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Varna Dharma Agnipath

Since the Agnipath recruitment scheme is for the non-commissioned, lowest-level jobs in the armed forces, the rich, particularly in caste terms the Dwija (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Bania, Kayastha and Khatri) boys, will not quit their education and opt for it, says Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

On 17 June 2022, the youth in several cities held protests against the Agnipath Army Recruitment Scheme, mainly around railway stations. The protests turned violent, especially in Bihar, leading to several train coaches getting burnt and a minister’s house being attacked. This was unprecedented. The government had announced the scheme on 14 June. I did not realize the implications of this new recruitment programme until I saw the anger on the faces of the youth and in their body language.

On some of the English TV channels which are known for their pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) anchoring, both the anchors and the BJP spokespersons were condemning the protestors as “criminals”, “agents of the opposition parties”, and “unsuitable to be in the army” and so on. The boy who died in the firing in Secunderabad railway station (Telangana) was D. Rakesh was only 22 years old and an OBC and saw becoming a soldier as a means of sustenance.

The ideology of violence

I was amazed that the mediapersons and the BJP leaders were trying to tell us that there were no Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteers among them at all. Earlier, this was the organization that claimed that it had control over most of the youth of India through its shakhas. Were there no shakha-trained youth among them? Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has repeatedly said that India’s greatest advantage is its young population – that about 40 per cent of the population is below 35. But what their anger in this incident has shown is that if their government promotes unemployment as a policy the danger of them turning to unimaginable violence is a “Savarkarian” truth.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and the chiefs of the Indian Armed Forces spoke of the merits of the Agniveer scheme at a recently held press conference

When they were out of power, the RSS/BJP never talked about non-violence as part of their cultural nationalism agenda. The RSS shakhas, in which many children and youth are being trained, never taught non-violence as a norm of life like the Gandhian Seva Dal or Ambedkar’s Samata Dal did. The RSS on the one end of the ideological spectrum and some of the communists on the other end affirmed violence as a necessary tool to achieve their goals.

Now the RSS/BJP are trying to say that their own trained youth should become Gandhian or Ambedkarite, not Savarkarite – which is quite ironic. 

Agniveers and education

A careful study of the scheme shows that Agnipath is certainly not in the national interest. It is a scheme of the modern Varna Dharma. It is meant to get Shudra/OBC/SC/ST juveniles out of schools at the tender age of 17.5 years before they graduate from school. The boys and girls of the rural agrarian and artisanal communities hardly complete Standard 10 at that age. They would thus automatically become school dropouts, and after their four years as Agniveers in the armed forces they would become jobless. They would not even think of going back to school again. Is this scheme part of the New Educational Policy? What would the Agniveers with a four-year military training do when they are back in their villages?  

Since the Agnipath programme is for non-commissioned, lowest-level jobs in the armed forces, the rich, particularly in caste terms the Dwija (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Bania, Kayastha, and Khatri) boys and girls, will not quit their education and opt for it. They would rather wait to gain entry into the National Defence Academy and become the prized commissioned officers. Even among the SCs, STs and OBCs only the poorest will send their children into this programme.

The idea is like the RSS shakha training. Here, the government will train these working-class/caste literate youth into a militia force for four years with a nominal salary and send them back home. After that, they cannot think of improving their educational qualifications. Where do they go? What do they do? 

The present regime has three types of jobs in mind. First, many of them will be recruited by the private industries – of the Adani and the Ambani kind – as security personnel with meagre salaries. They would perhaps be known as Industrial Agniveers. Anand Mahindra has already hinted at offering them such jobs. Amid the ongoing privatization spree, the private companies need their private Agniveers to control the working class. Second, the RSS will also recruit them as its militant cadre – and they will probably be known as the Bharatiya Agniveers. Third, they will be available as bodyguards for the rich, nationalist celebrities. They could perhaps be known as Rakshan Agniveers. 

How did the officers of the Indian Armed Forces, including the chiefs of the army, airforce and navy, agree to such a scheme that has huge implications for a massively populated country like India? If you train thousands of youth for the military year after year without a properly institutionalized job mechanism, how does violence come down? The earlier system was absorbing the young and energetic for a lifetime in the service. Their 15 years in service would see marriage and childbirth and the pension, though small, would keep them going. With already a bachelor’s or higher qualification and now a credible military experience, they would command a lot of respect and get another job. What respect will these school dropouts with no job, no pension, perhaps no marriage, command? 

Which caste do the youth working as watchmen today belong to? Isn’t that the kind of work Anand Mahindra is offering? What about the barber or laundryman’s jobs that the BJP minister G. Kishan Reddy is suggesting Agniveers do after training? Which caste has been entrusted with such jobs today? Can Kishan Reddy think of his own son joining this service and later taking up one such job? There is a clear varna dharma ideology that is being promoted through this project. 

Burnt aspirations

This project will unleash more violence in society rather than reduce it. At a critical age for learning, the youth will be taken out of their educational institutions, made to undergo musclemen training and sent back as unemployed youth. Earlier the RSS trained the youth with an anti-minorities agenda by getting them to brandish lathis in the streets, but that agenda has no value when they are in power. Now, they are using the state police and bulldozers against the minorities when necessary. When you burn the aspirations of the youth whom you yourself trained to be violent, you should not act surprised when they react violently. 

The youth who were given many promises at the shakha meetings and also in election rallies will turn against the very same forces when they realize that their aspirations are destroyed with Agnipath kind of programmes. That is what we are witnessing today. The globalized social media and privatized State will bring new forces of violence. The Agnipath has just initiated that. 

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About The Author

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, author and activist. He has been a professor of Political Science at Osmania University, Hyderabad and director of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. He is the author of ‘Why I Am Not a Hindu’, ‘Buffalo Nationalism’ and ‘Post-Hindu India’ 

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