New Delhi: Amid protests against the Agnipath defence recruitment scheme, National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval said on Tuesday that "there is no question" of a rollback. "India has among the youngest populations in the world; yet it cannot continue to have an army with a high average age," he told ANI in an interview, arguing that the new system will ensure a more tech-savvy army.

NSA Doval is the latest among those deployed by the government to defend the scheme for recruiting 'Agniveer' soldiers on four-year contracts without pension. Only up to 25 per cent of these recruits may be given regular commission of 15 years thereafter. This has led to violent protests across India.

On the protests, he said vandalism is not justified. "Those doing this are not the aspirants; the real ones are at home, preparing." He said that while some veterans had genuine concerns and were now changing their minds, there are people who "just want conflict in society to discredit the government".

Speaking about the future of Agniveers let go after four years, he asserted that the age of "settling down" is around 25-26 now. "People are speaking of one life-two careers, even three careers now. When recruits from the first batch of Agniveers retire, India will be 5-trillion-dollar economy; industry will need people who have age on their side. These men and women will still be young and won't have family compulsions."

Denying any possibility of a rollback as was done for three laws after the farmers' protest last year, Mr Doval said, "It is not a kneejerk action. This scheme has been debated and discussed for decades." He cited a number of army committees and ministerial panels as having mulled over such a scheme. "Only a leader like Prime Minister Narendra Modi could say that he would even pay a political price, if needed, for a step in the national interest."

He claimed that in 2006 — when a Congress-led alliance was in power — the Defence Ministry wrote to the Home Ministry, "saying that we are thinking of implementing this thing", so will the central armed forces be able to take some in reserves?". The Home Ministry formed a committee under the director-general of the Border Security Force (BSF) but its report never came out, the NSA claimed.

On concerns that the regimental system will be affected, he said, "There is no tinkering there. Artillery, Armoured Corps, and other such will remain. As for caste-based regiments, very few remain. They are a colonial legacy... The British did not want anything pan-India but wanted people to represent community or region."

The NSA rubbished fears that retired Agniveers could be used for vested interests or become "mercenaries for hire". He asserted that these men and women will have "such training and commitment towards society that they will in fact be a force for internal security". "Not only will the armed forces have well-trained soldiers, but civil society too will have thousands as catalysts of change with a national perspective."

Announced by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in the presence of the three service chiefs, the scheme provides for recruitment of men and women in the age bracket of 17-and-a-half to 21 years. The Centre later extended the upper age limit to 23 years for recruitment this year as there has been no recruitment for the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic. The plan is to hire around 45,000 soldiers this year across the three services. The Indian Army has already issued a notification saying registration will begin next month.

NSA Doval argued, "We are going toward contactless wars. Technology is taking over... If we have to prepare for tomorrow, then we cannot do things like we did in the past."

He also reacted to recent statements that Agniveers will be good plumbers and guards after four years. "We are talking about 22-23-year-olds with army service; compare them with anyone else their age — these Agniveers will have discipline, skills, and will be highly trainable... No avenue is debarred for them. They will have ₹ 11 lakh, with which they can even study further." He cited reservations in other government services, including police forces, announced so far.

The NSA said it was "injustice" when the soldier was earlier released only after 15 years. "At that time, the soldier could go back to the village, till the land and live on pension. Now the scenario has changed."