Thousands of angry men have set train coaches and vehicles on fire, blocked highways and attacked police with rocks in India as protests against a new short-term government recruitment policy for the military entered a third day.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced this week an overhaul of the recruitment process for the 1.38 million-strong armed forces, aiming to bring in more people on short, four-year contracts to lower the average age of personnel.
But many potential recruits object, saying they should be allowed to serve longer than four years. Opposition parties and some members of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) say the system will lead to more unemployment in a country grappling with joblessness.
Protesters threw stones at police and set fire to train coaches, police said on Friday as they used batons and tear gas to disperse the protesters in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and other states where they took to the streets and damaged government buildings.
Nearly 25,000 police were deployed in the worst-hit Bihar state, where the protests spread to a dozen towns in eight districts, said S K Singhal, a police officer. The protesters blocked highways and disrupted train services for several hours.
“They have blocked trains in 10 places today,” Sanjay Singh, a senior police official in Bihar, told Reuters news agency, adding that more than 100 people had been arrested in protests across the eastern state on Thursday.
Railway authorities said nearly 200 trains were affected as they cancelled dozens of passenger train services and deployed additional police to railway stations in an effort to prevent further destruction, Indian media reports said.
— ANI (@ANI) June 17, 2022
Bihar has some of India’s highest unemployment and poverty rates, and has earned a reputation as a state left behind by the country’s runaway economic growth of the past few decades.
In January, crowds of angry job applicants in Bihar set fire to train carriages, blocked railway tracks and burned effigies of Modi following allegations that entrance exams for the government-run railway sector were being conducted unfairly.
Hundreds of people also gathered in the southern city of Secunderabad on Thursday to throw stones at police, in a sign that the protests were spreading.
“They have also set fire to properties at Secunderabad railway station,” police official A R Srinivas said.
— ANI (@ANI) June 17, 2022
In Gwalior, a city in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state, a railway station was ransacked, some trains vandalised and rubbish cans set on fire.
In the northern town of Rewari in Haryana, police used wooden sticks to disperse protesters who blocked a bus station and parts of a key highway linking Rajasthan state with New Delhi, the Hindustan Times newspaper reported.
Crowds also protested in several districts of the BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, including Bulandshahr, Ballia and Aligarh.
The new army recruitment system, called “Agnipath” or path of fire in Hindi, will bring in men and women between the ages of 17 and a half and 21 for a four-year tenure at non-officer ranks, with only a quarter retained for longer periods.
Soldiers have previously been recruited by the army, navy and air force separately, and typically serve for up to 17 years, for the lowest ranks.
The government on Friday also announced a one-time extension for the maximum entry age into the scheme to 23 since recruitment had been frozen for the past two years, mainly because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The government has decided that a one-time waiver shall be granted for the proposed recruitment cycle for 2022,” the defence ministry said in a statement.
The armed forces aim to recruit about 46,000 people under the new system this year, defence minister Rajnath Singh announced earlier this week. Seventy-five percent of them will be compulsorily retired after four years with no pension benefits.
A full-time recruited soldier serves for more than 35 years.
Singh defended the programme, saying its aim is “to strengthen the security of the country”. With nearly 1.4 million active personnel, India’s military is the world’s second largest after China, and the third-largest spender.
Modi, who is facing national elections in 2024, is under pressure to provide jobs as India’s economy recovers from the pandemic slump. One idea behind the short-term military recruitment is that those trained by the armed forces can later seek jobs with police or the private sector.
The government faced criticism from some retired soldiers, opposition leaders and security analysts.
In an article for Al Jazeera on Thursday, analyst Sushant Singh said the new army recruitment plan was announced without any discussion in parliament and could have “devastating consequences”.
“More than half of the Indian government’s defence expenditure of $70.6bn goes towards pensions and salaries for Indian military personnel. It was shooting upwards by the year and Modi’s government was unable to initiate a substantive reform within the existing structure,” Singh wrote. “So the Indian government on Tuesday decided to demolish the structure itself.”
According to Singh, the military proposal will also have a direct bearing on the Indian society, which has seen a spike in hate speech and attacks on Muslims and other minorities by India’s right-wing Hindu groups since Modi came to power in 2014.
“Research shows that the most violent ethnic cleansing occurred when members of the majority community gained combat experience as soldiers while the minority community was unorganised,” wrote Singh.
“I thought initially it was a trial being done on a pilot basis. This is an across-the-board change to convert Indian armed forces to a short tenure quasi-conscript force,” G D Bakshi, a retired army general, tweeted.
Rahul Gandhi, a key opposition Congress party leader, urged the government to “listen to the voice of the unemployed youth of the country”.
Unemployment has long been a millstone around the Indian economy’s neck, with joblessness figures at their worst since the 1970s even before the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on local commerce.
Modi’s government pitched the new military recruitment plan as a pathway to modernise the armed forces with a younger and leaner soldier corps while also creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs.
Retired general Birender Dhanoa said India’s nearly 1.4 million-strong military was “bloated” and in need of reform, but questioned whether the new scheme was the appropriate remedy.
“Four years is a little on the shorter side and feels exploitative,” he said. “We have to examine whether it works well for the armed forces too.”