With violent protests escalating over the Centre’s “Agnipath” scheme, the Opposition pressed for its immediate withdrawal on Friday, even as the ruling BJP fielded its leaders to put up a stout defence of the new recruitment initiative for the armed forces.
While the Congress demanded the scheme’s immediate rollback, saying it is neither in the interest of the country nor its security, BJP ally JD(U) made a fresh plea to the Narendra Modi government for a review of the initiative.
One person was killed in police firing in Secunderabad, the first casualty of the protests against the Agnipath defence recruitment scheme that raged through several states for the third day on Friday, with trains torched, public property vandalised and thousands of people blocking railway tracks and highways.
Facing countrywide protests, the BJP fielded its leaders to put up a stout defence of the scheme, with its senior leader and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh describing it as a “golden opportunity” for youngsters to serve the country.
The BJP leaders also lauded the Centre’s decision to raise the upper-age limit for recruitment under the scheme to 23 years from 21 years for this year. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president J P Nadda said it shows that Prime Minister Modi is fully seized of the concerns of the country’s youngsters and is making efforts for their bright future.
Home Minister Amit Shah said the decision to increase the upper-age limit under the Agnipath scheme for recruitment in defence services will benefit a large number of youngsters.
He said the recruitment process in the Army was affected for the last two years due to the coronavirus pandemic and the prime minister has taken a sensitive decision by showing concern for the youngsters of the country.
The Congress escalated its attack on the Centre over the scheme with former party chief Rahul Gandhi alleging that the prime minister does not understand what the people of the country want as he cannot hear anything except the voice of his “friends”.
Citing the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the decision to ban high-value currency notes, contentious farm laws and now Agnipath, he said these were projected to be for the welfare of the people, but were rejected by the citizens.
Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra urged the prime minister to withdraw the scheme as youngsters have taken to the streets opposing it.
Pointing out that the government had to change the rules of the scheme within 24 hours of its announcement, she said, “This means the plan has been imposed on youngsters in haste.”
At a press conference here, Congress spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP Deepender Singh Hooda said the scheme should be taken back immediately and a three-year age relaxation be announced for those who could not join the armed forces due to delays in recruitment.
Urging the protesters to be patient and not to resort to violence, he asked the Centre to apologise to the youngsters of the country for bringing the new short-term recruitment scheme for the armed forces.
Extending support to the students protesting against the Agnipath scheme, BJP MP Varun Gandhi urged them to follow the path of non-violence, saying it is morally wrong for those wanting to become soldiers to damage public properties when a soldier’s top priority is to put the interest of the country first.
Meanwhile, Bihar BJP chief Sanjay Jaiswal’s residence in Bettiah town was vandalised during the anti-Agnipath protests, the second such incident of attack on a senior party leader’s houses in the state during the day.
Earlier in the day, a mob had attacked Deputy Chief Minister Renu Devi’s residence in the same town in Paschim Champaran district, although the BJP leader was away in Patna.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) made a fresh plea to the Centre for an immediate review of the Agnipath scheme and to assure the protesters that their future will not be adversely affected by the new recruitment policy in the armed forces.
JD(U) national president Rajiv Ranjan Singh alias Lalan, an old associate of Kumar, came out with a video message to the effect.
“The announcement of the ‘Agnipath’ scheme by the Centre has triggered resentment among youngsters in Bihar and in other parts of the country. The Centre should, therefore, think of an immediate review of the scheme. If that is not possible, it must assure the youngsters that the scheme is not going to adversely affect their future,” he said.
The Janata Dal (United) had also made a similar demand on Thursday.
Union minister Giriraj Singh blamed the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) for the arson and violence, and said the opposition party will have to answer for its actions.
Former Union minister and RJD leader Sharad Yadav said the Agnipath scheme is not a reform but an “attempt to damage” the existing system of recruitment in the armed forces, adding that the Centre should “revisit” the initiative.
Speaking at the TV9 Global Summit, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi also slammed the Centre over the scheme, saying youngsters have taken to the streets because of the prime minister’s “wrong decision”.
Delhi Deputy Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Manish Sisodia said the protests are proof that the youngsters of the country will never accept the Agnipath scheme.