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Three Ways of Thinking About the Agniveer Protests

The first of these is the difference between how these protesters have been treated by the government and police and how Muslim protesters were treated just a week earlier.
agniveer protest

The Agnipath Yojana has been introduced by the Central government ostensibly to streamline recruiting into the armed forces. Under this scheme, people will be inducted into the different branches of the armed forces as ‘Agniveers’ for a period of four years, after which a quarter will continue as regular employees of the military while the rest will be let go with a one-time, tax-free gratuity of around 11 lakhs. Those let go will no longer be entitled to pensions or benefits as employees of the military.

Since the introduction of the scheme on June 14, protests—some involving the burning of trains and buses and cars—have spread across the country. We need to look at three things as we attempt to understand these protests and what they represent.

The first of these, as many people have been quick to point out, is the difference between how these protesters have been treated by the government and police and how Muslim protesters were treated just a week earlier. Where the police were quick to open fire on those protesting Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal’s remarks, these protesters have been called “our children” and urged “not to spoil their futures” by participating in protests.

No bulldozers have come for their homes, and they have not been detained under anti-terror laws like the UAPA. Television anchors have not felt the need to celebrate the use of violence against them.

Union Minister Anurag Thakur had said just a few weeks ago that when “problems can be resolved through talks, then there is no place for stone-pelting, arson and unruly behaviour” in a democracy. He was then talking about the protests regarding the comments made by Sharma and Jindal, but he has remained entirely silent about these protests.

Perhaps most strikingly, Lt. Gen. Anil Puri said on June 19 that those hoping to join the armed forces through the Agniveer scheme would have to submit a self-declaration stating that they had not committed any violence or arson during the protests. Contrast this with the images of custodial violence against young Muslim men a few days prior who will not be allowed to clear their names so easily after being detained.

It is only when the protesters have moved specifically to target Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) offices and members that condemnation from the party has been swift, with BJP leaders calling them “jihadists,” for example. It is unsurprising to see the deployment of religiously-charged language in this context—to the BJP, any action against the BJP must seem religiously motivated: an obvious conflation between nation, ruling party, and Hinduism.

The second of these relates to the nature of the opposition to the scheme itself. Some are opposed to it because the ruling BJP has implemented it. Others oppose it for other reasons: some because it turns army work into contract work, some because they see meddling in national security issues as especially egregious.

Those who are invested in the prestige of the military, for example, are unlikely to concede that spending less money on the military or the state’s capability to wage war against its enemies could be a good thing. Those who see the role of the military as protecting the nation against external threats are unlikely to examine how all the ongoing military engagements the Indian state is engaged in—Operation Rakhsak II, Operation Goodwill, Operation Good Samaritan, and Operation All Out Kashmir—overwhelmingly target Indian citizens in the North-East and Jammu and Kashmir.

What we must remember here is that alliances based only on common opposition to particular plans are likely to be unstable since they are not grounded in issues of principle. Those who suddenly find themselves on the same side as others whom they had not considered allies before need to examine why, specifically, those other actors oppose the scheme rather than see it as enough to oppose it.

This is not a criticism of a system that allows for a multiplicity of viewpoints and reasons for opposition. The hallmark of representative democracy is that one must represent the interests of those one serves. What seems less clear, however, is whose interests the BJP is serving by introducing this scheme, assuming that there is someone whose interests are being served and not just those of the exchequer.

Outside of the BJP, the only people who have spoken in favour of the move are businessmen like Anand Mahindra and Harsh Goenka, who have stated that they will prioritise the hiring of Agniveers over others. If they believe the training offered through the Agniveer programme will provide skills that other experiences might not, we must ask them whether they already prioritise the hiring of former jawans and, if not, why that is the case.

The third of these relates to a statement made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in which he said that the Agniveer scheme “will help in nation-building in the long run.” This is true, but only in the most trivial sense. If the implementation of this move is not rolled back, it will be deemed ‘acceptable,’ if only because the BJP has been able to accept the mass displeasure that it faces. Over time, any move—whether demonetisation or this—becomes part of the nation’s collective mythos and a part of the status quo. What we must examine, however, is the sort of nation that is being built when proposals like this are created without inputs from stakeholders and implemented undemocratically.

The writer is an independent journalist. All views are personal.

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