Agnipath Protest

The Modi Government unveiled the new Agnipath scheme for recruiting soldiers across the three services. Under the new scheme, around 45,000 to 50,000 soldiers will be recruited annually, and most will leave the service in just four years. Of the total annual recruits, only 25 per cent will be allowed to continue for another 15 years under permanent commission.This is nothing but a fixed term contract based recruitment and that too without any provisions of pension. It’s the same process of casualisation/contractualisation which is already  being aggressively pushed in government machinery, industries and services.

This move has to be seen as a part and parcel of the overall process of neoliberal restructuring of the Indian Military regime under the present ruling dispensation for which “Army” and “Jawan” form essential political tropes.

Escalating Protests

Precarious jobs have been the reality for the majority of Capitalism’s history; with the Keynesian demand management era being the exception. This precariousness has become the norm in the neoliberal period and more so over during the current phase of intensifying Crisis. The “Agnipath” in essence is a shift from the military Keynesianism to military neoliberalism. Any such shift is bound to expel a large chunk of the surplus population from any prospect of meaningful employment and every such expulsion is bound to social outburst. This is precisely what’s happening today.

Youth from agrarian classes (majority being of small/marginal peasants’ background and agricultural workers’) and that too predominantly from the oppressed social groups form the bulk of the non-commissioned posts in the Army. The whole imagery of the “Jawan” rests on the shoulders of these youth for whom recruitment in the Army means not only fulfilling their patriotic duty, but also a way out from the ruthless class exploitation and social oppression. The spontaneous outburst of angry protests against the contractualization of army recruitment across the country (more intense in states like Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh) is also a pointer to the explosive unemployment situation.

Army veterans have pointed out how this move goes against the stated aim of “creating a lean and modern military”. (https://www.financialexpress.com/defence/tour-of-duty-the-kindergarten-army/2559191/ ) While the contractual regime will adversely affect the social and demographic base of the army; the more damaging impact will be the fact that it will lead to a force with undertrained and half-baked recruits, majority of whom will  be expelled out in 4 years. The prospects are alarming not only for the internal cohesion, professionalism and preparedness of the army; but also the overall national security and sovereignty.

Contours of neoliberal restructuring

Even though One Rank One Pension (OROP) was one of the major campaign planks of BJP in the run-up to the 2014 lok sabha elections; the contradictions between it’s self projection as a hyper-nationalist Party and one committed towards ending UPA’s “policy paralysis” (read inability to push through unbridled  neoliberal restructuring as per the requirements of the ruling classes) became evident soon. As a concerted campaign it began to be argued that almost 60% of the defence budget is spent on manpower costs. It was an addition to the usual rant of the privatization lobby that the present structure of defence procurement was sloth and the non-performance of public sector defence units was a major hindrance in the modernization of Indian Army. At the height of OROP agitation, the Modi government publicly said that the army pension bill comes at a hefty 75,000 crore rupees per annum and it can’t be continued.

Fiscal management which forms a core part of the neoliberal policy regime began to penetrate the military policy. The contractualization of recruitment that we are witnessing today forms a part of the much bigger designs.

The “transformation study” of the Indian Army was initiated by General  V K Singh in 2009, when he was the eastern army commander. The proposals included setting up of a strategic command, synergising the army’s offensive capabilities, and outsourcing many administrative and logistic functions. In essence it argued separation of combat and non-combat functions of the army; and privatizing the latter. The non-combat functions include administration, ordinance and engineering.

This process was accelerated further in May 2016, through an 11-member committee under retired Lt Gen D B Shekatkar to make “the organizational structure of the three services lean and capable of being prepared for modern warfare with technological advancements.” Downsizing of the 13-lakh strong standing army is an integral part of this process of making “the organisation lean”. However, the real game plan is to set in motion the  privatization and corporatization of the entire defence structure.

Privatization of  Defence and the Imperialist Agenda

Privatization of defence is a concrete reality of contemporary military regimes across the globe. This privatization entails not only the defence procurement and production, but also the privatization of actual combat roles. The use of mercenaries by the colonial powers to suppress the liberation struggles in the 1960s-70s were the first such instances of privatization;however, the overall policy shift can be marked clearly with the neoliberal hegemony. The use of private military contractors by the US army during the Iraq war was the first instance of the private capital discharging the combat military roles. The role of the private defence industry in the weapons industry and its connections with imperial designs are quite well known. However, the current phase marks an expansion of the territory for the capital. The current regime of contractualization is bound to ultimately lead to a situation wherein private contractors will be asked to supply “jawans” for the army.

The damaging prospects for India’s sovereignty becomes more stark when we situate all this in a background wherein the Modi regime has pushed the country towards greater subjugation under the US-led imperialism. Logistical Supply Agreements (LSAs) and the unbridled permission to the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Defence have been pushed through as the current regime has shamelessly pushed the country into the strategic imperial designs like the QUAD. Both LSA and unrestricted FDIs pave the way for not merely inflow of private and foreign capital into the defence production, but also takeover of combat roles. Whether it be the nefarious design of the corporatization of the defence ordinance factories or the current move towards contractualization of army recruitment; the pseudo-nationalists are hell bent on putting the nation’s security and sovereignty on mortgage. It’s a duty of all patriotic sections to rise up, fight and defeat these nefarious designs.

Sunand is a Trade Union activist based in Delhi.


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