The oldest Insurgencies in India originated in the mid-1950s in the Northeastern states of Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram. It later spread to Assam, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, and Meghalaya. Among the central forces, the Army and the Assam Rifles have borne the burden of counterinsurgency that has varied in intensity and geographic spread over nearly seven decades. So, it is heartening to note that improvement in the political and operational environment due to the waning of insurgency in the Northeast has facilitated a noteworthy reduction in the counterinsurgency role of the Army. Its previous role is being carried out mostly by the Assam Rifles now, freeing the Army to concentrate on the growing threat from China.
The reduced role notwithstanding, it would be erroneous to assume that the Army under the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is no longer responsible for counter-insurgency in the Northeast and the Director General (DG) of Assam Rifles with 46 battalions has taken over the entire responsibility. The truth is that the DG only has administrative responsibility and reports to the Home Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which exercises administrative control. The operational responsibility remains with the Army and Assam Rifles battalions, brigades, and headquarters of the Inspector General Assam Rifles (IGAR) North and South function under their operational control.
The duality in command and control of the Assam Rifles between the MoD and MHA endures and is still the main issue. It must be tackled to not only optimise counter-insurgency efforts and its border-guarding role on the India-Myanmar Border, but more importantly, to utilise the considerable resources of the Assam Rifles to supplement the Army’s primary role against the threat from China. It is a task that has remained unaddressed because the MHA and MoD have been unable to resolve their differences that in many ways have regrettably been played out as a turf battle.
Who should control the Assam Rifles?
The Assam Rifles is also responsible for guarding the 1,643-km India-Myanmar Border (IMB), where it has approximately one-third of its battalions deployed. The differences of opinion between the MHA and MoD regarding tactical deployment on the IMB have persisted and several proposals, including handing over the IMB to the Border Security Forces (BSF), have been put forth. Most of the proposals reveal underlying turf battles. Though long overdue, the Chinese threat must now act as the driver that forces a decision to resolve the dual control problem over the Assam Rifles.
So, where do the national interests lie in the case of who controls the Assam Rifles?
Considering the contemporary geopolitical and strategic environment, especially on the northern borders, the Northeastern states, and Myanmar, the primary and major threat is from China. It can also be imagined as flowing across the IMB to India through proxies by China that may not be so active now but are still located in the vicinity of the IMB and could be energised to carry out cross-border activities in cahoots with insurgent elements in India. The Chinese threat may take different forms, but the point to note is that it is orchestrated by a single entity, the Chinese Communist Party, now under the authoritarian leadership of Xi Jinping.
It is axiomatic that only one ministry must be the lead in dealing with the China threat. Considering the range of threats that envelops territorial defence, counterinsurgency and guarding the IMB, the MoD is the natural choice that can orchestrate and exploit resources optimally and provide political guidance for creating security assets and applying them when required. Currently, the planning and executing functions of the Assam Rifles are split. Since the paramilitary force is under the administrative control of MHA, it decides the budget allocation and its future structure. Comparative budgetary allocation by the MHA in the last five years indicates that while the budget of various Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) increased in the range of 31-48 per cent, the Assam Rifles budget only increased by 20 per cent. It is obvious that the officers in the MHA are indifferent to the operational needs of the Assam Rifles. This can only be rectified if the DGAR is brought under the Army and the MoD.
National Security Council must step in
The Assam Rifles has been led by Army officers since 1884. It has also participated in both the World Wars, the 1962, 1965 and 1971 Wars. It has been a part of Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka and counterinsurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir. In any future India-China conflict, the Assam Rifles could be expected to play an important role. Operational planning and preparations would, therefore, incorporate the force—the fact that it is led by Army officers is a major positive factor in carrying out such roles.
Even when the duality problem is resolved and the Assam Rifles comes under complete control of the MoD, it is necessary to assign operational responsibility to DGAR and place it under the Eastern Command. This would require additional resources for the HQ to fulfil the functions of operations. It is only when this is done that one can say that the Army has been fully relieved of its counter-insurgency duties in the Northeast.
The resolution of the dual control issue must no longer be left to the MoD and MHA to resolve. It must instead be shepherded by the National Security Council using the institutional structure of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). This is so because the NSCS is created to resolve precisely such issues because its perspective is expected to be free of narrow ministerial interests and can therefore objectively support national interest.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.