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As in 2023 July
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 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”.
In 1870, existing elements were merged into three Assam Military Police Battalions, named as Lushai Hills, Lakhimpur and Naga Hills. The ‘Darrang’ Battalion was raised just before the onset of World War–I. Since Reservists were difficult to be called on short notice and Gurkha Battalions’ soldiers were on leave in Nepal, the Assam Military Police were tasked to take their place. Thus, this Force sent over 3000 men as part of the British Army to Europe and the Middle East. In 1917, recognising their work during the Great War, fighting shoulder to shoulder with Rifle Regiments of the regular British Army, the name of the Force was changed to ‘Assam Rifles’.
Rifles continued to evolve ranging from conventional combat role during Sino-India War 1962, operating in foreign land as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka in 1987 (Op Pawan) to peacekeeping role in the North-Eastern areas of India.
It remains the most awarded paramilitary force in both pre- and post-independent India. During World War I, the force was awarded seventy-six 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 conflict.
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 during the Allies retreat into India. They also organised a resistance group—the Victor Force– on the Indo–Burmese border to counter the Japanese invasion and to harass the enemy line of communications. The force was awarded 48 gallantry medals during the war.
Since Independence, the force has won 120 Shaurya Chakras, 31 Kirti Chakras, five Vir Chakras and four Ashok Chakras, apart from 188 Sena Medals.
Meitei distrust of Assam Rifles
Tasked with manning “buffer zones” between Meitei- and Kuki-Zomi-dominated territories in Manipur, the Assam Rifles is facing heat from the Meiteis, with some even demanding its removal from the state.
Most recently, the Assam Rifles was embroiled in a row when its vehicles blocked state police personnel from the Meitei-dominated Bishnupur district from crossing over into a Kuki-Zomi-dominated territory. Police claimed they were pursuing “suspected Kuki militants” who had killed three Meitei men that day, and actions of the Assam Rifles personnel allowed them to flee. The police also filed an FIR against the central force.
What is happening with the Assam Rifles in Manipur?
Normally, there are 20 battalions of the Assam Rifles in Manipur, with the primary mandate of counter-insurgency and border guarding. Since ethnic violence erupted in the state on May 3, two more battalions were moved in, senior officers told The Indian Express, and their deployment was readjusted to create a “gap” between territories dominated by the two communities in conflict.
This means that the Assam Rifles and the Army have been placed in “fringe locations”, where Meitei-dominated areas in the valley meet Kuki-Zomi-dominated areas in the hills, with an aim to stop troublemakers from crossing over. Officers said this is what has aggrieved members of the Meitei community, some of whom also harbour the impression that Assam Rifles favour the Kuki-Zomi.
On Monday, a protest was held across the valley by the Meitei women activists known as Meira Paibis. The protesters held placards saying ‘Go back Assam Rifles’ and ‘Stop using Indian security forces against Meiteis’.
In fact, confrontations between the Meira Paibis and the Assam Rifles have been taking place since the end of May, with women blocking not just the movement of personnel in valley areas but also the movement of trucks carrying rations and other supplies to their camps.
What the Meiteis say
About the Bishnupur incident, RK Tharaksena, a senior member of the Meira Paibi community, made several allegations. “How did the militants cross the buffer zone in the night and kill those people? Whenever there is any attack by the Kuki people, they (Assam Rifles personnel) just stand and observe,” Tharaksena claimed.
As a video of the confrontation between the Assam Rifles personnel and the policemen emerged, the Spear Corps of the Indian Army issued a statement: “Some inimical elements have made desperate, repeated & failed attempts to question the role, intent and integrity of the Central Security Forces, especially Assam Rifles…It needs to be understood that due to the complex nature of the situation on the ground in Manipur, occasional differences at tactical level do occur between various security forces.” The statement added that “all such misunderstandings” are “immediately addressed through the joint mechanism to synergise the efforts for restoration of peace and normalcy in Manipur.”
Beyond the present conflict too, longstanding grievances have been attributed to the Assam Rifles, including alleged illegal immigration from Myanmar. “For 40 years, the sole responsibility for the Indo-Myanmar border has been with the Assam Rifles. So how are all the immigrants coming? It is all happening under their nose… Areas with large-scale poppy plantations in the hills are also under their nose,” alleged Dhananjoi, a leader of Meitei civil society organisation COCOMI.
What Assam Rifles are saying
Assam Rifles officers countered these charges by saying that while the crackdown on poppy cultivation is the responsibility of the state police, the border is largely unfenced, with a Free Movement Regime in place. They said when illegal immigrants are found, the state and the Ministry of Home Affairs are informed, so their biometrics can be recorded. “But to address the issue more seriously, fencing of the border would be required,” said an officer.
Historically, the paramilitary force has had a strained relationship with the valley’s residents, particularly during the long years of counter-insurgency operations when the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was in force. One of the most prominent acts of resistance in Manipur was when 12 Meitei women protested naked in front of the Assam Rifles Headquarters in Imphal in 2004 against the killing of a 32-year-old woman, Thangjam Manorama Devi.