From Siachen to Agnipath: Unravelling of the Pseudo-Patriotic Narrative
IT was half a century back. The Indian government headed by Indira Gandhi had made up its mind to extend full military support to the Bangladesh liberation struggle in 1971. A substantial political stake was involved to go for an early strike. But before starting the campaign, the then PM summoned the army chief, (the only field Marshall so far from the Indian army) Sam Manekshaw. The general put his foot down on operational grounds. He clearly stated that the army needs at least six months to attain military preparedness for a successful campaign. The prime minister had to relent. The government used the interregnum to embark on a diplomatic offensive to bring out the legitimacy of the liberation struggle of the Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan and establish a free nation. The rest is history; perhaps the most comprehensive success was achieved with the surrender of the Pak army and the establishment of free Bangladesh. Both political and military historians have recorded the perfect synchronisation of political and military preparedness to achieve the goal.
But those were different times where the distinct spaces of decision-making were precisely demarcated between - political and military. Political decision making was not unilateral, but due consideration was conceded to the professional opinion of military leaders. Of the democracies which were established as part of the decolonisation process after the second world war, India was perhaps the one successful instance where the parliamentary democracy had got well entrenched. Of all the factors, commentators have observed that the arm’s length between the political and military establishments was definitely a crucial factor.
HOW THE RHETORIC HAS TRANSFORMED
From the outset of the Modi government, the armed forces have been projected as an important propaganda for ruling out an ultra-nationalistic narrative. Many of the measures by the Modi government which faced popular opposition were sought to be dismissed by counterposing the sacrifice of the men in uniform to the civil protests. Any opposition to the government was sought to be delegitimised. The people’s suffering in the queues before the ATM booths following de-monetisation or the disquiet over other genuine problems of life and livelihoods were trivialized. With the government leading the charge from the front, cyberspace was over flooded with the rhetorical question, “think about the sacrifice our jawans are making at the frontier in the freezing cold of Siachen glacier!”
The soldier was elevated to the level of superhuman, being always ready to make the supreme sacrifice. So much so, that all other civil duties and preoccupations in the service of the nation were belittled. The trend reached its height during the Pulwama and its response in Balakot. The security-centric nationalism was the icing on the Hindutva serving which shaped the basis of the RSS-BJP narrative for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Brazen use of symbols and motifs connected with the armed forces were used to assert the strength of the political leadership. Despite admitting that this was in clear violation of our electoral laws, the election commission did precious little to stop this course.
AGNIPATH AND THE GROUND OF NATIONAL SECURITY
The announcement of the Agnipath scheme has clearly mentioned that henceforth there will be no further recruitment of the armed forces including officers for a permanent tenure. The Agnipath will recruit young people between 17 and 21 years for a period of four years. In the initial stage, six months of minimum military training will be imparted to these Agniveers- a euphemism for these young recruitees. On the completion of four years, 75 per cent of these will be retired.
In explaining the features of the scheme, it has become abundantly clear that the government will have no formal, not to speak statutory responsibility towards the redeployment of these young people who will not be retained. That they will be left to their fate is also becoming apparent with the abysmal record of this government in providing employment to trained ex-servicemen who have retired. Neither will they have a guaranteed pension as is in vogue.
Therefore, it is clear that over time, the bulk of the men in uniform will be from the small number who will be retained; obviously without adequate professional training needed to fulfil the requirements and gruel of the armed forces.
That this is a clear curtailment of the rights of young people is obvious, but the government’s propaganda machinery is making the bizarre claim that this is to bring down the age of the forces and projected as a big opportunity. Between the lines, it has also become apparent that these ‘reforms’ of the armed forces are driven by the fund crunch. At one point in time, defence expenditure was sought to be projected as the ‘holy cow’ as compared to other essential budgetary allocations. But by announcing the Agnipath scheme, the Modi government has also willy-nilly admitted that consistent with the overall vulnerability of the government’s revenue resources, the young soldiers have to suffer a deep cut affecting their training, facilities and pension. The hoax lies in the government trying to market this as a new era of opportunities for young people.
THE GENERALS SPEAK: TECHNOLOGY IS THE FUTURE
Gone are the titans of the yesteryears like field marshal Manekshaw. They fiercely defended their independent professionalism and did not buckle down before the political brass. There is one anecdote which amply brings out the attitude. Once Manekshaw got the hint that the government was considering the scaling down of the expenditure on military liveries and uniform for the soldiers. The general took a meeting with the then planning commission brass and posed the simple question – ‘can you ask me to lead my forces in dhoti and kurta?’, and further, ‘can you expect me to lead my men in their crumpled clothes’! That was the end of the proposal.
But today, the military leaders are of a different breed. The three top spokesmen of the army, navy and air force in providing proxy to the political decision-makers in the face of the fast spreading protests on the streets over Agnipath wielded the stick . Their tenor would shame the political leaders and ministers threatening those young people who oppose and protest will not be recruited and police records will be examined before appointment. They know pretty well that the uncertainty that will hang over the future of the potential recruitees cannot be dispelled with facts and arguments; hence the bluster.
The other line of rationalisation is that there is no great requirement for manpower and that future war is all about technology. Those with a rudimentary knowledge of the question of manpower in defence planning would be aware that technology is merely a force multiplier and can never substitute the need for manpower. The bravado will also become apparent from the allocation for R&D expenditure for defence. A sorry state of affairs dogs our signpost projects like the production of light combat aircraft or main battle tanks. In fact, the unsustainable level of exorbitantly priced military software and hardware imports from external sources is having a debilitating effect on the scope of our technology integration.
UNEMPLOYMENT AND NEW OPPORTUNITY
The widespread reactions to the announcement of the Agnipath scheme which has at times taken a violent turn provides the depth of emotions prevailing among the young people in the country over the horrific levels of unemployment. Month after month, the updates about the prevailing employment situation in the country by the CMIE outline the ticking time bomb. Statistical details cannot bring out the pain and anguish and the demographic dividend of the younger profile of the population has all but vanished. Young people can only become active contributors to the national economy when this potential is translated into the opportunity to be employed. A World Bank study of 2020 shows that only 41 per cent of India’s working-age population are employed compared to 53 per cent in Bangladesh 48 per cent in Pakistan and 46 per cent in Sri Lanka.
As much as the response to the Agnipath proposal in January 2022 massive protests rocked Bihar over irregularities in Railway Recruitment Board(RRB) examinations. About 1.25 crores applied for 35,000 openings. The NSSO employment and unemployment survey reveals the growing crisis in both the rural and the urban areas.
The Agnipath scheme was announced along with another official announcement that within one and a half years one million jobs will be provided. This is about government jobs, much in the lines of the 2 crore jobs annually ‘jumla’ in 2014. It is apparent that there is a virtual recruitment freeze.
Vacant positions in Lacs
As on March 1
Central government civil employees
The central vacancies have actually crossed a million in 2019 as opposed to 4.7 lacs in 2016. In short, the government claim is simply a fiction. Study after study have shown that there is a preference among young people for government jobs over those in the private and mostly unorganised sector.
The crux of the protest over Agnipath betrays the young people’s distrust of the government claim. The cavalier fashion in which ministers are assuring that they will be provided with employment or credit opportunity from financial institutions is being received with a lot of disdain. Comments by BJP leaders like Kailas Vijaybargiya that Agniveers- on completion of four years will be provided security jobs in the BJP office is adding further salt to the injury. Minister of state Kisan Reddy had made similar comments.
That the government suffers its worst trust deficit is becoming clear with the corporate backers jumping into the fray. The claim that corporate recruiters would provide opportunities to offloaded Agniveers- has evoked a quip from former navy chief, Arun Prakash. He disarmingly asked Anand Mahindra that the corporate honcho should furnish with the details of employment of ex-servicemen in his entity so far!
The double speaks of the ministers who talk of providing employment in PSUs exposes the level of hypocrisy. With the government’s active policy towards mindless privatisation, will anyone in the right frame of mind ‘touch this with a bargepole’!
DESTRUCTION OF NATIONAL SECURITY: THE COLLAPSE OF THE ULTRA-NATIONALIST NARRATIVE
What the Agnipath scheme really symbolises is the destruction of our national security and defence preparedness with undertrained young soldiers and with the withdrawal of the social security of pension and other wherewithal for enhancing their fighting spirit. This marks the abandoning of the young Indian soldier recruitees for the Agnipath scheme. Therefore, this is a clear collapse of the soldier centric ultra-nationalist narrative that was weaved to shore up Modi and BJP’s electoral prospects in the last Lok Sabha elections.
STREETS WILL UNDO THE IDEOLOGICAL NARRATIVE OF HINDUTVA
The recent developments mark the growing use of communal polarisation to contend with the crisis of life and livelihood that people are grappling with. That young people are at the worst receiving end with the horrific prospects of unemployment are now out in the open on the streets. Young people, most of them spontaneously, have come out to tear apart the central ideological narrative. The spectacle of young people tearing apart banners with the prime minister’s image is the enduring image that is panning out on the streets. The government would do well, as much as it did in withdrawing the three farm laws to pause and recall the announcement of the Agnipath scheme. Siachen is a long way from the Agnipath that hurts the young people and the nation.