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Demonstrators surround burning tyres on a street as they protest against “Agnipath scheme” for recruiting personnel for armed forces, in Jehanabad, Bihar, India on Thursday. Photo: ANI/Handout via Reuters

Indian trains set ablaze in protests against military hiring changes

  • Protesters were angry over new short-term military scheme, where a majority of recruits will be compulsorily retired after four years with no pension benefits
  • Police used batons and tear gas to disperse protesters in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan states where they damaged government buildings
India
Angry mobs in India set fire to several trains and clashed with police on Thursday during rallies against a new short-term military recruitment scheme.

Police used batons and tear gas to disperse the protesters in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan states where they took to the streets and damaged government buildings.

This week the government announced a temporary recruitment plan to induct young adults into the armed forces for four years – a major break from the past as non-commissioned ranks are seen as lifetime jobs.

Under the new job programme announced by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh this week, the armed forces this year can recruit 46,000 men and women in the age group 17.5-21 but only for four years. Seventy-five per cent of them will be compulsorily retired after four years with no pension benefits.

Demonstrators block a train as they protest against “Agnipath scheme” for recruiting personnel for armed forces, in Jehanabad, Bihar, India on Thursday. Photo: ANI/Handout via Reuters

A full-time recruited soldier serves for over 35 years.

Singh defended the programme, saying it’s aim is “to strengthen the security of the country.”

Nearly 25,000 police were deployed in the worst-hit Bihar state, where the protests spread to a dozen towns in eight districts, said S.K. Singhal, a police officer. The protesters blocked highways and disrupted train service for several hours.

The protests were “initially peaceful but turned violent at a few places,” a senior officer in the state capital Patna said.

Smoke rises as people protest against “Agnipath scheme” for recruiting personnel for armed forces, in Nawada, Bihar, India on Thursday. Photo: ANI/Handout via Reuters

Riot police “acted carefully to avoid opening fire at the protesters. There have been no casualties or serious injuries so far,” he added.

Authorities cancelled nearly two dozen passenger train services and deployed additional police to railway stations in an effort to prevent further destruction.

Bihar has some of India’s highest unemployment and poverty rates and has earned a reputation as a state left behind by the country’s runaway economic growth of the past few decades.

In January crowds of angry job applicants in Bihar set fire to train carriages, blocked railway tracks and burned effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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They had claimed that entrance exams for the government-run rail sector were being conducted unfairly.

Unemployment has long been a millstone around the Indian economy’s neck, with joblessness figures at their worst since the 1970s even before the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on local commerce.

Modi’s government pitched the new military recruitment plan as a pathway to modernise the armed forces with a younger and leaner soldier corps while also creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

Retired General Birender Dhanoa said that India’s 1.4 million-strong military was “bloated” and in need of reform, but questioned whether the scheme was the appropriate remedy.

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The government is facing national elections in 2024, and is under pressure to provide jobs as India’s economy recovers from the pandemic slump. One idea behind the short-term military recruitment is that those trained by the armed forces can later seek jobs with police or the private sector.

The government faced criticism from some retired soldiers and opposition leaders.

“I thought initially it was a trial being done on a pilot basis. This is an across-the-board change to convert Indian armed forces to a short tenure quasi-conscript force,” G.D. Bakshi, a retired army General, tweeted.

Rahul Gandhi, a key opposition Congress party leader, urged the government to “listen to the voice of the unemployed youth of the country.”

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In Gwalior, a city in central India, a railroad station was ransacked, some trains vandalised and trash cans set on fire.

In the northern town of Rewari, police used wooden sticks to disperse protesters who blocked a bus station and parts of a key highway linking Rajasthan state with New Delhi, the Hindustan Times newspaper reported.

A crowd gathered in Uttar Pradesh state’s Bulandshahr and Ballia districts but dispersed after officials assured them that their demand would be conveyed to authorities.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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