Agnipath Recruitment Scheme
Congress supporters protest against the Agnipath Recruitment Scheme for the Armed Forces in Jammu, India, on June 27, 2022. Soon after the scheme was announced on June 20, violent protests raged across the country before it went quiet. Image Credit: ANI

On July 3, the highest decision-making body of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the National Executive, passed a “political resolution” that made a passing reference to the “Agnipath” scheme. The resolution said the scheme, among many others, was paving the way for a “New India”.

In case anyone was waiting with bated breath for the BJP-led government to withdraw the scheme in response to protests, the resolution should be clear enough indication that there is no going back.

The “Agnipath” scheme was announced on June 20. For about a week, violent protests took place across the country. And then, the protests went quiet. It was as if some angry youth wanted a catharsis, after which they returned to reality.

Agnipath Recruitment Scheme
Aspirants wait to register for the Agnipath Recruitment Scheme in Poonch, Jammu, India, on July 6, 2022. Despite the opposition to the scheme, the armed forces are inundated with more applications than the posts on offer. Image Credit: ANI

The novel scheme seeks to recruit young women and men for India’s armed forces but only for four years. After four years, about 25% of them may be recruited for the long term.

Recruitment in the armed forces was stopped for two years due to the pandemic, or so the government says. Across India, thousands of young men and some women have been preparing day and night to get into the forces for a secure lifetime job, ending with a pension. After no recruitment for two years, the government said they could get only a four-year term.

Agnipath protests - Bihar
The Vikramshila Express train is set it on fire during a protest against the Agnipath Recruitment Scheme for the Indian armed forces, in Lakhisarai, Bihar, on June 17, 2022. The protests were so virulent that hundreds of trains across India had to be briefly cancelled. Image Credit: ANI

Who started the fire?

The protests were immediate. They were held across the country but were particularly acute in Bihar, the state with one of the highest youth unemployment rates. Trains were burnt, some BJP offices too. Buses were vandalised. The protests were so virulent that hundreds of trains across India had to be briefly cancelled.

On June 20, there was an all-India strike called anonymously by the protesters through social media. No organisation or individual took responsibility for calling the strike. It had some success. One could feel it was a culmination of the protests, not a building up.

Sure enough, the protests dissipated the next day. The news cycle moved on to the Maharashtra political crisis. The armed forces quickly announced a timeline for the Agnipath recruitment even as the protests raged.

In a country with a huge youth unemployment crisis, the government will have no difficulty filling the Agnipath posts despite the opposition to the scheme. The forces are already inundated with more applications than the posts on offer.

In other words, it is safe to say the protests against Agnipath failed.

A stark contrast

That’s a contrast to two recent protests that succeeded.

The protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 can be said to have succeeded insofar as the government has kept its implementation in cold storage. There were protests by farmers against three new laws that together eased the entry of private companies into agriculture. These protests succeeded more comprehensively: the government completely repealed the laws, as the protesters demanded.

When the Agnipath protests started, many felt deja vu. Once again, it seemed, the government was pushing through something new without first taking stakeholders on board. Once again, there were protests, and it appeared the government might eventually have to concede to the protesters.

It took barely a week for this judgement to be proved wrong. Mahatma Gandhi must be saying from the heavens: I knew it.

The protests against CAA and farm laws were non-violent passive resistance in the Gandhian mould. The protesters rejected the laws but did not take to violence. If there was some sporadic violence like during protests by farmers at the Red Fort in Delhi, it was immediately denounced and was not allowed to tar the protest movement.

The protesters, in both cases, occupied public places, leading to frequent complaints of traffic blockades and so on. With the excuse of removing the anti-CAA protesters from a road, inter-religious violence was sparked in Delhi in February 2020.

Agnipath protest - Bihar
Chhatra Janshakti Parishad activists hold white roses in the front of Kargil Chowk during a protest against the Agnipath Recruitment Scheme, in Patna, Bihar, on June 28, 2022. Protests were particularly acute in Bihar, the state with one of the highest youth unemployment rates. Image Credit: ANI

Weapon of the strong

Non-violence by itself is not enough. Passive resistance needs a lot more. It needs you to make yourself heard, not an easy task when powerful forces come together to silence you. Passive resistance also needs patience because powerful forces are waiting for you to tire out. In anti-CAA and anti-farm law protests, the protesters were incredibly willing to sit under the open sky, 24x7, face harsh summers and winter, rain and hailstorms.

They occupied places and simply protested there, with words, flags, symbols, poetry, pictures, slogans, speeches, little makeshift libraries, food stalls and what not. These protests were not threatening: not to trains or humans, not to the police nor the public, not to their supporters and opponents. With the exception of malicious TV news channels, they were not hostile.

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Mahatma Gandhi insisted non-violence was not a weapon of the weak. It is a weapon of the strong. It is the weak who take to violence, as they lack the courage to wage passive resistance that will take far too long to have an impact. Violent protest catches more attention, stuns everyone, but takes away the moral legitimacy of the protester. It dissipates quickly and ends in defeat.

The violent protester disappears into the world, the non-violent protester puts herself out there to be attacked, vilified and jailed in false cases. It takes a lot more courage than anonymously going and setting a train on fire.

A few weeks before India completes 75 years of independence, there can’t be a better tribute to Mahatma Gandhi than to remember the power of his most important message: non-violent “satyagraha,” the assertion of truth against power.