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‘Can’t study much, so badly need military job’: Story behind Agnipath protests in Agra region

In Jat-dominated Chaharbatti, where military service is a tradition, many say they're not prepared to face uncertainities that await them once they exit the armed forces after 4 years.

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Agra: “Jo nahi padhta hai, vo Army ke liye try karta hai. Agar padh le toh officer na ban jaye? (Those who can’t study try for the Army. If they had studied, won’t they become officers?),” says 23-year-old Gajendra, a native of Sakatpur village in Uttar Pradesh.

Sakatpur is among the 422 villages that dot Agra’s Chaharbatti region. In this Jat-dominated belt, almost every youth vies for a government job, preferably in the armed forces — with all the perks of being a jawan, including job security, pensions, dowries and social status — and anxiety is rife about the military’s new Agnipath recruitment scheme.

Most youths acknowledge that anyone with Class 10 pass certificate can try their luck to enter the Army as a general duty soldier. It invariably means that Class 12 exam, or intermediate as it’s called in this part of the country, as well as graduation and post-graduation, are redundant for these youths.

Higher studies are for the “padhne vale” (studious ones) as villagers of Chaharbatti put it — those who either take coaching to appear for the National Defence Academy (NDA) and Combined Defence Services (CDS) exams, or for other professions such as teaching and the civil services.

“Most Jat families prefer to send their children to the defence forces. The Army is the first preference followed by the Indian Air Force, the Uttar Pradesh Police and the Navy, Border Security Force (BSF), Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), etc. The studious ones opt for NDA, CDS, SSC CGL (Staff Selection Commission Combined Graduate Level Examination, for central government jobs). This region has also produced IAS and IPS officers,” says Niranjan Chahar, who trains students for physical fitness examinations for the defence forces and the SSC CGL.

The Chaharbatti area is a cradle of defence personnel, he adds.

Apart from being the native land of Indian international cricketer Deepak Chahar, Chaharbatti is home to well-known personalities such as a former additional director general of the BSF, Shaitan Singh Chahar, who served as the head of BSF academy in Tekanpur. “Lately, Chaharbatti has produced a lot of IPS and IAS officers too,” says Niranjan.

A visit to the area easily shows how those eyeing the rank of officer in the Army are outnumbered by those vying for recruitment to lower-ranked posts such as soldier (general duty) among others. Hundreds of youngsters begin preparations for physical fitness tests to make it to the defence forces, a majority of them for the Army, soon after they reach
Classes 9 & 10.

Going by the mood of the youths, the biggest aversion to the Agnipath scheme is the likelihood of the Agniveers facing a test at the end of the four-year service period and the need to undergo further studies in case they don’t make it to the regular cadre.

The Agnipath recruitment scheme for the armed forces, being launched this year, will involve recruiting all new soldiers for four years and retaining only 25 per cent of them after this period as career servicemen — which has led to criticism and mass protests over the future prospects of the discharged ‘Agniveers’.

While some have praised the scheme for how it will lower the age profile of the armed forces, many veterans have criticised it as a tool for employment generation, among other reasons. The protesting youth, however, see it as a threat to jobs, not a job generator.

Also Read: Armed forces not about jobs, it’s about passion, says MoD on Agnipath protests

Tradition of service

“Patriotism runs in Jat blood. It is a considered ‘shaan’ (pride) that a family member is in the Army,” says Anil, a youth from the Mankenda village in the Chaharbatti region.

Traditionally an agricultural community, the Jats were considered a martial race by the British for recruitment in their forces, and served in the British Indian Army in great numbers. The tradition of joining the armed forces, especially the Army, continues to this day among the community, which is settled in western and eastern Uttar Pradesh as well as other parts of north India.

“It is a tradition that one child from every family should be in the Army,” says Niranjan. “It is like this: If a neighbour’s child gets selected, parents nudge their sons to ensure that they, too, are selected for the Army. Those who are intelligent opt for teaching, etc. But, in every household, one child has to go to the Army. In villages, the people think that there should be a ‘naukri’ (job) first. … Dasvi-barahvi karne ke baad, sirf Army hai, aur koi naukri nahi hai.” (The Army is the only institution that gives jobs after passing Classes 10 and 12.)

The perception is shared by both young and old in Chaharbatti, where the locals have seen Army paratroopers regularly land in the drop zone at the neighbouring Malpura village for years.

Deepesh, a 23-year-old who has crossed the age limit as the Army had paused recruitment for the past two years due to the pandemic, says he and his friends have been seeing paratroopers landing at the drop zone since they were children. “When we see them, we feel that we, too, should be a part of them. When ‘bharti’ (recruitment) starts, about 500 youngsters reach the ground,” he says.

While some youngsters have an advantage in “physical strength”, others excel in preparing for written tests. “The physically fit can easily clear the physical fitness exam and the rest opt for other sections of the Army like the soldier (tradesman), soldier (technical), etc.,” says Rahul Kumar, a 24-year-old from Sakatpur village in the Kiraoli area of Chaharbatti.

Rahul adds that those who are “not very sharp” in studies or cannot invest in education prepare to enter the Army as general duty soldiers.

Also Read: How Tour of Duty pilot project became Agnipath, a journey of 254 meetings lasting 750 hours

‘Army entry at any cost’

There are many like Bhikham Chahar who train the local youth in their quest to enter the armed forces. Some do it for free, while others charge nominal fees.

After some persuasion, Bhikham — who was unable to follow his father’s footsteps and serve in the Army himself — opens up about the dalaal (broker) system, which, according to him, thrives due to a segment of the process involved in the selection of Army recruits.

“Even if the youths have the qualities in them to enter the Army, they might be unable to clear the medical exam. Examiners usually point out one problem or the other in a youth’s physical abilities. It is this stage that is most prone to manipulation by doctors. Agents help to ensure that youths clear this step. Some even guarantee that they’ll help clear the entire process due to their links with senior Army officers,” he claims.

SimilarlyRahul says that those who clear the physical exam but are unsure of clearing the written test opt for the services of ‘agents’. “Agents contact the youths soon after they get shortlisted in the physical tests, and demand Rs 3 lakh to Rs 4 lakh for ensuring they clear the written exam. Most youths simply take their help because they don’t want to take any chance,s” he says.

What has added to the anxiety of Chaharbatti youths is the Agnipath scheme, which, many fear, could bring in more competition among defence recruits, who would do their best to be among the 25 per cent of Agniveers to be permanently absorbed at the end of four years.

“Only 25 per cent will be absorbed. Those who are sharp will make it, and those who are not will have to exit,” says Ajay Singh of Sakatpur village.

The Agnipath scheme is seen to disrupt the traditional path. Many Chaharbatti youths admit that they stayed away from prolonged studies because of traditional as well as financial reasons. Agnipath would also force them to look at other options — something they say they aren’t ready for.

Asked if he was not confident of being among the cream of Agniveers, Ajay says that not everyone can afford coaching and “expensive education” in villages. Landing an Army job was possible for someone who had studied at a government school — until now, he adds.

While private schools have come up in the region over the past few years, many families send their children to the nearest government schools in villages.

Also Read: ‘There should’ve been more debate before bringing in Agnipath’, says Siachen hero Capt Bana Singh

Worries galore among youths

On 20 June, the Army issued terms and conditions for prospective Agniveer applicants. It stated that applications from Agniveers to join the regular cadre would be considered on the basis of objective criteria, including performance during the four-year engagement period. While the terms do not mention the possibility of a test, there is a consensus among Army aspirants that a test will most likely be held.

“The intelligent ones will be absorbed. What will we do, if we don’t clear it? And, if it is solely based on a test, won’t we be susceptible to whims of the commanding officer of the unit?” asks Deepesh of Mankenda village.

While there have been reports that the Centre plans to launch a special three-year skill-based bachelor’s degree programme to help Agniveers acquire the skills required for job roles in the civilian sector, Chaharbatti youths are mostly unaware of this.

“At the age of 25, we will compete with those who will be far ahead of us… We will have to go through the same cycle of exams, college enrolment and study, which civilians of our age will have already done by that time. I think we will only get the job of a security guard,” says Anil.

A retired Army colonel felt that the Agnipath scheme was “vague” and that the government erred in going ahead with it before considering the doubts and questions of lakhs of aspirants.

“The Army is a body which has proven its mettle due to the regimentation, bonhomie and camaraderie among those constituting the regiments. The concerns of the youth are genuine, especially given that within four years, a youngster will mostly be trained and can’t really be put at the forefront,” Colonel V.P.S. Chauhan (retd.), who participated in the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan Wars and the Siachen conflict, told ThePrint. “The scheme seems to be vague and hurriedly announced and the rationale behind its implementation is beyond understanding. A lack of communication is also there.”

This report has been updated to replace a veteran’s quote.

(Edited by Tony Rai)

Also Read: Agnipath an ember that can consume India. Why it’s an invitation to civil war


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