Indian Army’s ‘Lane of Fire’ Recruitment Plan Sparks Mass Unrest

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NEW DELHI — India this week unveiled a plan to modernize its fighting forces to defend against external threats. Instead, it sparked a wave of violence at home.

On Friday, protesters across the country torched trains, stoned officials and attacked the homes of government leaders after India’s military announced a new recruitment policy aimed at cutting salaries and pension costs. At least one man was killed after police in Secunderabad, near Hyderabad in the south, opened fire on protesters, according to the Hindustan Times, citing local police. In several cities, protesters closed highways and forced the cancellation of dozens of trains.

The chaos, which has spread from northern Bihar to southern Telangana and engulfed at least eight other states, has exposed economic frustrations – and political sensitivity surrounding government jobs – in a country where nearly a quarter of people under 30 are unemployed and where the state is often seen as the only hope for stable work.

Under the new policy, called “Agnipath” or Path of Fire, the armed forces will recruit 46,000 people under the age of 21 each year but will not be obliged to retain them after completing a four-year contract. Officials argued the program would bring in men and women during their physical peak while cutting costs from a sprawling military with around 1.4 million active personnel, making it the nation’s second-largest employer and largest. one of the largest standing armies in the world. Even though India’s defense budget has remained relatively stable, more than a quarter of the funds are now used to cover pensions, and the costs are rising every year.

By thinning the ranks of the military, supporters argue, India could buy weapons and technology to better compete with rivals such as China, which has accelerated its own modernization drive while disarming hundreds of thousands of People’s Liberation Army soldiers. In India, however, politics is much trickier.

“The problem here is this: with a limited budget, you can either pay troops or bring in technology,” said defense analyst and former army officer Pravin Sawhney, who argued that the India needed more advanced weaponry to compete with China. “But in India, where there is so much unemployment, [the military] is also an essential source of jobs. So whatever you do, you will annoy a constituency.

In Bihar, an impoverished state that has seen the worst unrest, a mob attacked the home of the Deputy Chief Minister. In Uttar Pradesh and Telangana, videos on social media showed police and railway workers working to douse burning trains with hoses and bottled water. Video of a highway in uttar pradesh showed a man running while clutching a baby as rocks whizzed through the air towards police.

Although the army is seen in many countries as a source of income and a career path for the poor, it occupies a particularly important role in modern India. In the countryside, stories abound of families sending each of their sons to serve. In cities, special preparatory schools are filled with teenagers hoping to pass the army entrance exams.

Gaurav Kumar Singh, a 19-year-old from the village of Patila in Bihar, had long dreamed of joining the army. For three years he prepared for his exams and ran six-mile loops with 20 other village boys to prepare for the fitness test.

“It was all in vain,” he said on Friday, explaining that he felt a mixture of disappointment and concern.

“In rural areas, if you serve in the military, your social and economic status automatically changes,” he said. “You get a desired match for marriage. You get easy loans to build a house. You have a stable income with which you can support your family financially. The army was once a lifetime security set for a family in rural Bihar.

Now, Singh said, he could enter the four-year program, but there are no job guarantees after that. “And if I am not selected after four years? What will I do then? He asked.

For India, the constraints of its defense budget have ramifications far beyond Singh’s village. Since the Obama administration, US officials have sought to boost US arms sales to India, but have struggled to compete, in part because Russian offers are cheaper.

The United States views India as one of its most crucial partners in Asia, but India’s reliance on Russian weapons – and the country’s refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine – has become an irritant in US-Indian relations.

As chaos spread across the country, government leaders and their supporters rallied to put a positive spin on the recruitment campaign. Defense Minister Rajnath Singh defended the policy as a ‘golden opportunity’ for more young Indians to serve their country and said the government would lift the age limit for recruits to 23 for a year . Other officials have suggested that even a brief stint in the military would benefit job seekers wishing to pursue other careers, such as the police.

Meanwhile, policy makers and retired officers have heatedly debated the priorities of the military – and the role it should play in Indian society.

“The armed forces are a force of volunteers. It is not a welfare organization,” Vice President Malik, a former army chief of staff, told NDTV television.

But retired Lt. Gen. Kamal Davar, a former head of defense intelligence, said India needed to maintain a large professional army because of its precarious position between longtime rivals Pakistan and China. Military service was not a short-term job, he argued, but a vocation.

“It takes a long time to become competent, trained and ready for combat,” he said in an interview. “Soldier, it’s not just shooting a gun. It’s not a simple job. »

Irfan reported from Srinagar.

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