Indian military’s ‘path of fire’ recruitment plan sparks mass unrest


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

Protesters across the country on Friday set trains ablaze, pelted officials with rocks and attacked the homes of government leaders after the Indian military announced a new recruitment policy to trim salary 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 shut down highways and forced the cancellation of dozens of trains.

The chaos, which spread from northern Bihar to southern Telangana and engulfed at least eight other states, highlighted the economic frustrations — and the 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 steady work.

Under the new policy, called “Agnipath,” or Path of Fire, the armed forces will annually recruit 46,000 personnel under the age of 21 but will not be obligated to retain them after they finish a four-year contract. Officials argued that the scheme would induct men and women during their physical peak while reducing costs for a sprawling military with roughly 1.4 million active personnel — making it the country’s second-largest employer and one of the world’s largest standing armies. Even though India’s defense budget has remained relatively flat, more than a quarter of funds now go to covering pensions, and costs are rising every year.

By thinning the military’s ranks, proponents contend, India could buy weapons and technology to better compete against rivals such as China, which has raced ahead with its own modernization drive while decommissioning millions of thousands of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army. In India, though, the politics are much trickier.

“The problem here is: With a finite budget, you can either pay for troops or bring in technology,” said Pravin Sawhney, a defense analyst and former army officer who has argued that India needs more advanced weapons to compete with China. “But in India, where there is so much unemployment, [the military] is a key source of employment as well. So whatever you do, you’ll annoy a constituency.”

In Bihar, a poor state that experienced some of the worst unrest, a mob attacked the home of the deputy chief minister. In Uttar Pradesh and Telangana, videos on social media showed police officers and railway workers struggling to douse blazing trains with hoses and bottled water. Video from a highway in Uttar Pradesh showed a man running while clutching a baby as rocks whizzed threw the air toward police.

Although the military is seen in many countries as a source of livelihood 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 prep schools are filled with teenagers hoping to pass the army’s entrance exams.

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

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

“In rural areas, if you are serving in the army, your social and economic status changes automatically,” he said. “You get a desired match for marriage. You get easy loans to build a house. You have a steady income with which you can help your family financially. The army used to be a lifetime security package for a family in rural Bihar.”

Now, Singh said, he could enter the four-year program, but there is no guarantee of a job after that. “What if I’m 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 American weapons sales to India, but they have struggled to compete, partly because Russian offerings 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-India relations.

As chaos spread across the country, government leaders and their supporters mobilized to put a positive spin on the recruitment campaign. Defense Minister Rajnath Singh defended the policy as a “golden opportunity” for more Indian youths to serve their country and said the government would lift the age limit for recruits to 23 for one year. Other officials suggested that even a brief stint in the army would benefit job seekers wanting to pursue other careers, such as policing.

Meanwhile, policymakers and retired officers heatedly debated the military’s priorities — and the role it should serve in Indian society.

“The armed forces are a volunteer force. It is not a welfare organization,” VP Malik, a former chief of army staff, told the NDTV television channel.

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

“It takes a long time to get proficient, trained and battle-ready,” he said in an interview. “Soldiering is not just firing a rifle. It is not a simple job.”

Irfan reported from Srinagar.


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