Trains torched, internet shut down as stirs rock India
New Delhi: Violent protests against the new Agnipath recruitment scheme for the armed forces spread from Bihar to Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, as well as parts of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and even Delhi on Thursday.
The new scheme has met with agitations from armed forces aspirants across the country, with opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav and Arvind Kejriwal all speaking up. The government, though, has defended it, saying it was introduced after extensive consultations with serving armed forces officials over a period of two years.
Young men torched government vehicles in Palwal as protests erupted in half a dozen districts of Haryana over the Agnipath scheme.
The authorities imposed prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the CrPC and suspended mobile internet services in Palwal to stop the spread of rumours through social media platforms.
Protests also took place in Gurugram, Rewari, Charkhi Dadri, Hisar and Rohtak. Palwal DSP (Headquarters) Anil Kumar said over 20 youths have been rounded up.
Five government vehicles were set on fire by the protesters while stones were thrown at the residence of the Palwal Deputy Commissioner, he said. The Deputy Commissioner wasn't there at the time of the incident and no one was injured, he said.
A police vehicle was damaged in stone pelting and Agra Chowk on National Highway-19 was blocked. Police used tear gas and resorted to mild cane charge to disperse the protesters.
The most common issue raised by protesters is that the four-year duration is very short and their future would look insecure. The government has said that those wishing to be entrepreneurs after their service as Agniveers will get a financial package and bank loan scheme. Those wishing to study further will be given a 12th class equivalent certificate and a bridging course for further studies, and those who want salaried jobs will be given priority in Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) and state police. "Several avenues are also being opened up for them in other sectors," it added.
The scheme involves recruitment of the jawans into the Army, the Navy and the Air Force for a four-year-period followed by compulsory retirement for most without gratuity and pension benefits.
Political parties, predictably, reacted along partisan lines with the Opposition stepping up its attack on the government and demanding that the scheme be scrapped. "No rank, no pension, no direct recruitment for 2 years, no stable future after four years, no respect shown by the government for the army," Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said in a tweet in Hindi.
Hundreds of young people on Thursday took to the streets in Bilaspur and Sidhrawali areas of Gurugram and Rewari, some 50 km away, against the Agnipath scheme.
The protesters laid a virtual seize on bus stands and roads, crippling traffic on the Gurugram-Jaipur highway, and held a protest at Bilaspur Chowk.
At Nangloi, protesters blocked the railway track and raised slogans against the recently-announced scheme.
The Delhi Police said they received information at around 9.45 am that 15-20 people gathered at the Nangloi railway station to protest against the Agnipath scheme as also the delay in the RRB exams.
Over 34 trains were cancelled and eight more partially cancelled due to the protests, railway sources said in New Delhi. They said 72 trains were also running late due to the agitation.
The protesters hurled stones at buses in Aligarh and Agra. There were protests also in Bulandshahr, Mathura, Firozabad and Ballia districts of Uttar Pradesh over the new recruitment scheme, officials said.
Authorities stopped trains at Ballia and the neighbouring districts as a precautionary measure. The initiative drew sharp criticism from rival party leaders, including former UP chief ministers Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati.
In Aligarh, the youths pelted stones at a passenger bus on the highway connecting the district to Ghaziabad. While some window panes of the bus were broken, no passenger was injured in the incident, officials said. Vehicular traffic in Aligarh was affected for over two hours.
In Agra, the aspirants not only pelted stones at a government bus in Bah, but they also blocked NH-2, the Agra-Jaipur highway and MG Road, sources said.
In Mathura, protesters blocked the traffic on the Agra-Delhi route, paralysing traffic between Agra and Mathura and Mathura and Gwalior link road for over two hours. In Firozabad district, a group of youths staged a protest against the scheme in Shikohabad area.
Protests were held in Bulandhshar, Firozabad and Ballia, too, but the candidates dispersed after the district administration and police officers spoke to them and assured that their demands will be conveyed to the authorities concerned.
In Ballia and neighbouring districts, movement of some trains was affected due to the protests, an official said.
Some passenger trains were affected due to the protest, an official said. Train 12562 Swatantrata Sainani Express chugging from Delhi to Jai Nagar on the Varanasi-Chhapra rail section was halted at Ballia railway station at 10.47 am, North Eastern Railways' Public Relations Officer Ashok Kumar said.
Train 14006 Lichchavi Express was halted at Bhatni railway station at 10.25 am and train 15054 Lucknow Chhapra Express at Ghazipur railway station at 11.25 am. This was done as a precautionary measure in the wake of protests in Ballia and some districts of Bihar neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, he said.
Protests were also held in Jodhpur, Sikar, Jaipur, Nagaur, Ajmer and Jhunjhunu districts of Rajasthan but no violence was reported.
Similar scenes were also seen in Jammu where the police resorted to lathicharge outside the Army's recruitment office at BC Road as hundreds of protesters, most of whom had cleared their medical and physical tests for recruitment last year and were awaiting the written examination, blocked the busy Tawi bridge disrupting vehicular traffic.
"We submitted our forms for the recruitment in the Army in February 2020 but the process started a year later due to Covid outbreak. The written test was initially scheduled for April 25 last year but was postponed several times," Munish Sharma, an Army aspirant, said.
"Today, we came to know that the process for our recruitment stands cancelled and we have to re-apply in accordance with Agnipath. It is great injustice to us," an exasperated Sharma said.
The agitation happened in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh too, with visuals showing the Birlanagar railway station ransacked.
Trash cans were set on fire and left on the railway tracks and the windows of some trains were broken. One video showed the station master's room ransacked as well, with people in the video claiming that protesters had broken the control system and attempts were being taken to fix it.
Protests left Bihar in the throes of anarchy on Thursday as hordes of aspirants hit the streets, vandalising buildings and vehicles, storming railway stations and setting fire to train coaches.
Simmering discontent in Bihar, where agitation over the scheme was held in a handful of districts a day ago, seemed to have spread like a wildfire to the major part of the state, as infuriated agitators went on the rampage, seeking immediate rollback of Agnipath — under which hiring has been proposed for a four-year-period followed by compulsory retirement, for at least 75 per cent of the personnel, without any pension benefits.
Police fired teargas shells and charged baton to disperse the angry demonstrators who blocked railway tracks, threw burning tyres on roads and performed push-ups and other drills on the streets as a mark of protest against the recruitment process.
"So far we have arrested 125 people in connection with the violence. Two dozen FIRs have been registered. At least 16 police personnel have been injured across the state in clashes with the protesters," Sanjay Singh, Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order), said.
He added: "We are conducting further investigations and arrest of more people is likely."
The house of a BJP MLA was vandalised at Chhapra, while another female legislator was hurt in a stone-pelting incident at Nawada, where the party office was also torched.
In Nawada town, the party's MLA from Warisaliganj constituency, Aruna Devi, was travelling to the district court premises in connection with a case. Her car was mobbed by the protesters near a railway crossing and pelted with stones. The legislator, her driver, two security personnel and two personal staff members suffered injuries in the incident.
"They were visibly provoked to see the party flag attached to my car which was ripped apart by the attackers," recalled the MLA.
Former deputy chief minister and BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi came out with a statement deploring the attacks on his party colleagues and its office in Nawada and also urging the Nitish Kumar government in the state to take steps to allay the anxieties triggered by the introduction of contractual hiring in armed forces.
However, the chief minister's JD(U) seemed unimpressed. The party's national president, Rajiv Ranjan Singh alias Lalan, came out with an impassioned tweet urging the Centre to do an "avilamb punarvichaar" (a rethink without delay) on the scheme which has "given rise to fears and anxieties in the minds of a large number of youths in Bihar and other parts of the country".
The protests also caused massive disruption of rail traffic. According to the East Central Railway zone headquartered in Hajipur, seven passenger trains had to be cancelled because of the disturbances while many others were either short-terminated or run via alternate routes.
"Railway traffic had been disrupted since 8 am. Normalcy was restored by 1530 hours," said the ECR in a statement.
Besides staging demonstrations on railway tracks in over a dozen districts, the protesters set fire to coaches in Chhapra and Bhabhua while broken window panes of several trains bore the testimony of the vandalism on display. Cities like Bhagalpur, Begusarai, Jehanabad, Buxar, Katihar and Gaya witnessed angry protests with young men burning tyres on roads to disrupt traffic and staging marches demanding a rollback of the scheme..