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Journalism of Courage

The Agniveer’s journey

Aakash Joshi writes: There is need for a deeper conversation about potential social fallout of Agnipath

The question is not whether the armed forces need reform and restructuring. It is about the limited conversation around the potential social upheaval the scheme could well lead to. (Express File Photo)

“Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million-dollar equipment, back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars.”— Sylvester Stallone, in ‘Rambo: First Blood’

Thanks to the pervasive power of Hollywood, even those who have never been to America are likely to have some idea of the country’s attitude towards armed forces personnel after they have completed their “tour(s) of duty”. A strong sense of nationalism is tied up with their sacrifice and often promoted by the military-industrial complex. “Supporting the troops” and “thanking them for their service” is an integral part of the political identity of many Americans. Conversely, veterans suffer disproportionately from homelessness and mental health issues compared to the rest of the population — almost 20 per cent of them, according to the US National Institute for Drug Abuse. The prevalence of addiction, a disease of despair, is understandable. Violence is, by definition, traumatic and war — even when it is necessary — wounds entire generations.

Things get worse. As Kathleen Belew points out in Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, after every major conflict, many veterans who are unable to readjust well to civilian life have been involved in violent, organised crime and even terrorist activities. World War II veterans formed the Hells Angels (an “outlaw” motorcycle club) and there is an increasing amount of scholarship on how veterans have fed the cadres of the White Power movement. Louis Beam, for example, was a decorated pilot in the Vietnam War. On his return, he joined the Ku Klux Klan and is now one of the leading ideologues for racist organisations. His conception of a “leaderless resistance” continues to be an inspiration for violent, anti-state, anti-minority groups and individuals. Unfortunately, Beam is a notable exception only in his notoriety.

The model for the Indian armed forces — a colonial legacy in some ways, to be sure — is different. Until now, short-term recruits formed a negligible part of the non-commissioned personnel. Soldiers are expected to die and kill for their country and are offered, in return, job security, pensions and health benefits. The military, by and large, has taken care of its own.

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The economic and strategic imperative for reform in the armed forces is undeniable. The time for better technology, hardware and a more adaptable, efficient and versatile fighting force has long been here, and we are already late to the party. Continuing with the current structure of employment and benefits at the same scale is also an economically untenable proposition: More than half of India’s defence budget is spent on pensions, while just around 5 per cent is earmarked for research and development.

The question, then, is not whether the armed forces need reform and restructuring. It is about the limited conversation around the potential social upheaval the scheme could well lead to. As the protests around the Agnipath scheme die down, is India ready for the inevitable influx of thousands of young men, Agniveers, who are likely to have seen conflict and must now adjust to civilian life?

The protests — and the government’s response — have been centred on the lack of job security (Agniveers will serve for four years, including 6 months of training) and benefits. A significant number will be employed in paramilitary forces, and their service and training will be recognised as a degree. Yet, many — if not most — Agniveers will have to make their own way. And the value of a “degree” for employers, more often than not, is only significant if it is a marker for skills that they can use.


The first lesson from America in this regard, then, is: The cold logic of the free market may pay lip service to patriotic sentiments, but it does not give salaries or jobs based on them.

Another issue, perhaps even more important, with creating thousands of armed forces gig workers is the social and psychological readjustment that Agniveers will need assistance with. And dealing with it in any meaningful manner requires facing the more uncomfortable weaves of India’s social fabric.

The fact remains that ours is a society permeated by violence and hierarchy, as much as it is by compassion, decency and fraternity. Our political conversation continues to be dominated by wounds — real and imagined — of history. Caste animosity — including violence to protect its boundaries — is stoked at regular intervals. A camera on every phone means acts of brutality are recorded and shared, as boastful messages from diseased minds as well as for disturbing ideological ends. When men who have seen death at close quarters, and are trained in violence, are added to this already volatile mix, serious consideration and resources must be put in place to help them readjust. Mental health, community and vocational therapy — and less obvious initiatives — would be a good first step. India does not need — and cannot afford — its own version of the KKK and White Power.


The final lesson from America is a tangential one. Most of the sub-genres of its mainstream cinema have been replicated by Hollywood’s Indian counterparts — the romantic comedy, the action movie and even the slick nationalist war film, a la Uri: The Surgical Strike. What we haven’t had yet is the “war vet” genre — stories of soldiers who come back to a world that does not, cannot understand them. The first Rambo, for example, isn’t just an action movie, it is a tragedy about irrelevance and loneliness. Let’s hope a home-grown version of that tale never has any resonance.


First published on: 17-07-2022 at 20:58 IST
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