‘Agnipath’ protests in Bihar: Opportunity for building alternative political narrative to counter BJP’s Hindutva politics 


  • July 6, 2022
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After large scale arrests and brutal repression, the spontaneous protests over Agnipath scheme seem to have subsided for the time being. But survey after survey has shown that unemployment is the single biggest issue for the youth and also seen as one of the main failures of the Modi government. The frustration and anger of the protesting students and youth also stems from a feeling of betrayal by Modi. It is high time the opposition parties, instead of competing with the BJP in attracting Hindu voters through ‘soft’ hindutva, build an alternative political narrative centered around people’s issues like unemployment, health and education, writes Anish Ankur from Patna.   

 

 

Once again student unrest spread like a wildfire in Bihar against the Indian army’s new recruitment scheme ‘Agniveer’. Agitation engulfed several districts, train services were badly hit. The protests by students and youths took a serious and violent turn. Several trains across the state were burnt by the angry mobs of students and youths. BJP leaders were the special target of the angry protesters and for the first time in recent years BJP offices were attacked. Although the violent phase is over, protests against the ‘Agnipath’ scheme are still going on. Now student organisations and political parties are trying to carry forward the agitation against the ‘Agnipath’ scheme.

 

The Agnipath Yojana has been introduced by the Central government for recruitment of soldiers in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force on a short-term contractual basis to cut the ballooning salary and pension bills. Under this scheme, around 45,000 people aged between 17.5 and 21 years will be inducted into the different branches of the armed forces as ‘Agniveers’ for a period of four years, after which a quarter will be absorbed as regular employees of the military while the rest will be let go with a one-time, tax-free gratuity of around 11 lakhs. Those let go will no longer be entitled to pensions or benefits as employees of the military. Since the introduction of the scheme on June 14, protests — involving the burning of trains and buses and cars — have spread across many states including Bihar.

 

Railway coaches and properties attacked             

The ‘Agnipath’ protests by the students lasted for five days from 16 to 20 June in Bihar. The effect of this powerful and violent eruption of anger over the scheme can be gauged from the simple fact that for several days, trains in Bihar were not running during daytime for fear of students and youth attacking them. Several trains were set on fire in various districts including Patna, Jehanabad, Bhojpur, West Champaran, Buxar, Rohtas, Kaimur, Nawada, Lakhisrai, Madhepura, Muzaffarpur, Supaul and others. The protests led to a total bandh in Bihar on June 18 and 20.

According to one estimate railways suffered a damage to the tune of around 700 crore rupees. Danapur railway division was one of the worst affected. Danapur divisional manager Prabhat Kumar said “The platforms, computer systems and other technical equipment were damaged as hundreds went on rampage burning, vandalising trains and railway stations to demand withdrawal of the scheme.” Railway properties were targeted because they are the most visible symbol of central government authority in the state.

 

Also, the ongoing protest against the Agnipath scheme isn’t the first protest by government job aspirants in the country. There have been several such protests in the past few years. For instance, in January 2022, railway job aspirants protested in Bihar alleging anomalies in the Non Technical Popular Category (NTPC) exam conducted by railways. At that time students, mostly of private coaching institutes, agitated against the flawed Railway Recruitment Board (RRB) exam process. The students had blocked the Rajendra Terminal in Patna, for several hours. At that time BJP managed to douse the fire of students’ protest by  conceding some of their demands. But this time the agitation spread to almost 15 districts. Internet services were suspended in almost 20 districts.

 

Crackdown on protesters

Despite the best efforts of the central government’s propaganda machinery, the anger of students is not calming down. The government is trying to portray the movement of students as the handiwork of rowdy elements, conspiracy of leftist elements and opposition parties. Till now, around one thousand protesters have been arrested in Bihar and more than 150 FIRs registered. Police are still closely scanning the CCTV footage, identifying protesters and taking action against them. Railways have beefed up security at vulnerable stations. Five additional companies of the Railway Protection Force (RPSF) have reached the division to safeguard railway property.

 

Role of Whatsapp groups in organising protests under scanner

Police are alleging conspiracy angle in these spontaneous protests against the army recruitment policy. They are examining the Whatsapp messages of the arrested youths. According to West Champaran SP Upendranath Verma “The rumours were spread in Bihar through Whatsapp groups. The investigation is currently underway as several names have come up. We have arrested some accused and identified many others who were involved in the arson. Raids are underway”

 

Another police officer commented “The violence in Bettiah was well planned and the students were allegedly provoked through a Whatsapp group originating from Patna. There were some provocative messages that were uploaded on a Whatsapp group called ‘Future Fauji’.” According to police, the group members spent money to buy petrol and set government properties and BJP offices on fire.

 

Commenting on the violence in the spontaneous movement noted social-political activist Arun Kumar Mishra said “ When spontaneous movements on such a big scale take place without any organisational structure, they risk attracting some agent provocateurs to give a bad name to the movement. However, it is the peaceful protesters who are being subjected to state repression after violence erupted during the week long protests.”

 

Why the protests were so widespread in Bihar

A question is being asked that why the movement against ‘Agnipath’ scheme took deep roots in Bihar and turned so violent compared to other states. The spontaneous outbursts of thousands of students and youth symbolises the deep-rooted frustration of Bihari young generation. Since Bihar is one of the least industrialised states in the country therefore youths find very little job opportunity other than the government jobs. The Indian army, apart from the railways, is one of the major avenues of jobs for Bihari youths, particularly in small towns and rural areas. The railways have practically stopped recuitment. According to data presented last year by the defence ministry there are 13.40 lakh soldiers in the three services (Airforce, Navy and Army) across the country out of which 2.18 lakh soldiers are from Uttar Pradesh. Bihar is at the number two, with more than 1.04 lakh soldiers in the Indian army.

        Bihar presence in the three services  of India Army
Airforce 22,797
Navy 6,716
Army 75,026
Total 1,04,539

 

Army recruitment represents a change in fortunes and the hope of a better, and more importantly, secure future in every way. And it is this hope that drives youth to prepare for the exam and go through rigorous physical training to meet the requirements. In fact, every year lakhs of youth in Bihar prepare themselves to appear for jobs in the army, but due to the Corona crisis, recruitment in the army has been stopped for the last two years. They were hoping for a chance this year. It is this hope that is destroyed by the Agnipath scheme. As one of the protesters from Jehanabad said “ Where will we go after four years of service, we will be homeless. That’s why we have blocked roads and trains. The leaders of the country will now know that the youth knows everything.”

 

The youths are also miffed at the reduction in age limit for recruits. Under the new policy, recruits have to be aged between 17.5 to 21 years. Recruitment in the armed forces has been suspended for over two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic and protesters said people awaiting recruitment for over two years should be given relaxation in age-limit.

 

Rate of employment in Bihar is at a high level particularly after Corona. Bihar has an unemployment rate of about 20 percent. A recent report of Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) puts the employment rate in the state at 21.1 percent. During the Corona pandemic when all the economic activities were stopped the unemployment rate reached 46 percent. A large number of rural youth who cannot bear the expenses of higher education opt for police, paramilitary and military services. They come from poor and marginal peasant families which constitute the bulk of the population. Therefore, as Vishwajeet Kumar, former student leader, pointed out “The Agnipath scheme came as big jolt because the service years have been cut short to only four and some of the aspirants have been waiting as long as four years to get recruited by the army as the government stopped recruitments for the last two years owing to Covid-19 pandemic. Service in the army has some added prestige and sense of fulfilment for the youths. Hence they feel cheated and humiliated. Therefore the disgruntled youth were left with little choice but to vent their anger.”

 

BJP leaders and offices attacked

 

For the first time in recent years BJP offices were attacked during the ‘Agneepath’ violence’. BJP state president Sanjay Jaiswal, Renu Devi, Deputy Chief Minister both hailing from Bettiah, Lauriya MLA Vinay Bihari, Nawada MLA Aruna Devi and C.N Singh in Chhapra faced the wrath of the students.

 

Nawada is the first district in Bihar where protesters set the local BJP office on fire and attacked the local BJP MLA Aruna Devi’s vehicle on June 16. Thousands of students preparing for the Army job and living in lodges in Nawada town had come out on the streets against the Agnipath scheme. They vented their ire on the local BJP office located on the outskirts of the town, ransacking the three-storey building and setting it ablaze.

 

BJP MLA Haribhushan Thakur Bachol alleged that he received death threats from those who were upset over his “jihadi” remarks that he had made against those protesting violently against the Agnipath scheme for recruitment in armed forces. Bachol is among the 10 state BJP leaders to have been provided with ‘Y’ category security after Agnipath protesters’ attack.

 

JD(U) and BJP trained their guns against each other

The ‘Agnipath’ protest created fissures in the ruling alliance as JD(U) and BJP trained their guns against each other. The already souring relationship between the ruling alliance partners, JD(U) and BJP, touched a new low after the difference of opinion about the ‘Agneepath’ scheme came into the open. BJP state president Sanjay Jaiswal has openly blamed the Nitish Kumar government for its inaction in tackling the violent agitation. JD(U) national president Lalan Singh responded by saying “Sanjay Jaiswal has lost its mental balance.” Lalan Singh also demanded the withdrawal of the scheme.

 

Along with ruling party JD(U), HAM, another NDA partner, also demanded rolling back of the ‘Agniveer’ scheme. HAM led by Jitan Ram Manjhi supported the Bandh called by the students. Chirag Paswan of Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas Paswan) also spoke against the scheme. He said “The Agnipath scheme will increase unemployment in the country. It will spread dissatisfaction among youths.” The BJP in Bihar is completely isolated even within the ruling allaince on this issue.

 

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar made repeated pleas to the Narendra Modi government to review the ‘Agnipath’ scheme and assure protesting students that their future will not be adversely affected by the new recruitment policy in the armed forces.

 

Supporting the students, state RJD chief Jagdanand Singh said that the short term recruitment scheme is detrimental to the interests of the nation’s youth. “We support those who are agitating on streets in protest against the Agnipath recruitment scheme. The new short term recruitment scheme in the armed forces is not in the interest of the country’s youth.” The former Bihar Deputy CM alleged “BJP and Sangh Parivar may use the scheme for providing arms training, at government expense, to its hate-filled supporters and fringe elements”. “As a result of the Agnipath scheme, many young men with military training will be rendered jobless at a tender age of 22. Will it not result in a major law and order problem in the country?”, he asked.

 

Opposition parties submitted memorandum to the Governor

The Bihar bandh called by students on 18th  to 20th June got support across sections all over the state. MLAs of the opposition parties – RJD, CPI, CPI(M) and CPI (ML- Liberation) –  took out a procession against the Agnipath scheme from the Legislative Assembly to the Governor’s house. Tejasvi Yadav and Tej Pratap Yadav along with their mother Rabri Devi also met the Governor and submitted to him a memorandum with three basic demands – rollback of the scheme, release the arrested youths and quash the FIRs. Tejawsvi Yadav later commented “ Even though those who had earlier qualified the medical and physical fitness tests have to appear for the same job again. The chances of getting disqualified is more than getting selected.” Rabri Yadav blamed PM Narendra Modi for the entire mess and said “The fire which has engulfed the country has been sparked by PM Modi. People of the country will not forgive him.”

 

Even after the violent phase is over, every other day protests are being organised in different cities of Bihar against the ‘Agnipath’ Scheme. On 24th June All India Kisan Coordinating committee organised protests all over the state demanding repeal of the ‘Agniveer’ scheme. On 27 June during the monsoon session of the State Assembly, the Opposition members, both inside and outside of the House, demanded an adjournment motion over the Agnipath scheme, calling it a matter related to national security. Opposition party MLAs demanded that the Speaker should accept the motion.  BJP speaker Vijay Kumar Sinha did not concede their demand for a discussion on the scheme in the state assembly, therefore, the opposition members from RJD, CPI, CPI(M) and CPI(ML- Liberation) besides Congress boycotted the state assembly. Even the ruling JD(U) was seen with the opposition members. The BJP is completely isolated politically in the state on this issue.

 

Protest continues

On 22 June, AISF and AIYF jointly staged a dharna at Dinkar Chowk, Patna, in which social activists, intellectuals and senior members of different political parties sat along with the students. On 29th June  Left  students and youth organisations like AISF, AIYF, SFI, DYFI, AIDSO, AIDYO  jointly took out a protest rally from Gandhi Maidan to Bihar Vidhan Sabha (State Assembly) amid heavy rain in which hundreds of students participated. But heavy deployment of police as well as paramilitary forces stopped the march mid-way. Police dispersed and arrested the student and youth leaders. Three young left MLA – Suryakant Pasan (CPI), Satyendra Yadav (CPI-M) and Manoj Manjil and Ajit Kushwaha of CPI(ML-Liberation) along with 38 student leaders were taken into custody during the protest march.

 

On the  same day, on the call of ‘ALL India Railwaymen’s Federation’ East Central Railway Karmchari Union also protested against the Agnipath scheme at Patna junction. ‘Jan Abhiyan’, a joint forum of more than dozen democratic organisations took out a march from Patna Junction to Radio station shouting slogans against the scheme. Prominent civil society members of Patna participated in the procession.

 

After large scale arrests and brutal repression, the protests seem to have subsided for the time being. Survey after survey has shown that unemployment is the single biggest issue for the youth and also seen as one of the main failures of the Modi government. It was these protesting youth who were completely taken by the Modi magic in 2014 and 2019 and did buy into his promise of jobs and “Achhe Din”. They remember how Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of 19 lakh jobs in Bihar ahead of the 2020 assembly polls has been one more ‘jumla’. Their frustration and anger also stems from a feeling of betrayal by their icon. It is high time the opposition parties, instead of competing with the BJP in attracting Hindu voters through ‘soft’ hindutva, build an alternative political narrative centred around people’s issues like unemployment, health and education.

 

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