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Divided Agniveer, Will Himachal’s Army Veterans Be A Crack In BJP’s Poll Armour, Silver Lining For Congress?

Defense veterans from Himachal Pradesh are divided over the Center’s Agniveer plan. The issue is reverberating loud and clear among the state’s soldiery community and will affect how their votes will fluctuate in November.

“What will a 21-22 year old boy do when he comes back after four years of service? The government could have assured them at least a pension of Rs 10,000 or allowed them to work for a minimum of 15 years. Agar humare naujwaan ko nai milega, to wo hataash hoke galat kaamon mein hifasege na (If our young people do not get work, they will become discouraged and go astray). Rs 10-15 lakh that they promise them in the end means nothing,” said 79-year-old Ram Shar from Kangra who retired as a Subedar in 1990 and now runs a shop.

The fear is palpable, especially as rising unemployment exacerbates the concerns of people in towns and cities. With more than 50,000 active soldiers and more than 1.5 lakh ex-servicemen, Himachal Pradesh continued to send thousands of young people to the military every year until 2019, when recruitment was interrupted.

In the neighboring village, 53-year-old Sudeshna Devi says she no longer wants to send her son to the army. “How can we send our children to risk their lives for a country that will forget them after four years? And who wants to marry them, knowing that after 22 years they might just come home?” she asks.

Will roll back Agniveer, says Priyanka Gandhi

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi told voters in Kangra on Friday that her party would roll back the Agniveer plan if elected to power in 2024.

“Mothers send their children to fight at the border all their lives so that when they come back their country will take care of them. But the government wants them to look for another job after four years. If Congress in Center comes to power, we will scrap Agniveer,” Gandhi said, speaking of a women-dominated rally in Nagrota near Kangra.

Gandhi’s scion said she was also a “Shaheed ki Beti” and praised the state’s representation in the armed forces, while promising to fill 4,000 posts reserved for ex-servicemen in state services. She stated that the new changes would drastically reduce Himachal’s youth recruitment from thousands to several hundred, and also assured that she would provide the youth with a million jobs if the party came to power.

Capacity building of young people

Amid the simmering grudges, there are many veterans who continue to support Agniveer.

Sarabjit Dhiman, a resident of Dharamshala who retired as Naib Subedar, says the scheme would help build capacity for young people and give them direction in life. “Most young people are at home anyway. This at least gives them some direction and a chance to train with the military. Nobody makes that much money at 22 years old. They will be financially independent from an early age to explore other options. With the money they can better plan their future’, says Dhiman.

According to some veterans, the youth’s temperament has also changed over the years and they are now more likely to do short service. “Times have changed since we were in the military and endured all the tough challenges. Today’s youth think differently. It may be the need of the time, but my concern is that it will increase the inequality between the ranks and completely change the structure of the army,” said Om Prakash, a retired army personnel from Nagarakot.

The state is all set to go to the polls on Nov. 12.

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