Agnipath – the scheme for a four-year ‘tour of duty’ as the mainstay of recruitment into the military services announced by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh the other day, alas, has more negatives attending on it than clear-cut benefits.
Shedding Colonial Structures
The pros first: It is a seminal attempt at reconfiguring the imperial-era structured mercenary army that had won for the British their globe-girdling empire. In its post-1947 avatar, the Indian Army continued with its colonial institutions and affectations, such as the officers’ mess and cantonment culture, that has long irked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is, perhaps, the prompt for this underway policy to ‘Indianise’ the military.
It will be intriguing, in any case, to see how the army chief, General Manoj Pande, a veteran sapper, proposes to re-engineer the infantry-heavy army dominated by proud, single class, regiments (Gurkha, Sikh, Jat, Madras, Maratha, etc.) deliberately designed during the British Raj on the politically astute but divisive myth of the ‘martial races’ into an army of Agniveers.
Three Vastly Different Services
Rajnath Singh was joined at the podium by the three services’ Chiefs of Staff. But let’s be clear that it is the infantry-heavy army – the least technical among them, that will mainly take in the short service recruits because the navy and air force simply cannot be expected to do so. Their relatively small manpower requirements coupled with technology-based wherewithal and war fighting concepts deter them from following Agnipath.
Ironically, it is precisely the technical expertise imparted to entrance-level sailors and airmen in esoteric technologies to enable them in peacetime and war, to operate systems of all kinds (sonar, avionics, radar, communications, etc.), to run and maintain warships and aircraft, to upkeep powerplants and weapons and secondary systems onboard varied platforms, and otherwise to keep the Indian Navy and the Air Force in play, that makes them more readily employable in the civilian world should any of them seek an early exit from military careers or a second career post-retirement.
In other words, many of the positives Rajnath Singh claimed for the Agnipath programme, such as producing technically competent, high-tech workers that industry would gladly offtake and who will end up increasing labour productivity, and spurring industrial and GDP growth, etc., are an exaggeration. Because it is certain that the 25% of the Agniveer cohort who show any talent for technology will be retained by the army to run its high-tech equipment.
The reason for this is because of the differing nature of warfare the three armed services prepare for. While air and naval warfighting are, as mentioned, machine-intensive, land wars are manpower weighted. An army needs unending hordes of preferably youthful ‘boots on the ground’ to fight for and hold mountainous territory against a hostile China.