One dead as India protests over expansion of new short-term army jobs

At least one person has died and more than a dozen injured as protests against a new government short-term recruitment policy for the army enter their third day in India.

The death was reported in the southern state of Telangana on Friday – a sign that protests were spreading – where police opened fire as a crowd gathered at Secunderabad railway station and set train carriages on fire. It was unclear if the man had died in the police shooting.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government this week announced an overhaul of the recruitment process for the armed forces’ 1.38 million men, aiming to recruit more people on short four-year contracts to lower the average age of the armed forces. personal.

But many would-be recruits oppose it, saying they should be allowed to serve longer than four years. Opposition parties and some members of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party say the system will lead to higher unemployment in a country struggling with joblessness.

Police said they used batons and tear gas to disperse protesters in several states, including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan, after crowds took to the streets, blocked railroads and roads and damaged vehicles and government buildings.

Rail authorities said the movement of nearly 200 trains had been affected as they canceled dozens of passenger train services and deployed additional police to stations to prevent further destruction, according to media reports.

Protesters sit on train tracks at Secunderabad railway station in Telangana state [Mahesh Kumar A/AP]

In Gurugram, a satellite town of the Indian capital that houses the offices of several multinational companies, authorities have banned gatherings of more than four people in one place in a bid to prevent protests.

“This ordinance will come into effect with immediate effect,” the Gurugram administration said in a notice, a copy of which was posted on social media by the district’s information service.

Although there were no reports of protests in Gurugram, some protesters moved to nearby Palwal district on Thursday.

Some of the world’s largest companies have offices in Gurugram, including Microsoft, Meta, and Google. It is also home to manufacturing facilities of major Indian companies such as Maruti Suzuki.

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, protests erupted in 14 districts and police fired into the air to repel stone-throwing crowds, a senior police official said. Prashant Kumar.

India protests
A policeman runs for cover as protesters throw rocks at him during a protest in Varanasi, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. [Reuters]

In neighboring Bihar, the worst-hit state, protesters torched carriages at at least two train stations and disrupted train services, police said. Nearly 25,000 police have been deployed and more than 100 people arrested in the eastern state, officials said.

Bihar has some of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in India and has earned a reputation as a state left behind by the country’s runaway economic growth over the past few decades.

In January, mobs of angry job seekers in Bihar torched train carriages, blocked train tracks and burned effigies of Modi following allegations that entrance exams for the government-run railway sector government were conducted unfairly.

Reporting in New Delhi, Al Jazeera’s Pavni Mittal said there was “tremendous anger” among people and “the situation is out of control”.

“Violent protests are taking place across the country. Trains are set on fire, stations are vandalized, roads are blocked,” she said.

India protests
Flames rise from a train set on fire by protesters in Patna, the capital of Bihar state [Sanjay Kumar Srivastava/AP]

“Path of Fire”

Mittal said the protesters’ demand is “simple: they want the government to rescind the army’s new recruiting policy”, called ‘Agnipath’ or path of fire in Hindi.

The policy will bring in men and women between the ages of 17½ and 21 for four-year terms at non-commissioned officer ranks, with only a quarter retained for longer terms. Seventy-five percent of them will be compulsorily retired after four years without pension benefits.

Soldiers were previously recruited separately from the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and typically serve until age 17, for the lowest ranks.

On Friday, the government also announced a one-time extension of the maximum age for entering the program to 23, as recruitment has been frozen for two years, mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The government has decided that a one-time waiver will be granted for the proposed recruitment cycle for 2022,” the Ministry of Defense said in a statement.

The armed forces aim to recruit around 46,000 personnel under the new system this year, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh announced earlier this week.

Singh defended the program, saying its goal is to “strengthen the country’s security”. With nearly 1.4 million active personnel, the Indian army is the second largest in the world after China and the third biggest spender.

Modi, who faces national elections in 2024, is under pressure to create jobs as India’s economy recovers from the pandemic crisis. One of the ideas behind short-term military recruitment is that those trained by the armed forces can then seek employment in the police or in the private sector.

The government has been criticized by some retired soldiers, opposition leaders and security analysts.

In an analysis for Al Jazeera on Thursday, security expert Sushant Singh said the army’s new recruitment plan was announced without any discussion in parliament and could have “devastating consequences”.

“More than half of the Indian government’s defense expenditure of $70.6 billion is spent on pensions and salaries for Indian military personnel. It was skyrocketing year by year and Modi’s government was unable to launch a fundamental reform within the existing structure,” Singh wrote. “The Indian government therefore decided on Tuesday to demolish the structure itself.”

According to Singh, the proposal will also have a direct impact on Indian society, which has seen an upsurge in hate speech and attacks against Muslims and other minorities by India’s right-wing Hindu groups since Modi came to power. in 2014.

“Research shows that the most violent ethnic cleansing occurred when members of the majority community gained combat experience as soldiers while the minority community was unorganized,” Singh wrote.

Rahul Gandhi, one of the main leaders of the opposition Congress party, urged the government to “listen to the voice of the country’s unemployed youth”.

Unemployment has long been a millstone around the neck of the Indian economy, with unemployment figures at their worst since the 1970s even before the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the economy.

Modi’s government has touted the new military recruitment plan as a path to modernizing the armed forces with a younger and leaner body of soldiers while creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ghazala Wahab, editor-in-chief of Force magazine, said the problem with the army’s new recruiting program is that it has “not been thought through at all”.

“Most of the decisions this government has made since coming to power have been executive decisions made without any debate,” she said.

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