A Differential Treatment For Agniveers?

Those joining the forces through the Agnipath scheme are liable to serve wherever ordered but are not eligible for gratuity or pension and other benefits that an Army personnel otherwise gets.

Agniveer recruitment rally

The death of Amritpal Singh, a 21-year-old Agniveer, triggered a controversy surrounding the benefits of a regular long-term Army personnel versus that of a person who joins the forces through the Agnipath scheme for a short four-year service program. Singh, who hails from Punjab, had not received the guard of honour – a due protocol during the last rites of personnel in the armed forces – and this infuriated many.

The Centre announced the Agnipath scheme in June 2022 as a grand reform in the Army recruitment process. According to the scheme, the Army would recruit Agniveers – soldiers enrolled under the Army Act, 1950 for a short period of four years. The scheme was meant to recruit only soldiers and not officers in the forces, and 25 per cent of the recruits would be given permanent commission to continue for 15 more years. The first batch of soldiers recruited started training in January this year.

However, when one looks into the terms and conditions of joining the forces through the Agnipath scheme, questions arise about job security, post-recruitment benefits, pension and other welfare that an Army personnel otherwise gets. They are also “liable to go wherever ordered, by land, sea or air”. This did not sit very well with Army veterans and youngsters preparing for the coveted Indian military job and led to widescale protests across states.

The scheme also states that after recruitment, Agniveers undergo six months of training before being deployed for duty. However, veterans worried that a mere six-month training was insufficient and might affect the operational capabilities of the forces. 

Speaking to Outlook’s Peerzada Muzamil in 2022, Major General Amrit Pal Singh, who has headed the training vertical of Army Training Command (ARTRAC), had said, "By the time an Agniveer acquires a certain skillset; he would be set for departure from the services, only to create a vacancy to be filled by another potential recruit all over again.”

Moreover, the reform aimed at curtailing the army's escalating expenditure on inflated salaries and pensions - which reportedly devour more than half of its budget - and reallocating these funds to ‘modernise’ the forces. The government said this would also "enhance the youthful profile of the armed forces", but even those who rightfully deserved the benefits now find themselves excluded.

Apart from the 25 per cent recruited further, the remaining Agniveers are let-off with a tax-­free, one-time gratuity of Rs 11 lakh. For her story ‘Diffused Lightning’ in July 2022, Outlook’s Rakhi Bose spoke to Patna-based Army aspirant Michael, who questioned the Agnipath scheme’s benefits. “Is Rs 11 lakh enough to take care of my family of six for the rest of my life? Serving the Army is a mat­­­ter of dignity. What will I do after four years—become a security guard?” Michael asked.

The debate around inadequate training of Agniveers resurfaced last month when a soldier recruited through the short-service program was sent to Siachen – the world’s highest battlefield along the Indo-Pak Line of Control (LoC) and died due to high altitude complications. Gawate Akshay Laxman, who died in the line of duty, was paid tribute by the Army, but he was not entitled to gratuity or pension benefits as per the terms and conditions of the Agnipath scheme, even though he served on one of the toughest battlefields with mere six months of training, despite having served the nation like any other soldier in the Indian Army.

On the other hand, Amritpal Singh, who was serving with a battalion of the Indian Army's Jammu and Kashmir Rifles unit in the Poonch sector, did not even get state honours. The Indian Army claimed that Singh died by suicide by shooting himself while on sentry duty, and as a result, military honours were not extended to his funeral as per the rules.

The Agnipath scheme has received severe pushback ever since its announcement, but the BJP government continues to be adamant about pushing the scheme forward, asserting that it is valuable. The question that persists then is whether the Agnipath scheme is really the way forward for the Indian armed forces or is it demeaning the sacrifices made by our soldiers.