With key NDA ally JD(U) leading calls for an immediate review of Agnipath, the new short-term recruitment policy for the Armed Forces, after violent protests seeking a rollback erupted in several states on Thursday, the Centre announced a two-year relaxation in the upper age limit for the scheme this year since there was no recruitment in the services “during the last two years”.
After a day that saw large groups of youths blocking roads, pelting stones, torching train coaches, and targeting BJP offices and leaders, the Defence Ministry said that it would allow those who were 21 years old in 2020, when recruitments were stalled, to be eligible — only for this year.
Under the original scheme announced on Tuesday, only aspirants between 17-and-a-half years and 21 years of age are eligible for recruitment. But on Thursday, the Defence Ministry said that “the upper age limit for the recruitment process for Agnipath scheme for 2022 is increased to 23 years”.
The Ministry said that since “it has not been possible to undertake the recruitment during the last two years, the Government has decided that a one-time waiver shall be granted for the proposed recruitment cycle for 2022”.
Earlier, the protests were most violent in Bihar, where JD(U) and BJP are part of the ruling coalition. In Kaimur, job aspirants set fire to one coach of a stationary train. In separate incidents, protesters torched two other coaches — one at the Sidhwalia station in Gopalganj, where passengers had to rush out to save themselves, and the other in Chhapra. No injuries were reported.
Confirming the damage caused, Bihar ADGP (law and order) Sanjay Singh said the police have so far “arrested 125 people for the violent protests”. The Railways said 34 trains were fully cancelled and eight partially, with 72 trains either detained at stations or running late, because of the agitation.
Heated protests were also witnessed in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu and at a railway station in Delhi. Peaceful protests were held in Jharkhand’s Ranchi and Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh, officials said.
The protests resonated in the political arena, too.
JD(U) national president Rajiv Ranjan Singh demanded a review of the Agnipath scheme. Tweeting in Hindi, he wrote: “There has been an atmosphere of discontent, disappointment and fear of a dark future because of unemployment after the announcement of the Agnipath scheme. The Centre should revisit the Agnipath scheme immediately because it is related to the country’s safety and security.”
Speaking to The Indian Express, JD(U) national spokesperson K C Tyagi said: “Now that students are protesting, the Centre has to find a way out and see if it failed to explain the Agnipath scheme to the youth. But we do not support the manner of protest that has caused a lot of damage to public property.”
Senior JD(U) leader and Bihar Minister Bijendra Prasad Yadav called on the Centre to “talk to representatives of the students”.
The Opposition parties attacked the Centre for “ignoring the grievances of unemployed youth”, especially in rural areas, and “not respecting” the Armed Forces.
In Bihar, unrest was reported from at least 10 districts, including Ara, Kaimur, Siwan, Munger, Saharsa and Bhagalpur. Officials said the protesters attacked BJP offices in Nawada and Madhubani, targeted the vehicle of BJP MLA Aruna Devi in Warisaliganj and pelted stones at the house of BJP MLA C N Gupta in Chhapra.
In Haryana’s Palwal, over 20 police and government personnel were injured and five official vehicles set on fire by protesters who gheraoed the Deputy Commissioner’s office near Agra Chowk. The police fired in the air and used tear gas shells to disperse the crowd.
The Haryana government later imposed prohibitory orders in the area and ordered a temporary suspension of Internet services in Palwal “to stop the spread of disinformation and rumours”.
“The agitation was infiltrated by anti-social elements who began pelting stones, causing a law and order situation. They also tried to cause damage to the (DC’s) office and stole ammunition from the police stationed there,” the police said.
Protests were reported elsewhere in the state from Rewari and Gurgaon, where traffic was blocked on the Jaipur highway at Bilaspur Chowk.
In Rohtak, a 23-year-old youth hailing from Lijwana village in Jind committed suicide by hanging inside his room at a paying guest accommodation with his family claiming that he was preparing for recruitment in the Armed Forces and was disappointed at the new policy.
The Central Government had unveiled Agnipath on Tuesday under which most soldiers will leave service in just four years — 45,000 to 50,000 aspirants will be recruited annually but only 25 per cent will be allowed to continue for another 15 years under permanent commission.
On Wednesday, the Government rolled out a series of welfare measures for those who would be let go early, including priority in recruitment for the Central Armed Police Forces, Assam Rifles and some state police services.
“A job in the Armed Forces is the only lifeline to a secure future for youth from the villages and their families. Who will go for a four-year job with an uncertain future? This is traumatic for unemployed youth who have been preparing for a chance in the Armed Forces for most of their lives,” said Aman Sah, a student from Bhagalpur in Bihar who took part in the protests.
“There is hardly a village in Bihar that does not send at least one youth to the Armed Forces every year. The short-term Agnipath scheme has come as a bolt from the blue for them,” said S K Jha, who runs popular coaching programmes for job aspirants in Bihar.
According to Jha, an estimated 2.5-3 lakh students from the state appear for recruitment tests to the Armed Forces.
In Jammu, the police resorted to a lathicharge to disperse a large gathering outside the Army’s recruitment office on B C Road in protest over the cancellation of their written recruitment test following the introduction of Agnipath. The protesters also blocked the busy Tawi bridge, disrupting vehicular traffic for nearly an hour in the morning.
“We had applied for recruitment in 2019 and undergone physical and medical tests. The written test was cancelled more than once due to one reason or the other, including Covid. It was finally scheduled to be held on Thursday,” said a protester who did not wish to be identified.
Protests were also witnessed in a few districts of UP, mainly Bulandshahr and Agra. While a highway was blocked in Agra, protesters clogged the busy GT Road in Bulandshahr and raised slogans against the Centre. Senior police officers said there was no arrest related to the protests.
In Rajasthan, job aspirants and workers of the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP) took out rallies in Jaipur, Nagaur, Ajmer, Dholpur, Bhilwara, Sikar and Jodhpur, among other districts, with police resorting to mild lathicharge in some locations to disperse the crowds.
In outer Delhi’s Nangloi station, protesters blocked the railway track and raised slogans against the Centre. Sameer Sharma, DCP (Outer), said: “About 15-20 men had gathered at the railway station and started protesting against the Agnipath scheme. They were on the track and stopped one train. They were dispersed.”
In Ranchi, around 50 protesters gathered outside the railway station and in the Main Road overbridge area demanding a rollback of the policy, officials said. And in Pithoragarh, a group of youths staged a “peaceful protest” and submitted a memorandum against Agnipath at the collectorate.
(Krishn Kaushik/ New Delhi, Santosh Singh/ Patna, Arun Sharma/ Jammu, Amil Bhatnagar/ Palwal, Pavneet Singh Chadha/ Gurgaon, Asad Rehman/ Lucknow, Hamza Khan/ Jaipur, Abhishek Angad/ Ranchi & agencies)