Updated: June 17, 2022 5:17:30 pm
As protests erupted across the country on Thursday against the Centre’s new Agnipath recruitment scheme for the military, one of the first political forces to hit the streets in Rajasthan, which is among the few Opposition-ruled states, was not the Congress but the Hanuman Beniwal-led Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP) that is a former member of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
While the Congress was staging a gherao of the Raj Bhavan in protest against the Enforcement Directorate’s (ED) notices to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Beniwal along with a large number of RLP workers staged a massive protest against Agnipath at the Jaipur collectorate.
Joined by angry Army aspirants and former soldiers who demanded a rollback of the scheme, Beniwal warned the Centre that the protest was a “trailer and the entire movie had yet to be seen”.
“Ye deshbakti ka bhadda mazak desh ke sarkar ne udaya hai (The country’s government has made a bad joke with patriotism). Where will the 75 per cent of recruits under Agnipath go when they are released after four years? They will have arms training. If they don’t get jobs, they will indulge in gang wars,” Beniwal told reporters.
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The same day, various delegations led by RLP workers protested across various districts in Rajasthan with Nagaur MP Beniwal threatening to even march to Delhi. The RLP’s reaction to the Agnipath protests has differed significantly from the party’s response to the agitation against the three farm laws last year.
The RLP waited a few months after the protests against the farm laws began in August-September 2020 and only after the agitation turned into a massive movement that Beniwal decided to split from the NDA in December 2020.
The swiftness with which the RLP acted in the case of Agnipath and asked its workers to spearhead protests in different districts shows that the three-and-half-year-old party that wants to establish itself as a third political force in Rajasthan knows that it has much to gain by siding with Army aspirants protesting against the scheme.
The RLP describes itself as a party of “jawans and kisaans (soldiers and farmers)” and has a predominantly Jat support base, with Beniwal trying to position himself as the most influential Jat leader in the state. The Jat community sends scores of youngsters to the security forces every year.
Rajasthan is among the top states in India in terms of contribution of personnel to the armed forces, and thousands from districts in the Shekhawati region, including Sikar, Jhunjhunu, and Churu are currently in the defence forces. It is a common sight in villages in Rajasthan to come across schools and other buildings named after soldiers from the state who died fighting for the country.
Nagaur, Beniwal’s home district from where he is an MP, is also replete with “defence academies”— coaching centres that help Army aspirants to prepare for a life in the military — and has many families that have been serving in the Army for several generations. Youngsters from these districts prepare for the defence services examinations from a very young age and many of them are at present protesting against the scheme.
In the past, Beniwal has consistently asked questions in the Lok Sabha about Army recruitment drives, making it clear that recruitment in defence forces is a core issue for the party.
In the last Assembly elections, the then newly formed RLP managed to win three seats in the 200-member Assembly but it failed to make inroads in the Jat-dominated Shekhawati region.
The protests against Agnipath and the fact that the BJP, which is the main Opposition party, won’t speak against the scheme brought by its own government at the Centre have opened an avenue for Beniwal’s party to expand its base and consolidate its position as a bankable third force in the state.
On Thursday, the RLP even held protests in districts in southern Rajasthan such as Udaipur and Banswara, which are far from its traditional places of influence in western Rajasthan. “The Modi government has made a mockery of the youngsters, the sons of farmers who go to fight on top of 20,000 feet high mountains,” said Beniwal. He also questioned why the scheme had not been extended to officer rank posts.
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