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Assam Rifles: Stick to old formation

Under the home ministry, the 185-year-old force will lose its regional moorings

  • Published 4.03.20, 12:22 AM
  • Updated 4.03.20, 12:22 AM
  • 3 mins read
The country’s oldest counter-insurgency force, Assam Rifles, is staring at an uncertain future (iStock)

Border guard forces around the world are led by military officers or by those trained under the army — the only exception being India where IPS officers often take charge of the Border Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Sashastra Seema Bal. The reason is clear; border forces bear the brunt of sudden military assaults by the enemy and are the first line of defence. The present chief of India’s BSF is an IPS officer who served long years in the Research and Analysis Wing before being sent to head the BSF. His competence perhaps lies in policing or external intelligence because of his tenure in the R&AW. But in India, it is assumed that the IPS is good enough to take charge of anything — from policing (for which it is primarily trained) to internal and external intelligence, to guarding the borders.

I had strongly argued for a stand-alone Indian secret service to constitute the top echelons of R&AW and IB in a previous article ( But I would now argue that it would be a disastrous idea to put specialist counter-insurgency forces like the Assam Rifles under the home ministry which would pave the way for it to be commanded by IPS officers. In fact, the ITBP should also be rechristened ‘Sino Indian Border Force’ and placed, along with the Assam Rifles, under the charge of the defence ministry so that its recruits are trained to meet rigorous military standards. They should form part of the ORBAT (order of battle) of the integrated Indian military architecture. The SSB, now guarding the border with Nepal and Bhutan, should also be integrated with the ITBP to provide a seamless border defence structure in the Himalayas. Only then would the concept of jointness, emphasized through the appointment of the chief of defence staff, be achieved.

The country’s oldest counter-insurgency force, Assam Rifles, is staring at an uncertain future. The cabinet committee on security has to take a call on the issue of dual control of the force. The home ministry has told the Delhi High Court that it would accept whatever the CCS decides. Assam Rifles, now 185 years old, is under the administrative control of the ministry of home affairs but the operational control lies with the ministry of defence. The Supreme Court has been hearing a petition filed by the Assam Rifles Ex-Servicemen Welfare Association on the difficulties faced by the retired personnel in the matter of pension on account of the dual nature of the force. The officer corps of the Assam Rifles is drawn from the army, which supports and sustains the counter-insurgency force. These officers worry that the military ethos of the Assam Rifles and its focus on the Northeast will be severely undermined if it is brought under complete control of the home ministry. That would open up its top echelons to IPS officers, as is the case with the BSF and other Central paramilitary forces. But the Assam Rifles, like the army, is organized into companies and battalions. These would be difficult to man without deputations from the army.

The Assam Rifles, set up by the British in 1835 as the ‘Cachar Levy’, contributed significantly in opening up the northeastern region to administration and commerce. It thus came to be known as the ‘right arm of the civil and left arm of the military’. In independent India, Assam Rifles continued to evolve, handling a conventional combat role during the Sino-India War of 1962 to deployment as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka in 1987. But its prime focus has been counter-insurgency in the Northeast. The force has grown substantially over the years, from 17 battalions in 1960 to 46 battalions at the moment. With a new, assertive home minister in Amit Shah, the stage seems set for a complete takeover of Assam Rifles by the home ministry.

What worries the officer corps most is the possibility of removing the force from India’s border with Myanmar. This role has been integrated with its counter-insurgency duties in the Northeast and involves considerable interaction with the Burmese army. It may be argued that insurgency in the Northeast is fading away, but only those uninitiated in the complexities of the region would jump to such a conclusion. After all, the Naga peace process is yet to produce a settlement even after the signing of the Framework Agreement.

During a recent visit to Assam Rifles formations in the Northeast, I came across three very convincing arguments against bringing the force under the home ministry. First, it would cut off its links to the army which will weaken its counter-insurgency capabilities in a difficult terrain. That would be disastrous since it often has to function with military formations during counter-insurgency after the police have failed to control the situation. Second, it would undermine the training and the orientation of the force at lower and middle levels and turn it into a special police rather than a paramilitary force. Finally, it would weaken the regional ethos that sustains the Assam Rifles as the ‘Friends of the Hill people’ and might deprive locals of recruitment avenues.

One more reason can be added too. Insurgencies in Kashmir or the Northeast are extensions of proxy wars unleashed by foreign adversaries. These can be countered by professional soldiers, and not by those trained in domestic policing.

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