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Assam Rifles operational control shouldn’t be under home ministry. Don’t mess with the best

The move will affect the Assam Rifle’s operational efficacy. Unless it is simply about the oldest Indian governmental ailment – empire building.

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India’s oldest paramilitary force, the Assam Rifles, is once again in the middle of a tug-of-war between its administrative and operational heads. The force is under the administrative control of the home ministry, while the Army controls its operations. Now, the home ministry has proposed merging the Assam Rifles with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police to bring it fully under its control.

This has happened in the past as well, and unless a lasting settlement is arrived at, it will happen in the future too. But this time, the proposal is far more sinister because the political and bureaucratic equations are overwhelmingly skewed in favour of the administrative rather than the operational side.

But messing with the best is never a good idea. When the fallout is the Assam Rifle’s fantastic operational efficacy, the logic behind such a move defies analysis. Unless it is simply about the oldest Indian governmental ailment – empire building. It can potentially cause unnecessary confusion in the minds of its most important members and the field commanders who are rendering outstanding service to India. Organisations may be merged, but their work cultures and ethos cannot be. Something the finance ministry will realise over time with the merged banks, and something the home ministry should avoid at all costs.

Also read: What Indian politicians, bureaucrats and military really think about each other

‘Friends of the hill people’

The tug-of-war is decades old. And to understand it, we need to look at the history of the Assam Rifles.

The origins of the Assam Rifles lie in the formation of an auxiliary force called the Cachar Levy, in 1835. When the British tried to gain control of the northeast, their challenges became more complex as regional dynamics overtook all preconceived notions about maintaining order in an area that had its own rules. Incremental gains were accompanied by name changes for the primary law enforcement agency – Assam Frontier Police to Assam Military Police to Eastern Bengal to Assam Military Police – before Assam Rifles became the official name in 1917. By this time, the Assam Rifles had expanded and become a full-fledged operational force. It served in both the World Wars.

The Assam Rifle’s roots, however, lay almost entirely in the rugged landscape of the northeastern hills and its remote valleys. Recruitment was from almost all the tribes and communities of this region, with a fair sprinkling of Gorkhas. Thus, over time, making the Assam Rifles Dussehra celebration an unforgettable experience, owing to the prevailing Gorkha practices.

As the operational role was also centred in the northeastern region, the much-promoted sobriquet ‘Friends of the Hill People’ was coined for the regiment.

Assam Rifles performed outstandingly in the World Wars, and remained the primary force in the region as India neared Independence, gradually increasing in size to five battalions.

The story of the northeastern region in the two decades after Independence is one that is still little known, or largely forgotten. Until 1965, the administrative control over the Assam Rifles was wielded by the external affairs ministry, while the Army Headquarters managed operational matters. It was then shifted to the home ministry because northeastern issues increasingly came to be tackled as an internal security matter, rather than something external. Operational control remained with the defence ministry through Army Headquarters. Army officers are sent on deputation to the Assam Rifles, even though it has an increasing cadre of home-grown officers.

Also read: Arrogant bureaucracy and a sulking Army are not good for India’s national security

Operational culture

The culture of the Assam Rifles is operational, and despite almost two centuries of existence, regimental rigidity has not set in. Despite now recruiting on an all-India basis, the Assam Rifles retains its original ethos based on the hill tribes of the northeast. That is why their oft-repeated boast – “always in CI” (counter-insurgency). This is a fact, since there is no other force in India that can be compared with the CI operational experience of the Assam Rifles.

More than a century of counter-insurgency and jungle operations have honed the regiment’s skills to an admirable level. So much so that the Assam Rifles battalions were deployed in Jammu and Kashmir in the early days of the insurgency. At a time when Army units were relearning CI training manuals, and Rashtriya Rifles was in its infancy, the Assam Rifles performed exceptionally in a social and geographical terrain in which they had no prior experience.

The history, ethos, CI and jungle warfare drills give the Assam Rifles units an advantage unmatched in India. It all boils down to the leadership that has kept the force what it is, and that comes from deputationist Army officers and an excellent in-house junior leadership.

So, why bring it under the expanding girth of the home ministry? Even as the renamed Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) are expanding at an exponential rate, bringing the oldest para-military in India under the same umbrella doesn’t make sense at all.

Also read: Burden of India’s internal conflicts are on smaller states with limited political clout: Data

All said and done, given how the political cards have been dealt, and how the bureaucratic dice could roll in this unequal battle between the north and south of Rajpath, some things should change.

First, it is vital that the Assam Rifles be removed from static border guarding duties along the Myanmar boundary. All border duties in India are deeply corrupting, in every sense, and the Assam Rifles has had its share of accusations too. Better to be clean and ready for counter-insurgency, always. Second, the Assam Rifles budget must be made a part of the Ministry of Defence allocations.

India continues to offer a fig leaf by showing the Assam Rifles head as part of the home ministry, while operating under the defence ministry. It hides nothing and convinces no one, for the world has grown far smarter than what the Indian bureaucracy cleverly devised in the 1960s. It didn’t convince anyone even then.

The author is a Congress leader and Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert. Views are personal.

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