Assam Rifles delivers beyond expectations
Lt General K J Singh
Assam Rifles (AR), the oldest and the only Para Military Force (PMF), has been at the centre stage of an unending turf war for the last two decades. AR traces its origin to Cachar Levy, raised by British in 1835. This PMF is indeed unique: Unlike other Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) variants, it is headed by Army Generals and draws 80% of its officer cadre from Army on deputation basis.
AR has approximately 65,000 soldiers divided into 46 battalions. These battalions are organized for border guarding (BG) and counter-insurgency (CI) roles. The force, except for brief deployment in the ’90s of the sector (brigade-sized force) in Kashmir, has literally held North East together and has truly lived up to its motto of ‘Sentinels of the North East’. Till 2009, AR, jointly with Army, manned Chinese border from Sikkim to Arunachal. It also supervised Bhutan and Myanmar borders. It excelled in both World Wars, in Sri Lanka as part of Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) and United Nations deployment. The force participated in 1962 operations and recently in joint operations with Myanmar Army.
Post Independence, as part of North East Frontier policy, AR operated under the ministry of external affairs. It was placed under the ministry of home affairs (MHA) in 1965 for administrative control, with Army retaining operational authority. The current tussle started in 2009 with draft Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) Note for implementing a key recommendation of ‘one border, one force’, outlined in Kargil Review Committee (KRC) report and endorsed by a group of ministers. Since the first CCS Note, there have been six to seven drafts and the issue seemed to be settled in 2014, when Army gave operational clearance to Border Security Force (BSF), for manning 1,643km Indo-Myanmar border. The last iteration in 2017 recommended creation of separate Indo-Myanmar Border Force with 25 BG battalions linked to Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and leaving 21 under Army for counterintelligence (CI). The timing of current jostling seems to be motivated, probably due to perception of powerful HM at the helm, boosted by the supposition that defence minister, who piloted last note in MHA, may nudge Army to be more accommodative. If true, this would indeed be very simplistic and naive expectation.
The requirement is to look at the critical issue of Border Management (BM) in a holistic manner. The first and foremost requirement is to accept that it is indeed specialized function and different from normal policing role of crime prevention, riot control and investigation. This would require the development of specialized and committed cadre for BM, on the model of Coast Guard. Para dropping of police officers at the top level has to stop. Capping of induction may become fait accompli with the implementation of court-mandated non-functional upgrade (NFU) in Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF). A parliamentary panel on CAPFs has already strongly opined that job requirements in CAPFs are more akin to armed forces. It has advocated limiting induction of Indian Police Service (IPS) officers by amending Rule 6(1) of IPS cadre rules. In fact, the committee has recommended induction of more Army officers. Having had the privilege of managing all borders and operating with all CAPFs, my considered opinion is, it is easier to work with CAPF cadre officers — an ex-Army officer in the cadre is a bonus — for better coordination.
At a conceptual level, BM has two distinct components, firstly, border guarding applicable for settled borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh along defined International Border (IB), which are fenced. It also entails the supervision of uncontested, open borders with Nepal and Bhutan. Second discipline is border defence, in conjunction with the Army, it is a different challenge of much higher magnitude. This applies to unsettled and contested borders like Line of Control with Pakistan and Line of Actual Control with China. Myanmar with complexity of unresolved insurgencies, sanctuaries of insurgents across, free movement regime of 16 km and inaccessible terrain is closer to border defence function. Hence, this border requires separate force.
Unfortunately, MHA has treated it, as more of cadre management issue with initial attempts to assign this border to BSF and now ITBP. This move is reported to provide easier postings to stressed forces, which in itself is a self-defeating proposition. AR being a smaller force lends itself for the merger but we have much smaller forces like National Security Guard and even Special Frontier Force. AR is the only torchbearer of PMF tradition and it will be best to keep it completely under Army and, in the long term, develop permanent cadre.
Though unity of control is desirable on all borders, yet it is simply non-negotiable for active and contested ones. Unfortunately, we have failed to implement this critical parameter in real essence and have devised improvisations like dual control driven by turf centric approach. Consequently, parent forces cede only pseudo and limited operational control, which really is restricted to coordination, mostly with local Army formation commander seeking it by coaxing and persuasion.
While serving on key appointment in the only operational headquarters during Operation Parakram, when Army was pulled out, the mandate of my division-sized AR formation was stretched to include Nagaland, Manipur, South Arunachal and South Assam, currently handled by four divisions. As Corps Commander in Sikkim, managing four borders with all CAPFs and after deliberate comparison of forces, clear inference is, AR stoically shoulders additional responsibility and delivers beyond expectations, primarily due to its PMF ethos. It is time to take counsel from the old American proverb, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. In an unsettled NE with unresolved, longest insurgency and National Socialist Council of Nagaland beginning to flex muscles again, such tinkering and turf enlargement can certainly wait.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.