Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 07 July 2023

Assam Rifles is unique force

Source: By Deeptiman Tiwary: The Indian Express

For the past 18 days, about seven battalions of the Assam Rifles deployed in south Manipur have not received fresh ration with people in Meitei areas allegedly blocking supplies from reaching the camps of the force.

The Meiteis have been accusing the Assam Rifles, the longest-serving paramilitary force in India, of being partisan and siding with the Kukis in the ongoing conflict.

Supply trucks blocked

Sources said that while NH2, the main highway through which civilian trucks take supplies to the Valley, is facing blockade by the Kuki population in Kangpokpi in north Manipur, trucks of the Assam Rifles have been allowed to pass. The problem starts when the trucks reach Sigmai, a Meitei area. Sources said women from the community have been blocking the roads and not allowing trucks of the force to pass through.

Sources said that while the Assam Rifles has stocks of dry ration that can run up to 45 days, perishable items such as vegetables have to be replenished every week. But even dry ration stock is depleting fast as the camps have to sustain additional Army columns rushed to Manipur to control violence.

The Assam Rifles

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

It is tasked with the maintenance of law and order in the North East along with the Indian Army and also guards the Indo-Myanmar border in the region. It has a sanctioned strength of over 63,000 personnel and has 46 battalions apart from administrative and training staff.

The dual control structure

Its uniqueness lies in the fact that 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 deployment, posting, transfer and deputation of the 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 from the Indian Army.

In some ways, the force is the only central paramilitary force (CPMF), as its operational duties and regimentation are on the lines of the Indian Army. However, being a Central Armed Police force under MHA, its recruitment, perks, promotion of its personnel and retirement policies are governed according to the rules framed by the MHA for CAPFs.

This has created a rift within the personnel of the Assam Rifles, with some sections wanting singular control of the MoD while others prefering the MHA.

Those arguing for administrative control of the MoD say that it would mean better perks and retirement benefits, which are far higher compared to CAPFs under MHA. However, Army personnel also retire early, at 35, while the retirement age in CAPF 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 promotion. On the other hand, Army personnel also get one rank one pension which is not available to CAPFs.

Both MHA and MoD want full control

This rift is also reflected in the two ministries’ demands. The MHA has argued that all the border guarding forces are under the operational control of the ministry and so Assam Rifles coming under MHA will give border guarding a comprehensive and integrated approach. MHA sources also say that Assam Rifles continues to function on the pattern set during the 1960s and the ministry would want to make guarding of the Indo-Myanmar border on the lines of other CAPFs.

The Army, on its part, has been arguing that there is no need to fix what isn’t broken. Sources say the Army is of the opinion that the Assam Rifles has worked well in coordination with Army and frees up the armed forces from many of its responsibilities to focus on its core strengths. It has also argued that Assam Rifles was always a military force and not a police force and has been built like that. It has argued that giving the control of the force to MHA or merging it with any other CAPF will confuse the force and jeopardise national security.

An old issue

Both MHA and MoD have wanted full control of the force for a long time. Opinions to this effect have been expressed by both Army and police officers from time to time in the public domain.

However, it was in 2013 that MHA first made a proposal to take operational control of the Assam Rifles and merge it with the BSF. There were discussions held between MHA and MoD, however, no agreeable ground could be found.

In 2019, after Amit Shah took over as Home Minister, the proposal was renewed – this time with a plan to merge Assam Rifles with the ITBP.

Since then, the Indian Army has actually been pushing for not only total control of Assam Rifles but also operational control over ITBP, which guards the Sino-Indian border and is currently engaged in a standoff with the Chinese PLA in eastern Ladakh.

There have also been petitions filed in courts with regard to who should control the Assam Rifles.

A glorious history starting in 1835

Assam Rifles is the oldest paramilitary force raised way back in 1835 in British India with just 750 men. Since then, it has gone on to fight in two World Wars, the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and used as an anti-insurgency force against militant groups in the North East.

Raised as a militia to protect British tea estates and its settlements from the raids of tribes in the North East, the force was first known as Cachar Levy. It was reorganised later as Assam Frontier Force as its role was expanded to conduct punitive operations beyond Assam borders.

Given its contribution in opening the region to administration and commerce, it came to be known as the “right arm of the civil and left arm of the military”.

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