Indian Army ‘Fire Path’ Recruitment Plan Sparks Mass Riots

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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 domestic violence.

Protesters across the country set fire to trains on Friday, threw stones at officials and attacked the homes of government leaders after the Indian Army announced a new conscription policy to cut wages 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 roads 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 economic frustrations — and political sensitivity around government posts — in a country where nearly a quarter part of the people under the age of 30 are unemployed and where the state is often seen as the only hope for a stable job.

Under the new policy, called “Agnipath,” or Path of Fire, the military will recruit 46,000 people under the age of 21 annually, but won’t be required to retain them after a four-year contract ends. Officials argued that the scheme would incorporate men and women during their physical peak while lowering costs for an expanding military with some 1.4 million active personnel, making it the country’s second-largest employer and one of the largest standing armies in the world. Although India’s defense budget has remained relatively flat, more than a quarter of funds now go to cover pensions and costs are rising every year.

By thinning the military ranks, advocates argue, India could buy weapons and technology to better compete against rivals like China, which has pushed ahead with its own modernization drive while dismantling hundreds of thousands of People’s Liberation Army soldiers. In India, however, politics is much more complicated.

“The problem here is: With a finite budget, you can either pay for the 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] it is also a key source of employment. So whatever you do, you’re going to upset a constituency.”

In bihar, a poor state that experienced some of the worst riots, a mob attacked the home of the deputy prime minister. In Uttar Pradesh Y TelanganaVideos on social media showed police and rail workers struggling to put out burning trains with hoses and bottled water. video of a highway in uttar pradesh it showed a man running while clutching a baby as rocks whizzed by and hurled air at police.

Although the army 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 field, stories abound of families sending each of their children to serve. In the cities, special preparatory schools are full of teenagers hoping to pass the army entrance exams.

Gaurav Kumar Singh, a 19-year-old from Patila village in Bihar, had long dreamed of joining the army. For three years, he prepared for his exams and ran six-mile circuits with 20 other kids from the town to prepare for the physical 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 are serving in the military, your social and economic status automatically changes,” he said. “You get a desired partner for marriage. You get easy loans to build a house. You have a stable income with which you can help your family financially. The army used to be a lifelong 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 happens if I am not selected after four years? What will I do then? he asked him.

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

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

As chaos spread across the country, government leaders and their supporters mobilized to put a positive spin on the recruitment drive. Defense Minister Rajnath Singh defended the policy as a “golden opportunity” for more young Indians to serve their country and said the government would raise the age limit for recruits to 23 for a year. Other officials suggested that even a short stint in the military would benefit job seekers who want to pursue other careers, such as the police.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and retired officers hotly debated the priorities of the armed forces and the role they should play in Indian society.

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

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 longtime rivals Pakistan and China. Military service was not a short-term job, he argued, but a calling.

“It takes a long time to become competent, trained and battle-ready,” he said in an interview. “Being a soldier is not just shooting a rifle. It’s not an easy job.”

Irfan reported from Srinagar.

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