Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 05 September 2023

Story of the Assam Rifles

Source: By Deeptiman Tiwary: The Indian Express

Police in Manipur have registered an FIR accusing the Assam Rifles (AR) of preventing police from doing their duty, including blocking their way with armoured vehicles, which allegedly allowed Kuki militants suspected of killing Meiteis to escape.

The AR is one of the six central armed police forces (CAPFs) under the administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The other five forces are the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)Border Security Force (BSF)Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP)Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB).

The AR is tasked with maintaining law and order in the Northeast along with the Indian Army. It also guards the Indo-Myanmar border. The AR have a sanctioned strength of more than 63,000 personnel, organised in 46 battalions, apart from administrative and training staff.

The AR is unique, and different from other CAPFs in some important respects.

It is the only paramilitary force with a dual control structure. While the administrative control of the force is with the MHA, its operational control is with the Indian Army, which is under the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

This means that salaries and infrastructure for the force is provided by the MHA, but the deploymentpostingtransfers, and deputation of AR personnel is decided by the Army. All its senior ranks, from DG to IG and sector headquarters are manned by officers from the Army. The force is commanded by a Lieutenant General of the Indian Army.

The AR is in effect a central paramilitary force (CPMF) — its operational duties and regimentation are on the lines of the Indian Army. However, being a CAPF under the MHA, the recruitmentperks, and promotion of AR personnel, and their retirement policies are governed according to rules framed for CAPFs by the MHA.

There are demands within the AR that only one Ministry should have full control over the force.

large section within the AR wants to be under the administrative control of the MoD, as that would mean perks and retirement benefits that are far better than those enjoyed by the CAPFs under MHA. However, Army personnel retire early — at age 35 — while the retirement age of CAPFs is 60 years.

Also, CAPF officers have recently been granted non-functional financial upgradation (NFFU) to at least financially address the issue of stagnation in their careers due to lack of avenues for promotions. But Army personnel also get ‘one rank, one pension’ (OROP) which is not available to CAPFs.

The two Ministries, MoD and MHA, too want full control over the AR.

The MHA has argued that all the border-guarding forces are under its operational control, and having the AR too in the tent will result in a comprehensive and integrated approach to the guarding of India’s borders.

Sources in the MHA also say that the AR continues to function on lines that were decided back in the 1960s, and the Ministry would want the Indo-Myanmar border to be guarded by personnel who work on the pattern of other CAPFs.

The Army, on the other hand, has been arguing that there is no need to fix what isn’t broken. Sources said the Army is of the opinion that the AR has worked well in coordination with the Army, and the sharing of responsibilities frees up the armed forces to focus on their core strengths.

The Army has also argued that the AR was always a military force, and not a police force — and has been built as such. It has argued that giving control over the force to the MHA, or merging it with any other CAPF will send confusing signals and will jeopardise national security.

Both the MHA and MoD have wanted full control over the force for a long time.

Opinions to this effect have been expressed publicly by both the Army and police officers from time to time.

In 2013, the MHA first proposed to take operational control of the AR, and to merge it with the BSF. Discussions were held between the MHA and MoD, but no common ground could be reached.

In 2019, after Amit Shah took over as Home Minister, the proposal was renewed — this time, the plan was to merge the AR with the ITBP. Discussions are said to be ongoing.

The Indian Army meanwhile, has been pushing not just for total control over the Assam Rifles but also operational control over the ITBP, which guards the Sino-Indian border, and is currently engaged in a standoff with the Chinese PLA in Eastern Ladakh. Petitions have been filed in courts with regard to who should control the AR.

The Assam Rifles have a long and illustrious history.

The AR is India’s oldest paramilitary force — it was raised in 1835 with just 750 men. It has since fought in the two World Wars and the Sino-Indian war of 1962, and has been used as an anti-insurgency force against militant groups in the Northeast.

The AR was raised as the Cachar Levy, a militia that would protect tea estates and British settlements against raids by the tribal peoples of the Northeast. The force was subsequently reorganised as the Assam Frontier Force, and its role was expanded to conduct punitive operations beyond the borders of Assam. Given its contribution in opening the Northeastern region to administration and commerce, it came to be known as the “right arm of the civil and left arm of the military”.

In 1870, the elements of the force were merged into three Assam Military Police Battalions, named after the Lushai Hills, Lakhimpur, and the Naga Hills. The ‘Darrang’ Battalion was raised just before the onset of World War I. Since it was difficult to mobilise reservists at short notice, and soldiers of the Gurkha Battalion were on leave in Nepal, the Assam Military Police were tasked to take their place.

This force sent more than 3,000 men as part of the British Army to theatres of the War in Europe and the Middle East. In 1917, the name of the force was changed to Assam Rifles, recognising their work during the Great War, in which they fought shoulder to shoulder with Rifle Regiments of the regular British Army. The force was awarded 76 gallantry medals including seven Indian Order of Merit awards and five Indian Distinguished Service Medals for its contribution in Europe and the Middle East during the War.

In World War II, after the lightning Japanese advance in 1942, the Assam Rifles fought a number of independent actions behind enemy lines as the task of rear area defence and rear guard often fell to them as the Allies retreated into India. They also organised a resistance group, the Victor Force, on the Indo-Burmese border to counter the Japanese forces and to harass the enemy line of communications. The force was awarded 48 gallantry medals during this War.

The AR took on a conventional combat role during the 1962 war, and travelled to Sri Lanka as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987. It remains the most awarded paramilitary force in both pre- and post-Independence India, having won a very large number of Shaurya Chakras, Kirti Chakras, Vir Chakras, Ashok Chakras, and Sena Medals.

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