for recruitment rallies in mid-August for the first batch of 25,000 Agniveers to start their training end-December,” the Generals said during the briefing.

You’re overhauling not just the military recruitment system, but radically altering the class composition of a manpower-intensive Army that will rebound on its operational capacities. One retired Army Chief has flippantly said that if a commanding officer cannot integrate and motivate an Agniveer in one year, he is not fit to be a commander. Make no mistake, the operational challenges confronting India are unique: two-and-a-half front live situation plus several internal disturbances. Israel, South Korea and Brazil are not in the same league of threats and challenges as India.

Our present political and military leadership has seen no wars but only counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. Young soldiers who conquered Tiger Hill were all regulars backed by pension and a sturdy regimental system which cares for the jawan from womb to tomb. Some veterans are misquoting instances of soldiers with four years of service, winning Victoria Crosses. 95 per cent of awards were won by those who had seven years and more for soldiering. Only one Rifleman won a VC. More youthful profile — difference between 26 and 32 years — cuts both ways and is trumped by experience. 75 per cent of the Agniveers who will be demobilised are being assured of jobs, education and monetary support to start a second career when they want to remain a soldier. Verbal assurances have never worked.

For veterans of my ilk, fortunate to fight in all wars and counter-insurgencies, the biggest blunder being inflicted is destruction of the time-tested and carefully nurtured regimental system. The political leadership has not cared to understand this strategic asset and is imposing the All-India All Class (AIAC) on to single-class and other specifically structured units and sub-units. The Sikh, Garhwal, Kumaon, Assam and other similar regiments will lose their character and soul, not to mention the valued regimental traditions and camaraderie by generational soldiering from father to son. The class identity and war cry are irreplaceable motivational factors. The then Defence Minister Jaswant Singh said the Army is a calling and bonding. Governments have previously tried tinkering with these impeccable groupings by thrusting the AIAC, but such experiments failed. Imposition of AIAC is an assault on regimental ethos.

Spare a thought for the humble Gorkhas. The Gorkha Brigade of 43 infantry battalions is recruited mainly from Nepal. When PM Modi, the key architect of Agniveer, visited Nepal in 2014, he hailed the sacrifice of Nepali Gorkhas in protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India. Lakhs of ex-servicemen and serving soldiers are an enduring pro-India constituency at a time when China is hell-bent on undermining India’s growing influence and special relations with Nepal. Applying the AIAC recruitment making Gorkha Agniveers is bound to affect bilateral relations.

Last week, I had gone to the Military Hospital where I met five serving members from the Army Medical Corps (a JCO and a Naik from Haryana, a Havildar from Rajasthan and a Naik each from Kerala and Tripura), the only military organisation exempt from the Agniveer medal. They asked why Agnipath now? I returned the question and they would not stop criticising the short-sightedness of the scheme. I also spoke to a serving Lieutenant General in the Army Headquarters and asked how such an expensive cost-cutting scheme passed muster with serving Army Commanders and other thinking Generals. He replied: “It is a fait accompli.”

Here is the end quotation from the foreword of my regimental history, written by Gen Ian Hamilton: “The fame of the noble 5th Gorkha Rifles will never die; and if any politician of the hereafter dreams of dismantling their cadre or changing their number or any other like atrocity, may the perusal of this volume paralyse his sacrilegious hand.” 

Tribune Shorts


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