Agnipath back in the limelight The Statesman 23 Jan 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


Agnipath back in the limelight The Statesman 23 Jan 2024

          Addressing the media on Army Day, the army chief, General Manoj Pande, stated, ‘the positivity and integration of Agniveers in units is happening well. There are few challenges in terms of training, most of which are at the tactical level, entailing tweaking of our policies, limiting training periods and harmonising firing standards between Agniveers and regular soldiers.’ It has become a norm for senior army officers, to mention in every media interaction, that the Agniveer program, disputed by veterans, is beneficial, thereby defending a scheme which continues to face criticism.

General Manoj Pande also refused to be drawn into controversy by commenting on statements on the subject, from the yet to be released book of his predecessor, General MM Naravane. Excerpts from the book by General Naravane discussing the origins of the Agnipath scheme, mentions, ‘When I had first sounded out the PM about the Tour of Duty scheme, it was more on the lines of a short-service option at the soldier level, similar to the Short Service Commission scheme for officers that was already in vogue.’

He added that the scheme once announced by the PMO resulted in the army being taken by surprise, ‘but for the navy and air force, it came like a bolt from the blue.’ It was only the surprise aspect that General Pande countered in his press conference by stating, ‘I just wish to reiterate here that the final framework (and) structure of the Agnipath scheme came about after a process of consultation and it took into account whatever issues we had to put across.’

Interestingly, General Naravane in an article published in The Hindu in Nov 2022, well post his retirement, had backed the Agnipath scheme to the hilt. He had commented, ‘to say that the Agnipath scheme is tinkering with settled systems, or falling back on clichés such as “if it isn’t broke don’t fix it,” is self-defeating.’ He backed the concept of reduced training by mentioning, ‘optimising the training duration is very much a possibility.’

Countering comments on whether Agniveers would be able to bond, he mentioned, ‘If the supervisory staff in a unit is good, they would make Agniveers feel welcome, mould them and make them a part of the team.’ Finally supporting the concept, he added, ‘All new schemes have teething troubles and this one too will have its fair share of niggles. As and when these crop up, there will always be room for mid-course corrections. Even the Constitution of India has been amended 105 times. It requires collective resolve to make the Agnipath scheme a success.’

If the scheme was so beneficial to the armed forces, then it should have been praised rather than being negatively commented upon in his book, unless General Naravane had a change in perception in the past year.

General Naravane has also mentioned in his book that the scheme was proposed by the army, for itself, in which 75% soldiers were to be retained and the balance released. However, the government implemented the opposite. The proposal of the army, forwarded to the government, was unknown to its sister services. This is not the first time that proposals forwarded by one service have surprised the other two.

Admiral Arun Prakash discussing the importance of having an effective higher defence organization, in an article for the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, way back in 2007 mentions, ‘The first information about the impending establishment of the new South-Western Army Command in early 2005, came to the navy and air force only from media reports.’

He adds, ‘The navy and air force were also caught by surprise in end-2005, to find that a Cadre Review (as a result of the Ajai Vikram Singh Report) had been implemented exclusively for the Indian Army.’ This led to them to push for the same for their own services. Possibly with a CDS in place such instances would no longer be the norm.

General Naravane, in his article in The Hindu, defined the philosophy of the Agnipath Scheme by mentioning, ‘(India’s) demographic point is a dividend only if it (India’s population) is disciplined and imbued with a nationalistic fervour. This is the underlying philosophy of the Agnipath scheme.’ If this was true then the scheme would never have been questioned by other services and veterans.

At the end of the day, the navy and the air force had limited possibility of success in challenging the Agnipath scheme, as once announced, post approval of the PM, they would be hitting a stone wall. It could only be partially tweaked. The air force and navy are high technology platform centric services for whom a rotatory Agniveer scheme is unsuitable. The only hope of technology intensive services remains that being an election year, levels of retention could be raised to 50%, thereby providing continuity in handling critical equipment.

It was the veteran community which periodically raised pitfalls of a scheme which could derail military preparedness as India continues to face hostile neighbours and tensions along its borders. To convince critics on the suitability of the scheme the MoD issued directions that the Agnipath concept be positively highlighted by senior officers in every interaction with veterans and the press.

The non-recruitment of Gurkhas, due to unwillingness of the Nepal government, to adhere to the flawed terms and conditions of the scheme, will impact India’s goodwill in the country, benefitting China. Even within India, where government jobs are most sought after, the scheme would draw only those who have failed to gain employment in Central Armed Police Forces or under other state and central schemes. There has been regular mention of Agniveers likely becoming cannon fodder for global security companies and sucked into conflict zones. But the government is unwilling to bend.

On ground, Agniveers have been inducted and are now part of units. The government has announced measures for their future employment. How effective will they be can only be gauged once the first batch finishes its mandatory service, a couple of years down the line. Ultimately, it is unlikely that the scheme would be reversed. Thus, as General Manoj Pande mentioned, ‘From here on, we need to move forward.’