Angry protesters in India have set a train coach on fire and blocked railway tracks and roads in protests against a new military recruitment system, police said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government on Tuesday announced an overhaul of recruitment for India’s 1.38 million-strong armed forces, looking to bring down the average age of personnel and reduce pension expenditure.
Sanjay Singh, additional director general of police in the eastern state of Bihar, said on Thursday protests broke out in about a dozen locations, with roads and railway tracks obstructed.
“The protesters set fire to a train bogie [coach] in one place,” Singh told Reuters news agency. “They have ransacked one railway station.”
The new system, called “Agnipath”, meaning “path of fire” in Hindi, will bring in men and women between the ages of 17-and-a-half and 21 for a four-year tenure, with only a quarter retained for longer periods.
Previously, soldiers have been recruited by the army, navy and air force separately and typically enter service for up to 17 years for the lowest ranks.
The shorter tenure has caused concern among potential recruits and security analysts.
“Where will we go after working for only four years?” said a young man, surrounded by fellow protesters in Bihar’s Jehanabad district. “We will be homeless after four years of service. So we have jammed the roads.”
Protests were also reported from various districts in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state, where people blocked roads and vandalised vehicles.
In January this year, the two northern states saw protests over the recruitment process for railway jobs underlining India’s persistent unemployment problem.
“When India faces threats on two fronts, the uncalled for Agnipath scheme reduces the operational effectiveness of our armed forces,” Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the main opposition party Congress, said in a tweet.
“The BJP govt must stop compromising the dignity, traditions, valour and discipline of our forces.”
In an article for Al Jazeera, analyst Sushant Singh said the new army recruitment plan was announced without any discussion in parliament and could have “devastating consequences”.
“More than half of the Indian government’s defence expenditure of $70.6bn goes towards pensions and salaries for Indian military personnel. It was shooting upwards by the year and Modi’s government was unable to initiate a substantive reform within the existing structure,” Singh wrote.
“So the Indian government on Tuesday decided to demolish the structure itself.”
According to Singh, the military proposal will also have a direct bearing on the Indian society, which has seen a spike in hate speech and attacks on Muslims and other minorities by India’s right-wing Hindu groups since Modi came to power in 2014.
“Research shows that the most violent ethnic cleansing occurred when members of the majority community gained combat experience as soldiers while the minority community was unorganised,” wrote Singh.