In an effort defuse the tension, both the home and defence ministries promised to reserve 10 per cent vacancies for Agniveers after their four-year stint in the armed forces.
This, even as violent protests raged on in many states and opposition parties stepped up pressure for a rollback of the radical new scheme.
Here’s a look at the latest developments …
Centre offers incentives for Agniveers
With the protesting youths alleging that they will be left in a lurch with no retirement benefits after the end of the four-year contract under the scheme, the ministries of home affairs and defence announced concessions and incentives that will assist retirees in their further employment.
The home ministry announced a 10% quota as well as upper age limit relaxation for Agniveers for recruitment in the Central Armed Paramilitary Forces (CAPFs) and Assam Rifles, after they complete their tenure.
Similarly, the defence ministry said that 10% vacancies will be reserved for Agniveers in the Indian Coast Guard and defence civilian posts as well as all the 16 Defence Public Sector Undertakings.
“This reservation would be in addition to existing reservation for ex-servicemen,” the ministry said on Twitter.
Separately, the central government indicated that other departments too were working in the direction after several BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Assam announced various measures to encourage the youth to apply under the Agnipath scheme and assured them reservation.
For instance, the shipping ministry has announced six service avenues for smooth transition of Agniveers in various roles of the Merchant navy, post their stint with the Indian Navy.
According to an official statement, the scheme will enable Agniveers to acquire necessary training, with naval experience and professional certification to join the remunerative merchant navy across the world.
Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri said the PSUs under his housing and petroleum ministries are working on hiring ‘Agniveers’ after their four-year service in the armed forces.
This comes after the Centre already announced a one-time relaxation on the upper age limit for first-year recruits.
Here’s a detailed look at the Centre’s incentives:
‘Government ready to hold talks’
With the protests intensifying, Union minister Anurag Thakur on Saturday appealed to the youths to shun violence and come forward for talks.
He asserted that the government is ready to look into their grievances with an “open mind” and make changes “if required”.
“I would like to appeal to the country’s youth that path of violence would not take you anywhere. In a democracy, you have right to protest but not by setting government property on fire. Violence has no place in a democracy,” he said replying to questions at a conclave.
He also urged the political parties not to “provoke” the youth, and asked them to express their views on the issue in their respective “platforms or media”.
The minister suggested the protesting youths can come for talks with the central government raising their grievance through the governors and chief ministers of their states or through their elected representatives and the Union ministers.
“Whatever your views are, you can express and share on social media. You (can) express your views on what are the changes that you want. But, don’t indulge in violence,” he said in his appeal to the those protesting the Agnipath scheme.
Anti-Agnipath protests continue
Despite the Centre’s steps to assuage concerns, there was no let-up in the protests.
In Bihar, where a bandh had been called, a railway station and a police vehicle were torched, an ambulance attacked and security personnel injured in stone-pelting incidents on the fourth consecutive day of the agitation.
Protesters also vandalised a railway station in Punjab’s Ludhiana and blocked roads and rail tracks in West Bengal, Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh.
Railways cancelled as many as 369 trains on Saturday with the passengers facing a harrowing time. Over 200 trains were cancelled a day earlier after the railways faced the brunt of the protests.
The agitation also spread to southern states including Karnataka and Kerala, with aspirants doing push-ups on roads at some places to register their protest.
Live updates: Agnipath scheme protests
The railways have suffered massive losses in the state during protests in the last three days. More than 60 train coaches, 10 engines and some stations have been torched by mobs protesting the introduction of the new recruitment system.
Hundreds of youths took out huge protest rallies in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode in Kerala, opposing the Agnipath scheme and demanding to conduct the pending written examination for the army recruitment at the earliest.
In Dharwad, Karnataka, police used mild lathi-charge to disperse anti-Agnipath protesters as they attempted to take out a march.
In Uttar Pradesh, protests were held in Meerut, Jaunpur and Kannauj, with a roadways bus being set afire by protestors. The police has registered cases against 400 unknown persons in connection with the violence in Ballia on Friday.
In Haryana’s Mahendergarh, which has seen strong protests against the defence recruitment scheme over the past few days, a group of youth set a pick-up van on fire and indulged in vandalism, the police said.
Hundreds of youths protested against the scheme at various places in Rajasthan including Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jhunjhunu, and blocked the Jaipur-Delhi Highway in Alwar briefly.
Opposition targets government; BJP hits back
As protests continued in several states, the opposition parties also trained their guns at the government.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi termed the scheme as “directionless” and said her party will work for its withdrawal while appealing to the youths protesting against the scheme to adopt peaceful and non-violent means to fight for their demands.
The Congress announced it will hold a “satyagraha” at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on Sunday to express solidarity with the protesters.
Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann demanded a rollback of the scheme and said those who cleared physical tests in the last two years must get a chance to appear in written exams for joining the Army.
The Rajasthan government on Saturday passed a resolution demanding the withdrawal of the Centre’s Agnipath scheme.
Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin voiced concern against the proposal, saying that it is against national interest and needed a re-think from the Centre.
The BJP leaders hit back at the opposition parties for allegedly fanning the violence, and said the protests are “politically motivated”.
“The ongoing violence during protests against Agnipath is politically motivated. If criminal charges are invoked against those going on rampage, it would be extremely difficult for them to get any other job. It can permanently damage their careers,” Maharashtra BJP president Chandrakant Patil said.
Union minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi hit out at the opposition, saying that some people with “prejudiced mindset” were trying to convert their “craze of political allergy” against Prime Minister Narendra Modi into a conspiracy against the positive energy of the country’s youth.
Without taking the name of any political party, defence minister Rajnath Singh suggested that some of the protests against the scheme could be based on political considerations.
“There are so many issues to show any political party in poor light. But whatever politics we do, whether remaining in the opposition or in the government, it is for the country,” he said.
Union minister Anurag Thakur said some political parties, which keep looking of every opportunity under an agenda to block any change taking place, have “provoked” the youth.
BJP chief JP Nadda called upon the youth to believe in Prime Minister Narendra Modi and urged them to end the agitation and choose the path of discussion.
What is Agnipath
The Centre had on Tuesday unveiled the ambitious Agnipath scheme for the recruitment of youths aged between 17 and a half and 21 in the Army, Navy and the Air Force, largely on a four-year short-term contractual basis.
On Thursday night, it raised the upper age limit for recruitment under the ‘Agnipath’ scheme to 23 years for 2022 as the protests against the new model for enrolment of soldiers into the three services intensified.
Those recruited under the scheme will be known as ‘Agniveers’.
After the completion of the four-year tenure, 25 per cent of the recruits from each batch will be offered regular service.
(With inputs from PTI)