New Delhi: India’s Northeast, a region that bled profusely due to insurgency for decades, is undergoing a massive change with the Army cutting down its once-sprawling counter-insurgency deployment to a single brigade due to improved security situation, military sources have told ThePrint.
At the peak of the insurgency, the Army had a full-fledged Corps — Dimapur-based 3 Corps — to carry out counter-insurgency (CI) and counter-terrorism (CT) roles as well as several other units. This meant that over three Army divisions were deployed solely for CI/CT roles.
Sources in the defence establishment explained that the 3 Corps had its own three divisions besides two divisions of the Assam Rifles, making it the biggest Corps in the Indian Army. However, it also had the responsibility of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). On the LAC, 3 Corps looks after an area called ‘Rest of Arunachal Pradesh’.
They added earlier besides one of the divisions of the 3 Corps, reserve troops of the other two Corps — 33 and 4 — under the Eastern Command and other formations also were involved in CI/CT.
However, with the dramatic improvement in the situation over the years as seen in the Centre withdrawing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) from various parts of three Northeast states, the Army has almost completely withdrawn all its troops from CI/CT roles in the region and assigned them the primary role of preparing for a conventional war.
Instead of multiple divisions, the Army now has only the 73 Mountain Brigade, headquartered in Assam’s Laipuli, for CI/CT operations. This is besides certain other battalion level units that are still tasked with these operations as and when needed.
This is the first time since 1954 that no Army unit, of a Brigade level, is involved for counter-insurgency duties anywhere in Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya.
The counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism role is now with the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force specifically maintained for the Northeast. Headquartered in Shillong, the Assam Rifles is India’s oldest paramilitary force with its history dating back to 1835, when it was then known as the Cachar Levy. With about 750 men, it was tasked primarily to protect British tea estates and their settlements against tribal raiders.
Subsequently, the Cachar Levy was reorganised and renamed as the Frontier Force with an additional role of conducting punitive expeditions across the borders of Assam on behalf of the British. In 1917, the force was rechristened as the Assam Rifles. With a sanctioned strength of 66,412 personnel, the Assam Rifles — also known as ‘Sentinels of the Northeast’ — has 46 battalions deployed through the length and breadth of the region.
“The Assam Rifles has always been involved in CI operations, but operationally came under the Army. It continues to perform its duties while the Army is now focusing completely on the LAC,” Lt. Gen. Shokin Chauhan (retired), former director general of Assam Rifles, told ThePrint.
Sources explained that the security situation started changing over a decade and half ago with state police forces becoming more enabled and active, besides the central armed police forces which allowed the Army to slowly return to its main task. They added that the reorientation of the Army in the Northeast began a few years ago as a result of this improved security situation.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), insurgency incidents in the Northeast had gone down by 80 per cent in the last eight years. The MHA report also stated that security forces saw casualties dip by 75 per cent while civilian deaths went down by 99 per cent.
Under the Narendra Modi government, there has been a big focus on entering into peace deals with various insurgent groups to improve the overall security scenario and to also expedite talks that were initiated by the previous governments which had led to many outfits entering into ceasefire agreements.
As recently as 15 September, the central and Assam governments signed a tripartite agreement with eight adivasi insurgent groups to end the decades-old crisis of tribals and tea garden workers in the Northeast’s biggest state. As many as 1,182 cadres of these eight outfits surrendered and joined the mainstream on the occasion.
In the last three years, the Centre and state governments in the Northeast have entered into several agreements with various extremist groups. The agreements include the NLFT (National Liberation Front of Twipra) agreement in 2019, the Bodo accord in 2020, the Karbi Anglong agreement in 2021 and the Assam-Meghalaya Inter-State Boundary Agreement in 2022.
Sources, meanwhile, explained that the Army’s reorientation process gathered pace following tensions breaking out between India and China at the LAC in 2020 following the Ladakh stand-off.
As reported by ThePrint earlier, the Army has seen numerous changes being made to the Order of Battle, known as ORBAT. This included re-orienting the Pakistan-centric Mathura-headquartered 1 Corps, a Strike Corps, to the northern borders.
The Army deployment in the sensitive region of Jammu & Kashmir has also seen major changes, with a full formation now redirected to the LAC.
Army’s reorientation in Northeast
The Army’s Eastern Command — whose area of operation include Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam and Bengal — consist of 33, 17, 3 and 4 Corps.
Till a few years ago, the 3 Corps used to lead the CI/CT operations in the Northeast. “The 3 Corps was reoriented to the LAC a few years ago and CI/CT operations were being handled by the 21 Division. Now only one Brigade looks after the same role,” a source explained.
Sources pointed out that because of the improvement in the security situation, the AFSPA was revoked in many areas in the Northeast. The government had announced reduction of the disturbed areas under the AFSPA in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur from April 1, after decades.
Explaining the re-orientation of forces, the above-mentioned source said that earlier too, while troops were posted for CI/CT operations, they were always dual-tasked and, if needed, they would be deployed towards the LAC.
“But this would have taken time, though plans were always in place. With the LAC now being the main focus, the troops have now been permanently reoriented towards the China border and necessary deployment changes have been made,” a second source said.
According to the sources, the 21 Para Special Forces (SF) and the 12 Para SF under the Eastern Command continue to have a dual role depending on the situation.
After the Doklam episode in 2017 when Indian and Chinese troops were locked in a standoff for nearly three months, the Eastern Command has seen a heavy infrastructure and technology push as well as deployment of new artillery and missile systems.
Though tensions had broken out between India and China in eastern Ladakh, the LAC overall has seen an increase in military and construction activities on both sides.
In the Northeast, Sikkim, which was directly threatened by the Doklam standoff, and Arunachal Pradesh share border with China. In February, the Ministry of Defence informed Parliament that the Border Road Organisation had constructed 149.98 km and 69.46 km of roads in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, respectively.
The Chinese, meanwhile, have sped up infrastructure-building on their side of the LAC, which includes the construction of new dual-role villages (which can serve both offensive and defensive purposes), especially near Arunachal Pradesh.
(Edited by Tony Rai)