- Violent protests continued across the country on the fourth straight day over the Agnipath scheme
- Railways cancelled 369 trains and passengers faced a harrowing time amid violent protests
- Centre announced several incentives like reserving 10% vacancies in defence ministry; riots went on
Agniveer protests: Violent protests continued across the country on the fourth straight day over the Central government's 'Agnipath' scheme on Saturday. The Centre had on Tuesday unveiled the ambitious Agnipath scheme for the recruitment of youths aged between 17 and a half and 21 in the Army, Navy and the Air Force, largely on a four-year short-term contractual basis.
Agitators set ablaze Taregana railway station in Bihar during a bandh on Saturday and vandalised Ludhiana railway station in Punjab, as protesters continued to target railway properties on the fourth day of the stir and blocked roads and rail tracks in several states including West Bengal, Haryana, Rajasthan, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh. Despite the Central and state governments' efforts to halt the protests by promsing jobs for 'Agniveers', the riots saw no brake.
Railways cancelled 369 trains on Saturday and passengers faced a harrowing time. Over 200 trains were cancelled a day earlier after the railways faced the brunt of the protests. The railways have suffered massive losses in Bihar during protests in the last three days. More than 60 train coaches, 10 engines and some stations have been torched. The East-Central railways said that in view of the prevailing situation, 32 trains have been cancelled in the state.
The Centre announced several incentives including reserving 10 per cent vacancies in the defence ministry and paramilitary forces for Agnipath retirees. The ministries of home affairs and defence announced concessions and incentives that will assist retirees in their further employment. The central government indicated that other departments too were working in this direction after several BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Assam announced various measures to encourage the youths to apply under the Agnipath scheme and assured them reservation.
Govt terms it a 'misunderstanding'
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh strongly defended the scheme saying it was brought after wide-ranging consultations and suggested a misunderstanding was being spread for political reasons, while Union Minister Anurag Thakur appealed to the youths to shun violence and come forward for talks, asserting that the government is ready to look into their grievances with “an open mind” and make changes, “if required”. Singh also met Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, Navy Chief Admiral R Hari Kumar and Vice Chief of Army Staff Gen B S Raju and is learnt to have discussed a quick rollout of the Agnipath scheme and ways to pacify the agitators.
Internet services suspended
Large-scale violence in the past few days has led to the suspension of internet services, barring the ones controlled by the Bihar government, in 12 severely affected districts. Mobile Internet and SMS services have already been suspended in Mahendergarh, Palwal and Ballabhgarh because of the protests.
Opposition demands rollback
Congress president Sonia Gandhi termed the scheme as "directionless" and said her party will work for its withdrawal while appealing to the youths to adopt peaceful and non-violent means to fight for their demands. Party leader Rahul Gandhi said Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to withdraw Agnipath like the farm laws. Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann demanded a rollback and said those who cleared physical tests in the last two years must get a chance to appear in written exams for joining the Army. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader claimed that the Agnipath scheme will "dilute" the fighting ability of soldiers and render the youth jobless.
The agitation also spread to the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, with aspirants doing push-ups on roads at some places to register their protest. In Patna and its outskirts, bandh supporters were restrained by Bihar police from forcing shops to down their shutters, but they hurled stones and set fire to Taregana railway station in Masaurhi sub-division and a jeep belonging to the railway police.
There was also cross-firing and journalists covering the clash were 1assaulted. Kolkata Police clashed with agitating members of the Left-affiliated AIDSO and AIDYO when they tried to block roads in the city's Hazra area, a hundred metres from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's residence.
In Dharwad, Karnataka, police used mild lathi-charge to disperse anti-Agnipath protesters as they attempted to take out a march. In Uttar Pradesh, protests were held in Merrut, Jaunpur and Kannauj, with a roadways bus being set afire by protestors. The police have registered cases against 400 unknown persons in connection with the violence in Ballia on Friday.
Scores of youngsters descended on the Yamuna Expressway and blocked traffic movement briefly in Gautam Buddh Nagar adjoining Delhi, following which police booked 225 protesters and arrested 15, officials said.
(With agencies inputs)