Agnipath’s Fatal Flaw is it Equates Soldiers and Trained Militia
Activities of SFI & DYFI stage protest against Centre's 'Agnipath' scheme
War is no picnic—it isn’t just the life of soldiers at stake in a combat situation but the reputation and future of nations. History has taught countries to be on guard and prepare for all threats, but European nations took Machiavelli’s advice for national armies instead of mercenary soldiers very seriously. As the ‘war is inevitable’ view spread, numerous thinkers began to write about it. Starting from Carl von Clausewitz to Liddell Hart, their primary emphasis was the fighting soldier. War machines and weapons retained crucial significance, but we hardly know of wars won through machinery. It is said the Air Force—bomb-dropping machines—proved decisive in the Kuwait war, but remember, the infantry carries out mopping-up operations.
Most countries seriously debated which section of their people they would recruit into their army. Francis Bacon is credited with the view that the yeoman makes the best soldier, an idea that was in vogue until America created the Yankee soldier. In the footsteps of the traditional European perception, the British in India focused on drawing the peasantry into its fighting force, which it paired with the notion of “martial” races. The ‘one regiment-one kitchen’ practice had the British consider other factors too. In particular, due to notions of purity and pollution, mixed-caste regiments were impossible, especially wherever members of the Brahmin and Thakur (Rajput) communities were present. As a result, caste, ethnic and religion-based regiments were created in British India. So we had regiments such as Madras, Mahar, Dogra, Gorkha, Sikh, Jat, Kumaon, etc.
The colonial ruler created these regiments after enumerating India’s population, through a Census and District Gazetteers. This process was completed by the 1891 Census, after which the British began working on the social psychology of communities to assess their worthiness for recruitment in the Army. A classic example is AH Bingley’s work, The Sikhs, in which he identified the castes suitable for different Army jobs. It was done not simply on the premise of martial races but also on how morale, motivation, food habits and inter-dining among castes and religions worked in India. Thus, the determining factors in forming various regiments became the ‘one-kitchen’ norm, from which caste, ethnicity, and religious concerns flowed.
Note that most officers were of British origin. The British Indian Army thus epitomised the typical “Gora sahib” rulers. The proportion of servants inducted to perform personal tasks for these officers exclusively was relatively high. Interestingly, while regiments had high numbers of soldiers, the proportion of combat soldiers was small. This phenomenon continued after Independence. The Indian Army continued to work along the British model. However, the Air Force and the Navy expanded after Independence and they had not much of a British legacy. Still, their recruitment was much higher in certain regions, states, castes, and religions than in other parts of the country. For example, Gujarat and Bengal had a far lower representation when compared with some other states. There was also a divide in terms of which arm of the Defence Service people preferred to join. For example, many from Kerala joined the Air Force as airmen, while the Punjabis and Coorgis are noticeable among officers.
Punjab (including Haryana and Himachal Pradesh), Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka (the Coorg region) could be considered significant places where young men join the Air Force and the Army, while Uttar Pradesh and other states have started sending people to the Army in a big way. In all three forces, members of elite castes (including the Hindu and Sikh Jats) have an overwhelming majority in the officer cadre. Further, in the Army, Dalit castes are present to the extent that certain regiments, such as the Mahar and the Sikh Light Infantry, are exclusively associated with just two Dalit castes.
The post-independence Indian Army can therefore be understood as an extension of the British Indian Army. It resembles the Indian social structure in which the Dalits are located at the bottom of the ranks. For this to change, the essential precondition is social transformation. Has it occurred? This question arises in the context of the national recruitment policy proposed through Agnipath.
It is equally important to identify the types of recruitment done by the militaries worldwide. The tradition of recruiting mercenaries in armies has been discontinued. Under conscription, which historically existed in many European countries and the United States, every adult male who reached a particular age would serve in the army for some time, after which he was free to leave. However, today, the most common type of army recruitment worldwide is voluntary, as a career.
In India, recruitment to the Army was on a volunteer basis—candidates offering themselves for employment—but it is also considered a source of livelihood. Many families have a robust tradition of joining the Army, but in most cases, for the officer cadre, it was a career option. On the other hand, soldiers are mainly from the lower classes, who consider joining the armed forces a lifetime of economic security through its post-retirement benefits. Patriotism and notions of ‘serving the nation’ through the armed forces are imaginaries—they may serve a purpose in war, provided a soldier is assured his family would not economically suffer if he dies in battle.
The Agnipath recruitment policy aims to change the entire structure of recruitment to the Army—not only the aspects India inherited from the British but also everything in the system that attracted young men and women to the forces. The protests against the policy among young aspirants seem confined to the four-year defined service term, after which 75% of soldiers would be sent back home without any benefits (except a roughly Rs.11 lakh fund, to which they would contribute significantly from their salary).
The new policy has many deficiencies. First, it is not conscription. This is impossible if we consider how many eligible candidates India has. But under Agnipath, the military does not remain a career option either. The choice of lifelong economic security has disappeared for most recruits, as even getting accepted would mean only four years’ service. Second, training a combat soldier takes much longer than four years. The military training process is like tempering steel: a young recruit may learn to fight quickly but still end up as cannon fodder in an actual combat situation. Time and again, it has been observed that the maximum casualties in a war are of recent recruits. Three, when the Agniveers return after their four-year term, they would be akin to a trained militia. Anybody from criminal gangs to radical groups may try to recruit them.
Four, after twenty years of this policy, India will have many former soldiers who never matured within the forces. What they will do to fend for themselves is a big question. And fifth, it is unclear whether these ex-soldiers will be called back for active duty should war break out. The government might have introduced this scheme to save defence expenditure so it can buy sophisticated weaponry from the West. It will prove counterproductive in the end.
The Agnipath policy seems to have another dimension: how regiments exist in terms of region, ethnicity, caste, and religion might be dissolved to create a national Army of mixed soldiers in every regiment. Though it will end the long glorious tradition of each regiment that soldiers hold dear, the ruling dispensation could argue that the system so far was a colonial legacy that goes against the spirit of the Constitution. Government representatives are already voicing this sentiment.
How the new recruitment process will work in the future is still unknown, but people are concerned soldiers would get selected from just one religious community. Only time will illuminate if this concern is valid, however, there is no denying Agnipath is undesirable. It has negative portends for the future security concerns of the country. When its consequences are realised, it may already be too late.
The author was a professor of sociology at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, and former president of the Indian Sociological Society. The views are personal
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