Ground Report | 'We Are Patriots Too': Agnipath Hurting Young Army Aspirants
The Quint spoke to army aspirants, their families & ex-servicemen in UP's Baghpat about their anger over Agnipath.
Cameraperson: Ribhu Chatterjee
Video Editor: Mohd Irshad Alam
“Since 2019, I have been preparing for the army. My shoes have torn. I bought new branded shoes for Rs 4,000,” says Mohit Tomar, 23, lifting his legs up to show his olive green Nikes.
He is one among lakhs of army aspirants who are worried and angry about the Defence Ministry’s Agnipath scheme, which plans to recruit soldiers in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, largely on a short-term contractual basis.
As the scheme was announced, protests erupted across the country, with the demand that Agnipath be withdrawn.
A reduced tour of duty for ‘Agniveers’ to four years has raised many questions, especially around the benefits (like pensions or medical benefits) that ex-army officials avail after their time in service.
The Quint visited villages of army aspirants in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, to speak to students, their families and even ex-servicemen to understand how important a longer term of service is.
‘We Are Also Patriots’
“See, I am a farmer’s son, from a very normal family. Patriotism has its own place. We are also patriots, but we also need something to eat."Rohit Kumar, a 22-year-old army aspirant.
Over the past two years, he has studied for 10-12 hours and exercised for four hours on a daily basis.
“There used to be pride attached to being a military man. They have ruined it all.”
He goes on to list four fundamental issues with the Agnipath scheme – duration of tenure, cancellation of pensions, cancellation of allowances, and reduced salaries.
Talking about her son's hard work and the condition of her house, Rohit’s mother, Santosh Devi, bursts into tears.
“I am alone, I can’t walk properly. The house is in shambles. I keep hoping that my son gets a good job,” the 50-year-old woman says.
Financial Worries Over Agnipath
The Quint also spoke to other young army aspirants from nearby villages, all from agricultural families.
Mohit Tomar, after pointing out his training shoes, claims that he has spent Rs 1 lakh on his diet alone over the years during his preparation for the army.
“They want us to die for Rs 10 lakh? If I had to become a barber or a washerman, I would do so here. Our village also has a barber shop.”
Talking about his dreams, 19-year-old Vatan Tomar says that he is a graduate who wants to serve the country but can do so with enthusiasm only if he knows his family will be well taken care of if something happens to him.
“We can offer service with a good spirit only when we have an assurance that if we die, somebody from our family will get a full pension and someone will get a job for a 17-year term, and all the other facilities."
A major source of worry is the absence of pensions in the Agnipath scheme.
Vinish Tomar, 20, asks that “in 17 years of service, if something happens to me, my family would at least get a pension. Even if I die, at least my family will have something. Otherwise what will they do after I die?”
A similar concern is voiced by Ashu Tomar, who is just a year younger than Vinish. Ashu's monthly expenditure for the preparations is Rs 10,000. "Sometimes, it goes up to 15-20,000," he said.
Unable to afford this amount, Ashu's family took loans to support him, hoping he will soon join the Army.
"Now, I will only go there for four years of service. What will I do after that? What will we do in Rs 10 Lakh? This will not even compensate for whatever we have spent in preparation."Ashu Tomar, 19.
“We Want To Serve… but With Dignity”
Another factor concerns dignity, the dignity that accompanies an army officer wherever they go and the rank that is associated with their identity for the rest of their lives even long after they retire.
"If an Army man retired with a rank like ‘Subedar,’ he is respected by all," says Vatan Tomar, "when we will return home after a mere four year service, who will give us the same respect?"
An ex-serviceman and an elder from their village, retired Subedar Ompal Singh, 65, agrees with what young Vatan has to say. “In the village, everybody respects you by the rank you retire from, like everyone knows I retired as a Subedar.”
And for these young men, the respect they hope to get for putting their lives at risk is very important.
"We can do anything for the nation. A man joins the army for patriotism, not money."Akshay Tomar, 21
Ex-Servicemen Raise Serious Concerns About Agnipath Scheme
Many of the elderly people in the villages that The Quint visited are ex-servicemen. Uhappy with the Agnipath scheme, they are not keen on their children becoming ‘Agniveers’.
“The government says the service will last only for four years. What will they do after 4 years,” asked the 65-year-old and now retired Havaldar Baljor Singh. "At Least two years of training is needed in the four years of service. They will only give 2-3 months of training. Then they will make them stand on the border to face Pakistani bullets."
Talking about the importance of experience, the retired havaldar said:
"Firing can be taught in one day. But how and when to do it also needs to be learned."
Retired Subedar Ompal Singh slammed the government for trying to reduce the burden of pensions.
“Three days ago, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said we want to decrease our pension load. But why from the Army only? The number of times the MLAs and MLCs win elections, their pension multiplies.”
‘Can Modi Become PM for 2 Years?’: Anxious Mothers Speak Out
When asked if she would send her son to get recruited as an ‘Agniveer’, 45-year-old Savita Devi, mother to Akshay Tomar, said that she will not, like all other mothers that The Quint spoke with. She believes this Agniveer is no government job. This is some labourer work for four years.
"Why do we send our sons for 4 years? Can Modi be the prime minister for just two years? If you are giving them a 4-year job, you should also be the PM for 2 years only."Savita Devi, 45, Akshay Tomar's mother.
"I gave birth to my child, brought him up for 18 years, fed him, taught him, sent him to school, helped him prepare for the service. And now we send him for four years on the border to just die?” Asked Babita Devi, 45.
These mothers have seen their children work hard for years. Their sons wake up early in the morning, go for a run twice a day and study for long hours. Seeing all this effort being reduced to a 4-year-long service has upset them.
Rohit's mother, 45-year-old Santosh Devi, lamented that her her son’s hard work is going in vain. “He studies day and night. I don’t even let him rest. If I see him sleeping, I ask him to wake up and study. 'We don’t even want you to work, we will do that, you just study,’ I tell him."
'We Need To Have Patience and Hope'
These young men are ready to fight back. They believe the Agnipath scheme will have to be rolled back.
Rohit feels that while there is a lot to fight for, violence can not be an option. "We will stay away from violence. Why? Because they might even declare us miscreants, Khalistanis, and terrorists."
While most others are angry, he is holding on to patience and hope.
“One can achieve anything with patience. If I don’t get a job for two years and I get discouraged and stop studying, I might never get it. Someday I will get a job. This is the only hope left. This is everything.”
Others are less optimistic.
“I have served in the army for 28 years. My son has served for 18 years. If my grandson says I also want to serve in the army, I will not allow him, said retired Subedar Ompal Singh.
“What will he do there in just four years?”
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