Soon, Jawan, Sailor and Airman could be collectively referred to as “Agniveers”.

Chandigarh: The controversial Agnipath contractual program to recruit thousands of below-ranking officers (PBOR) into the Indian military, which has sparked violent protests across the country, threatens to change not only the very character and ethos of the armed forces, but also the proverbial categorization of them Soldiers.

Many serving officers and veterans believed that in the near future all Indian Army (IA) jaws, Indian Navy (IN) sailors and Indian Air Force (IAF) aviators could be generically referred to as Agniveers (fire warriors). that eclipse their generations-old individual service individualities and distinctions.

“Given the Government’s apparent determination to continue with the Agnipath plan to recruit over 50,000 Agniveers annually, it is not inconceivable that all of these PBORs across the three services will soon be known under the same generic nomenclature,” said a retired IA- Officer with three stars. It’s entirely possible that the MoD and the three-service headquarters will issue an order prefixed with Agniveer to all PBOR ranks, he added, declining to be identified because he spoke about a highly sensitive matter.

The fine print of the Agniveer program remains opaque, and the details of re-employment patterns for 75% of PBORs, who are demobilized after four years of service, are a work in progress and are directly proportional to the level of violence wrought by rousing youth. But since enlistment into all three services was handled under the joint Agnipath plan, according to another IA officer, it was “more than likely” that sooner or later these conscripts would be generically referred to as Agniveer.

The recruitment of Agniveer for the IAF is planned start later this week, on June 24 to quell ongoing unrest over the program, followed by enrollment in the other two services in the coming weeks. According to IA Chief-General Manoj Pande, training of the first group of Agniveers for the army for the prescribed six months will begin in December, after which they are expected to be deployed operationally by mid-2023. Of the three services, the IA will recruit the largest number of Agniveers, averaging over 50,000 annually, to maintain its 1.3 lakh force.

And while many senior military officers disagreed with any notions of the “universalization” of Agniveer as a prefix for all newly recruited PBOR, a large number who favored the scheme argued that at a “psychosomatic level” it would generate a notion of tri- Service community, on the basis of which the armed forces were used to operationally deal with future conflicts. “The almost certain certainty that all PBOR in all three services will eventually be referred to only as Agniveer will also, to some extent, usher in a psychological sense of unity,” claimed a former IN officer.

Defense Minister Rajnath Singh with the chiefs of the three services, General Manoj Pande (Army), Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari and Admiral R. Hari Kumar (Navy) during a press conference at the National Media Center in New Delhi, June 14, 2022 Photo: PTI /Manvender Vashist

But a cross-section of other veterans bemoaned such a possibility, arguing that it would strip away the distinctive features, customs, and traditions of each service, reducing them all to an “assembly-line” status where they would all be considered collectively Agniverers. They grumbled that the “universalization” of all PBORs would end up as yet another assault on single-service individualism, in which age-old mores and conventions vital to the functioning of all militaries would be thoughtlessly abandoned once again.

The military historian Brigadier (Dr) SP Sinha had written in 2020 in the in-house journal of the United Service Institution of India (USI) in New Delhi specified that customs and traditions were the basis on which the spirit of the corps of the Indian Armed Forces was structured as its purpose was to embody pride in military service and to build strong professional and personal relationships.

“These may seem strange and idiosyncratic to civilians, but are solemn to soldiers, sailors, and airmen, and it is often these that keep them focused in uncertain times and when all seems lost,” he explained in his analyzes of Customs and Traditions of the Indian Armed Forces“. The Indian armed forces, he said, have common customs and a few others that are characteristic of each service and must be preserved and perpetuated, the officer added.

Given the BJP administration’s fascination with lush Hindi titles that evoke imagery of bygone grandeur, many veterans were convinced that “jawan, sailors, and aviators” were classifications that would almost certainly soon disappear once the Agniveer program gained momentum. “The goal is to ‘Indianize’ the armed forces, much to the detriment of the long tradition, pomp and rituals inherited from the British,” said an IAF officer. It’s just a sense of denial that’s unhealthy for the military, he wryly remarked.

Labeling IA soldiers Jawans – a word of Persian origin meaning young – for all that was IA PBOR initiated by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in the run-up to the 1965 war as part of the broader nationalist slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” which has endured for years and still occasionally resonates today.

Lal Bahadur Shastri. Photo: Viksb/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Almost immediately the term “Jawan” in the IA replaced Sepoy, which was also a Persian-derived term originally given to an Indian infantryman under two centuries of Mughal rule until the early 18th century. Thereafter, like numerous other hoary military and administrative processes adopted by the armies of the East India Company and later the British colonial government, the term sepoy persisted well after Indian independence.

But it quickly disappeared after its localized replacement Jawan was enthusiastically received in 1965 by a country proud of its soldiers who adroitly waged India’s second war with Pakistan and seized large chunks of enemy territory. Surprisingly, even the Pakistan Army chose and continues to classify their soldiers as Jawans.

Such is the service’s attachment to traditional rank composition that the IA’s Eastern Command in Kolkata issued a formal communiqué in 2010 stating that the term “Jawan” referred exclusively to an army soldier and prohibited state police and paramilitary forces from him to use that term. The policy went on to say that PBOR equivalents in the police or paramilitary organizations should only be addressed as “police officers” or “paramilitary personnel”. Also, according to the press release, Lal Bahadur Shastri was the first to coin the slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan,” and since then the word has become synonymous with IA soldiers.

The terms “sailor” and “aviator” for IN and IAF, on the other hand, were inherited from the British after their respective creation in 1934 and 1932 and are still used today as service-specific PBOR groupings. But a cross-section of officers believed that these too – like the IA – could be persuaded to adopt collective Agniveer terminology, on official orders, to achieve “standardization” and in the broader interest of further strengthening the Indian military the diverse material it used.

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