Agnipath shadow looms over bypolls: From Sangrur to Azamgarh to Rampur

Against the backdrop of the raging countrywide protests against Agnipath — the Narendra Modi-led central government’s recently-unveiled scheme for short-term recruitment of soldiers in the armed forces — the by-elections to 10 Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies in half-a- Dozen states are going to take place on June 23. The anti-Agnipath stir being undertaken by a section of youths and students in a slew of states may impact these bypolls, even as it has already started influencing the campaigning of various political parties and candidates in several constituencies in a significant way.

Sangrur Lok Sabha seat, Punjab

As the campaigning for the June 23 Sangrur Lok Sabha seat bypoll enters its final phase, the Agnipath issue has emerged as a burning issue in the constituency. This bypoll was necessitated after the incumbent MP and top AAP leader, Bhagwant Mann, took over as the Punjab Chief Minister in March.

On Friday, hundreds of youths gathered near Mann’s house in Sangrur city to hold protest against Agnipath. Most of these protesters, who had come from across Punjab, were job aspirants in armed forces.

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On Sunday, the members of Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS), a youth organisation, and Zamin Prapati Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC), held protesters outside the BJP’s Sangurur candidate Kewal Dhillon’s office in the city.

The Agnipath issue has now started figuring prominently in campaign speeches and statements of leaders from various parties in the Sangur fray.

CM Mann has urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to roll back Agnipath. In a statement that came following the youths’ Friday protest outside his colony, the CM said: “Fauj can’t be rented out… Our jawans secure our borders at 50 degrees and even at minus 20 degrees Celsius. Youngsters are capable of taking care of this country… their patriotism should be valued. Why does only janta (people) retire? I appeal to the PM to let soldiers work till the time they are capable of serving. At the same time, I appeal to him to withdraw the Agnipath scheme.”

Many of the Friday protesters said they have cleared their physical and medical tests about one and a half years ago, but no written tests have taken place so far. Dharamveer Singh, a resident of Mansa, said, “I have been training hard for the past four years. I have cleared my medical and physical tests in February last year but no written exam has taken place since then. We are baffled with this new (Agnipath) announcement now. We all protested outside Punjab CM ‘s house as he is busy touring villages to seek votes but not listening to us.”

Another youth protester Hunar Singh said, “Earlier, we suffered due to Covid and now this new announcement. What if I am the one among those 75 per cent Agniveers (Agnipath recruits) who would be asked to go after just four years of service. Our protest was against PM Narendra Modi but it was done outside the colony where Punjab CM lives as he needs to listen to our grievances to be able to tell the PM about it rather than just issuing some statements on social media.”

Hitting out at the Modi-led BJP government, the ZPSC president, Mukesh Malaud, said, “We are shocked to hear about a scheme like Agnipath… earlier, they came out with farm laws and now such a scheme for recruitment of jawans — they are anti-jawan and anti-kisan.”

The Congress has also seized on the Agnipath row to fire salvos at the saffron party. Punjab Congress chief Amrinder Singh Raja Warring tweeted, “I saw videos of disturbing visuals from Ludhiana railway station where protests had happened. There is no justification for pushing our youth to desperation. The adamant attitude of @narendramodi regime is pouring oil on fire. @BJP4India only considers our youngsters a vote bank and sought their vote on Employment, they now feel cheated.” Warring was referring to a group of anti-Agnipath protesters, who damaged the railway station property at Ludhiana on Saturday morning during their agitation.

The BJP’s ally, Punjab Lok Congress, headed by ex-CM Captain Amarinder Singh, has also called for reviewing the Agnipath scheme, saying “it will dilute the long-existing distinct ethos of regiments”.

Taking the lead in criticizing the scheme, Captain Amarinder, an ex-serviceman, said on June 17, “Four-year service is too short for a soldier,” wondering why the Center needed to make such radical changes in the soldiers’ recruitment policy which, he said, has been working “so well for the country for so many years”.

With Agnipath emerging as a major bypoll issue, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) president, Sukhbir Badal, also castigated the scheme, urging PM Modi to withdraw it and restart the armed forces recruitment as done earlier. He said, “There is a lot of angst amongst youngsters vis-a-vis Agnipath scheme and this should be addressed immediately instead of being allowed to fester. The government is again making a mistake in the same manner in which it did in the case of the farm laws. It should review its decision on the Agnipath scheme immediately.”

The state BJP leaders however claim that the Opposition was criticizing Agnipath without any reason. While campaigning in support of party candidate Dhillon in Sangrur’s Moonak area, Union minister Somparkash said, “The Center makes schemes after properly studying them but Opposition’s job is to do wrong propaganda about it. The Union government made Agnipath scheme with a mind to provide employment to youngsters but Opposition is criticizing it for no reason..our party is dedicated to work for the welfare of the people and we will continue to do so.”

Azamgarh and Rampur Lok Sabha seats, Uttar Pradesh

The Azamgarh and the Rampur parliamentary seats in UP are not a stronghold of the BJP. However, the ongoing unrest among youths over the Agnipath recruitment scheme has made these bypolls more challenging for the ruling party. Although many youths from Rampur and adjoining districts of wester UP prepare for armed forces, comparatively more youths appear in the defense forces recruitment exams from eastern UP, which include Azamgarh and its neighboring districts. Massive youth protests have taken place in Ballia adjoining Azamgarh and in Varanasi, which is not far from Azamgarh, against Agnipath. So far, the maximum number of arrests of these protesters have been made from Ballia.

Agnipath has already become an election issue in Azamgarh, where the principal Opposition Samajwadi Party (SP)’s candidate Dharmendra Yadav has started raising it while addressing youths. “When I reach Lok Sabha with your blessings, firstly I will strongly oppose this (Agnipath) decision of BJP. I assure the youths about it. Reports of injustice against youths are coming from across the country including Varanasi, Ballia and Bihar… I will strongly fight against this BJP’s scheme. I would only request you to make me capable for that,” he said while addressing a group of youths on June 17 in the constituency.

When UP CM Yogi Adityanath reached Azamgarh Sunday to address a public meeting in support of BJP candidate Dinesh Lal Yadav “Nirahua”, he said, “The entire world is welcoming Agnipath programme. But the Opposition is misleading youths….Before 2017 (when the BJP come to power in UP), youths were cheated under the regimes of the SP and BSP governments.”

In Bankatiya village in Azamgarh’s Sagri Assembly segment, from where some local youths have joined the Army, a local resident Ranjeet Patel said, “A recruitment initiative is welcome. But the agitation by youths across the state against Agnipath has sent a message against the BJP and its policies. BJP was already trying hard to get votes here, which has become even more challenging for it now.”

The SP spokesperson, Rajendra Chaudhary, said, “BJP was already loosing both the seats in the bypolls. Now, it will lose them with bigger margins following growing anger among youths on the Agnipath issue.”

The state BJP spokesperson, Rakesh Tripathi, said, “The Opposition parties are trying to mislead the youths. But the government and party organization will be able to convince them before the polling date.”

Tripura Assembly bypolls

While there have been so far no protests against Agnipath in Tripura — where the bypolls in Agartala, Town Bardowali, Surma and Jubarajnagar Assembly constituencies will be held on June 23 — the BJP-led state government today hailed the scheme.

“Recently, on 14 June the Union Cabinet had approved a recruitment scheme for Indian youth to serve in the Armed Forces. The youth selected under this scheme will be known as Agniveers. The scheme has been designed to enable a youthful profile of the Armed Forces. It allows patriotic and motivated youth to serve in the Armed Forces for a period of four years. Men and women between the ages of 17 and 21 years will be recruited in the Agneepath scheme. The applicant must be a citizen of India,” said a statement issued by the state government on Saturday.

–With inputs from Lalmani Verma in Lucknow and Debraj Deb in Agartala

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