Agnipath is a radical state initiative to re-sculpt India’s military machine. As many as 46,000 near-teenagers will be trained to become deadly combatants every year. But a mere four years later, three out of four will be ‘retired’, at the dangerously tender age of 21-25 years. Will these ex-Agniveers become unemployed and lethal street fighters? Or will they be a steady source of highly motivated, disciplined workers for civil society?
Like everything radical, Agnipath is plenty good, plenty disruptive, and plenty unknown. So, how much should that worry us? Should we have made haste slowly, because a socio-military experiment on this scale has never happened before?
Agnipath is a radical state initiative under which as many as 46,000 near-teenagers will be trained to become deadly combatants every year. But a mere four years later, three out of four will be ‘retired’.
A real war theatre calls for a been-there-done-that experience, resilience, and the ability to handle adversity. Will a raw, young soldier ever have the grit and wisdom of a grizzled veteran?
Will the process of weeding out, ie, dropping three out of four young soldiers, become mired in partisan selections, perhaps even corruption? Will it be seen to be fair?
How resentful will that Agniveer be who is let go? Will a ‘laid off’ Agniveer see himself as a wronged victim?
The government must rope in the private sector on a war scale for an ‘Agninaukri’ (jobs on fire) blitzkrieg. Each Agniveer should get a job with the best fit, whether he ends up being a foreman in an auto factory, a guard at a security agency, a physical instructor in a school, or whatever.
In the words of an (in)famous defence minister:
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.
The ‘charming’ Donald Rumsfeld uttered these iconic words in February 2002 to justify America’s invasion of Iraq. He wanted to destroy the unknown unknowns of that country’s weapons of mass destruction – of course, it’s another irony that the unknown weapons turned out to be un-existing, unreal!
But imagine if the current Raksha Mantri (Defence Minister), Rajnath Singh, had uttered these very words to describe his Prime Minister’s boldest, perhaps riskiest, military bet yet. He would have sounded truthful and statesmanlike because we are treading into a minefield of knowns and unknowns with Agnipath and Agniveers.
The Known Knowns About Agniveers
Some of the detail is pretty innocent and straightforward. Agniveers will range from 17-something kids to 20-something young men. From here on, these 46,000 recruits will be the only conduit of fresh soldiers into the Army, Navy, and Air Force. They will be paid ‘contractual fees’ of Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 per month, which is a tad higher than what regular soldiers are earning under the ancien regime.
Four years later, three-quarters of them will be honourably discharged – nidhi aur samman sahit (with due compensation and respect) – with a lump sum payout, or Seva Nidhi, of Rs 11.71 lacs (what’s with this unusually interesting number? There must be some mythology here!). They will not earn any pension or gratuity. Over half a dozen years, the average age of India’s soldiers will drop from 32 to about 25 years, making for a younger, fitter force. Of course, the state’s pension liabilities will get slashed.
The Known Unknowns About Agniveers
Now to the obvious imponderables (aka known unknowns). Will a six-month training equip these greenhorns with the same combat skills that an 11-month course gives to regular soldiers? A real war theatre calls for a been-there-done-that experience, resilience, and the ability to handle adversity. Will a raw, young soldier ever have the grit and wisdom of a grizzled veteran? Will Agniveers be fixated on an imminent, near-term exit, sapping their motivation to fight, preferring to play safe in tough situations over going for the kill?
Being younger, will they necessarily be savvier in new-tech warfare, or is that an untested assumption? Will such a uniform ‘all-class, all-region, all-ethnicity’ induction neutralise the distinct demographic identities of several colonial-era regiments, an ethos that older soldiers are proud of?
Finally, will the process of weeding out, ie, dropping three out of four young soldiers, become mired in partisan selections, perhaps even corruption? Will it be seen to be fair?
The Unknown Unknowns About Agniveers
This is terribly treacherous terrain, with mines and pitfalls that we cannot even begin to figure out (aka unknown unknowns). How resentful will that Agniveer be who is let go? Young men at that age are quick to take insult and injury – see how most ‘honour killings’ (brutal murders) of sisters are usually perpetrated by hotheaded brothers and cousins. Will a ‘laid off’ Agniveer see himself as a wronged victim? Will that make him vulnerable to harmful, polarising ideologies? Will his indoctrination, plus his ability to use lethal arms, make him an incomparably severe threat? If he is unable to get a decent job, will his anger and sense of defeat – or denial – become uncontrollable? Isn’t that a powder keg of potential crime and violence in society?
Yes, none of these unknown unknowns may turn out to be as chilling as I’ve described them above. But hope is not a plan. The only certain way of obviating disaster is to virtually guarantee that each Agniveer shall find a productive job as soon he exits the cantonment at the end of four years.
Why the Private Sector Should be Roped In
Unfortunately, all that we have heard from the authorities so far are homilies like “these skilled, motivated, disciplined, and patriotic Agniveers will be given priority in jobs in central ministries, departments, and PSUs, as well as state governments”. No, sir, these old, tired statements will not cut it. The government must have a plan, as radical and extraordinary as Agnipath, to ignite the job prospects of these prematurely retiring soldiers. But how?
I would urge the government to rope in the private sector on a war scale for this ‘Agninaukri’ (jobs on fire) blitzkrieg. Remember how the state had rolled out Aadhaar for a billion people? It had enlisted hundreds of private agencies with incentives and targets to go door-to-door and record biometrics. A similar bombardment is needed.
The government should pull in hundreds of professional job agencies, making each one responsible for placing 500 Agniveers at the end of four years. Their tasks and targets must be set now, immediately.
These agencies should get special bonuses and incentives for every successful placement. Each Agniveer should be skill-profiled, his four-year career tracked and catalogued, his special training and aptitude copiously recorded. And at the end of four years, each Agniveer should get a job with the best fit, whether he ends up being a foreman in an auto factory, a guard at a security agency, a physical instructor in a school, or whatever.
So, if the government wants its radical Agnipath plan to succeed, it must craft Agninaukri, an equally radical, handsomely bonused job placement initiative that is driven entirely by the private sector.