Arrah(Bhojpur): Days after violent youth protests swept Bihar, which was followed by political parties calling for Bharat Bandhs and marches, Army aspirants are now heading back to their villages, resigned to the new reality of Agnipath jobs. They said that frustration has replaced the anger that was on display last week when many burnt buses and stopped trains in opposition to the Narendra Modi government’s new policy.
“We have no other option, we are helpless now,” said Shyam Tiwari (name changed), a 17-year-old teen living in Arrah, Bhojpur district headquarters, 50 kilometres away from Patna, Bihar. Wearing a dark grey T-shirt that had the map of India and the Air Force logo and topped with his oiled hair, he will soon become eligible for the contentious Agniveer jobs in the Services.
Many in Arrah (Bhojpur) district, informally known as the ‘Army belt of Bihar’, took part in the protests over the past few days. But now that they are back in their villages, they deny their role in the agitation for fear of losing the opportunity to apply. The Ministry of Defence had said on Sunday that all Agniveer applicants would be required to certify that they were not part of any protests.
Many defence coaching institutes in Patna have also shut down classes after allegations that they instigated the violent protests.
The return to their villages, however, has many reality checks. Unemployment and poverty are the constant companions of the youth in rural Bihar. Conversations about Agnipath dominate the practice grounds, chaupals and chai gumtis.
They have resumed their physical training in pursuit of that elusive military job — now, they tie their laces and hit the practice ground.
“It is better to be placed for four years than to remain unemployed,” commented Ritesh Kumar, 23, who would be overage for the Services next year. He had tried his luck at three recruitment rallies in the past years. Now, he gets one last opportunity to apply.
Back to the villages
Among the thousands who have just come back to villages after participating in the protests is Shyam Tiwari. It was not long ago when he made up his mind to join the cut-throat job market of entrance exams for defence, Staff Selection Commissions, Railways, Daroga (Bihar police SI), UPSC and so on.
“Bihar is the land for government job competitors. Army is the first target for matric graduates. One needs to run and pass a medical examination; written exam comes later. Rural youth is good at physical tests,” said Amit Kumar Singh of Barokhapur who exhausted his Army attempts during Covid.
In Arrah’s Army-obsessed villages, the stories of marriage proposal queues for soldiers, the comfort of retiring with a pension and settling down in urban hamlets are common. Being a soldier brings security and respect.
“Soldiers are given more respect than others. Nobody rejects a proposal from someone in the defence,” Vikramaditya Singh, 21, another Army aspirant, who tried thrice before Covid but wasn’t selected, explains the perks of being in the Army. Some even bank on fake birth certificates to enrol into the Services.
These young aspirants believe that a four-year serving scheme unsettles this whole rural Army culture established for once and all.
“Agnipath doesn’t evoke patriotic sentiments in me,” Shyam Tiwari said. “When Army or Air Force soldiers return to our villages, local people feel so proud. It makes us feel motivated — that’s who we want to be,” he explained the aura of being a fauji in a village.
A month ago, Shyam’s father sent him to Patna’s Kartar Coaching Centre to prepare for Army/Air Force’s written exam. He is yet to run for his ‘bharti’ (recruitment) to join the defence service. To add to the pressure, one of his cousins, who is in defence, gifted him an Indian Air Force T-shirt, which he wears proudly.
‘Will run for Agnipath’
Early this week, ThePrint followed the aspirant groups in Patna’s Bhikhana Pahari area (a hub for defence aspirants) only to find that they were missing from their lodges and the practice ground ever since Agnipath was announced.
Shyam Tiwari was among those who protested but returned before the police crackdown began. “I am yet to accept it. What is the point of spending time on a job that will retire us in four years?” he asked. Along with him, around half-a-dozen others returned too. One is Banti Kumar, 17, who is known to be the best runner in the group. He, too, is waiting for his first recruitment rally. The group has 50 teenagers from the Piania village, who have been running after completing their 10th standard to master the goal of the 1600-metre race in 5 minutes and 20 seconds.
Just like Piania, Bakhora Pur is also known for producing soldiers.
Anand Sooraj, 17-and-a-half years old, who has just started preparing, has different reasons to support any scheme that can get him a soldier’s badge. He said, “Army is a brand in itself; you must have seen it on TikTok. Even if I get to wear the uniform for a year, I will do it.”
If not Army, then what?
Like Tiwari, Kumar and Sooraj, Rohit Pandey of Lauhar village in Bhojpur has just crossed the eligible age of 21. He passed physical and medical tests in the 2021 Army recruitment. “The written exam was cancelled twice,” he said as he was joined by two others who had similar accounts to share. All three of them were waiting for the written test when Agnipath was announced.
Pandey, a matriculate, said, “There is no industry in Bihar. And our families can not spend much on our education too. So, an Army recruitment rally after passing 10th is the most sought-after career choice.” He now regrets that he wasted two years. “If the government had told us clearly that this is what they have planned, I would have enrolled in 12th and started preparing for lineman in Group D in Railways or Bihar police.”
He worries that many are overage too and may just have one more chance left now.
Many overage aspirants (above 23) have now migrated to other states for employment, many have left the aspirant community and opened shops or taken up other competitive exams for home guard and lineman.
Many like Tiwari said that the youth should be allowed to protest peacefully. But villagers know that the youth tends to be vulnerable and needs to be handled with caution. Pappu Kumar Singh, a ward member in Tiwari’s neighbourhood agreed: “At an age when the youth gets under bad influence, the government is giving them jobs. It’s better than sitting idle.”
Except for one thing. The tricky matter of pension.
“My elder son is a soldier. My only request to the government is to cut down the pension of the MLAs and MPs,” quipped Prabhu Nath Singh, a farmer in the same village, who supports the scheme. This is the single point where Army aspirants and many like Singh find themselves on the same page.
At his sweets shop in Piania village market, run from his pension, Bihar regiment solider Santosh Kumar Singh talked about how Agnipath will give a chance to many first-timers and will widen the pool of entrants. “This will break the chain where a person holds the post for 30 years and then his sons get into the Army for the next 30 years. Many families didn’t even get a chance. Retirement in four years means more boys getting the chance,” he said.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)