There have been increasing signs of instability in India recently after the Indian government refused to repeal its new military recruitment policy, which it had announced in mid-June. The Agnipath Scheme (literally, "the path of fire") would reduce the number of recruits accepted into the Indian army each year through offering short-term contracts. Large-scale popular protests have swept across 12 states and have resulted in the death of one Indian citizen and dozens of arrests, as well as extensive destruction of public and private property. Opposition parties have also become involved, promising that demonstrations will continue until the policy is withdrawn. This threatens to further exacerbate the crisis and expand its potential impacts on India’s political and economic trajectory.
India’s prime minister announced the new military recruitment policy in mid-June. Under this plan, approximately 46,000 young people (17.5-21 years of age) would be annually recruited for the army for a period of four years at non-officer ranks, while only 25 percent of these recruits would later receive fifteen-year appointments in the military. Applicants would need to provide evidence that they had never participated in a violent protest or act of arson. Recruits who do not receive long-term appointments would be given priority for other governmental positions, such as with the state police. As soon as the new scheme was announced, a huge wave of protests erupted across India. The crisis is worsening as a result of the following factors:
1. Reduced benefits for army service: The Indian government’s new military recruitment policy differs significantly from the system that was previously in place. Before, the Indian navy and air force had separate recruiting processes, and members would serve for up to 17 years. For decades, military service in India has meant a lifelong career with the government, which youth sought out as a way to avoid unemployment. The new policy has provoked the anger of wide swaths of society because it markedly reduces the benefits of serving in the military.
2. Escalation of violent popular protests: Protests that have been described as the most violent in the last two decades erupted first in the eastern state of Bihar, where protests set fire to shops, trains, and police stations and called for the repeal of the Agnipath Scheme. In the southern state of Telangana, one protestor was killed and dozens more injured in clashes with security forces. In Uttar Pradesh, 250 people were arrested under what is known as "preventive detention. "Tear gas was fired at protestors in the northern states of Rajasthan and Haryana, where some accused the police of using excessive force against them. There were four policemen injured and more than 1000 people arrested in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the states with the highest rates of poverty and unemployment, and which also have the highest rates of army recruitment among youth. The protestors, most of whom were unemployed youths, emphasized that the new policy would limit their employment opportunities in the army, which had offered stable income and a good pension.
3. Opposition exploits crisis to pressure government: Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress, an opposition party, criticized the new recruitment policy because it would lead to higher rates of unemployment. He called on the government to listen to the voices of unemployment youth, especially given that unemployment rates are at their highest in four decades. The party announced that it intended to organize a peaceful demonstration and its leader met with Indian President Ram Nath Kovind to demand the plan be withdrawn. Meanwhile, Ajay Maken, a member of the Parliament of India, stated that the scheme needed to be discussed first with the country’s youth and with parliament, and that before this could happen the current plan needed to be withdrawn. Although the ruling Bharatiya Janata party has supported the Agnipath Scheme, some of its members have criticized the policy because it will drive up unemployment rates. Retired military general G. D. Bakshi stated that the policy would "convert [the] Indian armed forces to a short tenure quasi-conscript force."
4. Government doubles down on new policy: The Indian government has defended its new policy and refused to roll back the plan, arguing that it represents a "transformative" and "revolutionary" step adopted after extensive deliberations. The Indian Minister of Defense Rajnath Signh held a meeting on 19 June 2022 with army, navy, and air force leaders to discuss the Agnipath Scheme. This was followed by a press conference during which Anil Puri, an additional secretary within the ministry, stated that the new policy would not be repealed, and affirmed that the new age limit for recruitment would enable the armed forces to become more "youthful." The policy aims to reduce the average age of soldiers in India’s armed forces, which currently number 1.38 million, and to cut rising pension costs.
The Indian government did announce that it would raise the recruitment age in the new policy to 23 years, and reserve 10 percent of open positions in the paramilitary forces and Assam Rifles for those who left the army after four years. However, these changes do not appear to have succeeded in appeasing protestors thus far.
The recruitment scheme is first and foremost a military issue, but in India it also affects other spheres of society for various reasons, including India’s enormous population of almost 1.3 billion people as well as economic and political factors. If the current crisis should continue, there will be various consequences for the country, including:
1. Growing threats to social harmony: The government’s insistence on implementing the Agnipath Scheme has provoked the anger of poor states within India because it will prevent their inhabitants from accessing better opportunities for government positions. There are 23 million people in India who become eligible for recruitment every year, and if they are not allowed to join the army, they will become unemployed. This is happening at the same time as another crisis over the ruling party’s derogatory remarks about Islam, which also provoked demonstrations that were met with violence from the Indian authorities. India’s ruling party has also made decisions targeting leading Muslim figures and certain Islamic religious practices in India. For example, an order was issued last February prohibiting female students from wearing the hijab in colleges in some states. This has widened popular dissatisfaction with the ruling party’s policies among certain groups, such as Muslims, the poor, minorities, and marginalized states. This discontent will have negative repercussions for societal harmony in India.
2. Ruling party losing popularity: The Bharatiya Janata (BJP), India’s ruling party, has adopted conservative Hindu nationalist policies and is considered to be a right-wing-party. Its domestic and foreign policies have reflected this ideological orientation, which has damaged its popularity in India, even as it continues to maintain a majority in parliament. For example, the party lost West Bengal, a key state with a population of 90 million people, in the 2021 local elections. The party is preparing for the next parliamentary elections in 2024 and will focus on contentious issues including identity, religion, development, and unemployment. Its stances have provoked extensive criticism against the party and could result in reduced political clout in the upcoming elections if popular dissatisfaction with its policies continues to grow.
3. Domestic economic crisis worsens: The Indian economy is suffering from slowed economic growth following the lockdowns of 2020 during the COVID-19 outbreak. India’s growth rate fell to 4.5 percent by the end of 2021 compared to 8.1 percent in 2018, while the number of unemployed persons reached 56 million in 2021 compared to 40 million in 2017. There has also been an energy crisis since last April, with 12 states experiencing power outages, and a power supply deficit that has climbed to15 percent. As temperatures rise, these numbers will continue to grow. This is why protests are continuing: India is facing an economic crisis. It has also suffered millions of dollars in damages from arson and destruction of public property, and as a result of the government’s decision to suspend internet service to various states on 18 June 2022 in order to restrict communication between protestors. It also canceled500 trains after railway stations were destroyed. If the opposition party (the Indian National Congress) carries through with its plan to call a general strike in India, this would lead to huge economic losses for the country.
4. Negative ramifications for the Indian army’s capabilities: The Indian Army has ranked high among the world’s armed forces with a budget of 49.6 billion USD and a total of 5,132,000 soldiers, including 1,450,000 active personnel. However, reducing the number of army recruits might lead to a drop in its regional and international standing at a time when New Delhi is also facing escalating security threats, ongoing conflict and competition with Pakistan, especially over the Kashmir region, and uneasy relations with China. At the international level, there have been tensions between Washington and Beijing in the Indo-Pacific, while terrorist threats have emerged in Afghanistan, which recently experienced an attack on a Sikh temple in Kabul in response to Islamophobic remarks from India’s ruling party.
In conclusion, the timing of the new military recruitment policy has thrown the Indian political scene into further turmoil. There are increasing signs of political and security instability, especially since the new plan coincided with a wave of Muslim anger in India against the ruling party’s policies. The implementation of the new recruitment policy could go one of three ways: the government could insist on implementing the policy as is and ignore the popular protests, which could erode support for the ruling party; the opposition parties’ and protestors’ proposed general strike could succeed in pressuring the ruling party to roll back the new policy; or a compromise could be reached to amend the recruitment policy and alleviate the public’s concerns about the plan.