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Home > News > Report

Assam Rifles' credibility in peril

G Vinayak in Imphal | August 13, 2004 13:58 IST

The credibility of the Assam Rifles, the country's oldest paramilitary force, is endangered following the recent custodial death of Thangjam Manorama Devi, who the Rifles alleged was a member of the People's Liberation Army.

The previous BJP-led NDA government had envisaged a greater role for the Rifles under its 'one-border-one-force' policy. According to plans made in 2003 following the recommendations of the Group of Ministers that looked into the country's internal security issues, the Assam Rifles, like its Kashmir counterpart Rashtriya Rifles, was poised to take over counter-insurgency operations in all the northeast states, except Assam, to relieve the Army.

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In addition, the Assam Rifles, which is primarily a force raised and stationed in the northeast, is responsible for guarding the Indo-Myanmar border.

Currently, at least three divisions of the Army are engaged in counterinsurgency operations in the northeast. Many towns have developed around Assam Rifles posts including Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, and Kohima, the capital of Nagaland.

Headquartered at Shillong, the force has already replaced the Border Security Force along the Myanmar border. Simultaneously, the Special Service Bureau is being gradually inducted along the Indo-Bhutan border to replace the BSF, which will now look after the Indo-Bangla border in the eastern sector.

The Assam Rifles, raised in 1835, is 36 battalions strong. In the next five years its strength is set to rise to 60 battalions. Stationed in the northeast, Assam Rifles is administered by the Union home ministry but manned by Indian Army officers.

Operationally, the Assam Rifles have so far been controlled by Army formations but that is expected to change following plans drafted last year. In keeping with the plan, the Director-General of Assam Rifles was to have had the powers of a full-fledged Corps Commander in the Army with the entire paraphernalia of logistics, intelligence and administration coming under one officer of the rank of Lieutenant General.

A modernization programme is already underway. The DG Assam Rifles HQ will control the deployment of forces for counterinsurgency operations in the northeast states, except Assam.

In accordance with the expansion plan, another inspector-general of Assam Rifles will be appointed. The post of Inspector-General of Assam Rifles (South) has been 'approved' and the new commander will be based in Imphal. At present, the IG Assam Rifles (North) also takes care of operations in Manipur and Nagaland.

Rifles officers say the force is uniquely placed to work in the region since about 30 per cent of its troops are recruited from the seven northeast states.

"We are a force of and for the people of the northeast and therefore better understand the sentiments of the people," says Lieutenant General H S Kanwar, a former DG.

However, one tricky issue needs to be sorted out. Currently the force is under the administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Ministry of Defence is apparently seeking the transfer of Assam Rifles to its control since 90 per cent of its officer cadre is drawn from the Army. This issue is under discussion at the highest levels in the Centre.

Another hurdle that is likely to come up in the near future is a proposal for a unified counterinsurgency strategy for the Northeast. The then Assam Rifles DG, who is also security adviser to the North Eastern Council, suggested at last year's NEC meeting in Gangtok that a unified command structure to deal with insurgency across the region would be more effective. He said that the Assam Rifles, given its new responsibility and role, is well placed to do just that.

His proposal was met with fierce opposition from at least two chief ministers-- Assam's Tarun Gogoi and Manipur's Ibobi Singh-- who said they would not tolerate any interference in law and order matters, which is a state subject.

Given the furore over the conduct of the 17 Assam Rifles personnel in Manipur last month, the country's oldest paramilitary force is likely to face many hurdles but as Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee said, it is not easy to replace the force in a hurry.

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