Why Are Thousands of Young Men Setting Trains on Fire?

A new job scheme introduced by the Indian military has led to mass protests.
Pallavi Pundir
Jakarta, ID
India, protest, jobs, indian army, military, violence, arson, vandalism
A protester stands in front of a railway station in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, where trains were set on fire during nationwide protests against a new military job scheme. Photo: Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Backlash to a controversial military job scheme in India has underscored the anger and desperation of tens of thousands of young men looking for jobs amid a youth unemployment crisis.

More than a thousand Indians, mostly men in their late teens and early 20s, have been arrested for vandalism and arson since the Indian government announced an army recruitment scheme last week that would provide less job security and fewer benefits.

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In the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, thousands of young men clashed with police and set fire to public properties such as trains and buses after the Indian army introduced the scheme, called “Agnipath,” which means “path of fire” in Hindi. 

Violence was seen even at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency Varanasi, where over 400 were arrested for burning buses and pelting stones.

Several local governments have suspended the internet to quell the unrest. And over 600 train services have been suspended.

Agnipath aims to hire temporary low-rank soldiers, between the ages of 17-and-a-half and 23. But only one in four such recruits will be retained after four years of deployment, and the rest will be let go without a pension and other benefits given to those serving in the Indian armed forces.

Defence officials said the overhaul is aimed at deploying younger, fitter troops on the front lines in a country that shares hostile border relations with two militarily powerful countries: China and Pakistan. 

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But for millions of Indians, military jobs are seen to provide job stability in a country where 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Young men already have a small window – up to the age of 21 – to apply for military jobs. Protesters say the new scheme discounts their years of preparations and dreams of a better life. It could exacerbate what a World Economic Forum report called "widespread youth disillusionment" in the country. 

Military officials are undeterred by the protests and made it clear that enrollments will begin this month. Lieutenant General Anil Puri, of the Indian government’s Department of Military Affairs, said that those protesting are “wasting their time” and should instead prepare for the job. A total of 46,000 soldiers will be recruited this year.

India, protest, jobs, indian army, military, violence, arson, vandalism

India’s Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh (center) addresses the media with the top chiefs of the Indian Armed Forces to announce “Agnipath” scheme in New Delhi on June 14. Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Puri also warned that those involved in the protests will not be selected. “There is no space [in the Indian Army] for arson or vandalism,” he said. “Every individual will give a certificate that they were not part of the protest or vandalism.”

As protests escalate, Modi said the scheme “may look unfair” but will help in “nation building” later. On Tuesday, as military chiefs met Modi to fast-track Agnipath, the central government urged the Supreme Court reviewing petitions challenging the scheme to hear its side before passing any judgements.

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