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Unsung and unheard, the Rashtriya Rifles plays a critical role

Last updated on: October 19, 2011 11:03 IST

Image: Rashtriya Rifles soldiers participating in the Republic Day parade
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters Nitin Gokhale

The Rashtriya Rifles's contribution to peace and stability in Jammu and Kashmir is immeasurable. The force has been able to create a situation conducive for civil governance, says Nitin Gokhale.

For a counter-insurgency force that is largest of its kind in the world, the Rashtriya Rifles receives very little attention in discussions and writings on India's endless war in Kashmir.

Staying out of the limelight, however, does not take away in any way the immense contribution made by this force in the past two decades in India's fight against Pakistan's proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir.

In its 21st year, it is useful to look back at the evolution of the Rashtriya Rifles into a unique force and also understand its future roadmap.

Nitin Gokhale is the Defence Editor, NDTV. This feature was originally written for a defence magazine.

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Rashtriya Rifles spearhead the army's sub-conventional war doctrine

It is important to remember that officially the Rashtriya Rifles is still a 'temporary force', since clearance to raise the force was given under the provisions of Union Composite Table, Part II.

So, theoretically, if the Union government wants, it can disband the 80,000-strong force with an executive order.

However, given the relentless attempts by Pakistan to send highly-trained and heavily-armed terrorists into Kashmir, the chances of such an eventuality in the near future remain low.

Moreover, like the Assam Rifles in the north-east, the Rashtriya Rifles in J&K has emerged as a force that now has unmatched knowledge of the terrain, the people, local dynamics and most importantly, intelligence.

It is now the spearhead of the Indian Army's sub-conventional war doctrine.

In many ways, the Rashtriya Rifles remains a unique experiment in the army's glorious history, mainly because never in the past has such an 'all-arms', polyglot composition worked in tandem to produce such magnificent results.

After all, this is the only force where infantry soldiers work shoulder to shoulder with personnel drawn from other arms and services.

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The Rashtriya Rifles was born under very difficult circumstances

The beginning was not easy though. The Rashtriya Rifles was born under very difficult circumstances.

The initial proposal was to have a new para-military force under the home ministry's control and made up of superannuating soldiers, regular army volunteers on deputation, ex-servicemen and lateral inductees from various para-military forces and central police organisations.

Although good on paper, this proposal never took off and the since the situation in the Kashmir valley was deteriorating swiftly, the army had to find quick answers. So the top brass under then Army Chief General S F Rodrigues decided to make the Rashtriya Rifles an all-army force.

The government was still reluctant to put its full weight behind the idea. Old timers recall that the dominant thought process in 1990 at the highest levels in government was still to push in two divisions of the army -- the 39th and 6th -- into counter-insurgency operations.

The army brass resisted fiercely and insisted on a specialised counter-insurgency force.

Looking back, that decision not to deploy the 39th and 6th division (the latter army HQ reserve) was perhaps the most crucial advice that the army gave to the government.

Today, those two divisions are free for their conventional role even as the Rashtriya Rifles has grown into a 65-battalion (nearly seven divisions!) force which has honed its counter-insurgency skills and may now be ready to do dual tasking of guarding the Line of Control.

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Rashtriya Rifles units are now as battle-hardened as any infantry formation

However, it is useful to recall that the initial sanction was for only two sector headquarters, each comprising three battalions.

Under General Rodgrigues, a crack, proven CI formation -- the 8th Mountain Division -- raised and then continuously based in Nagaland for over two decades was shifted to the valley. But even that was not enough.

So as General Rodgrigues made way for General B C Joshi as Chief Of the Army Staff, he simply bulldozed his way through both the military and civil bureaucracy to raise more Rashtriya Rifles units during his short tenure.

General Joshi's view was: India was going to be involved in an extended counter-insurgency similar to the prolonged deployment in Nagaland and Manipur in the north-east. So a new force -- like the Assam Rifles in that region -- was needed which could be permanently located in Kashmir to counter the insurgents.

So General Joshi demanded and got 10 more Rashtriya Rifles sector HQs or 30 battalions equivalent to three divisions. His logic: In the bargain the army would have three additional battle-hardened divisions, ready for rearguard action during any future war.

In nearly 20 years since then, General Joshi's prediction has come true! The Rashtriya Rifles units are now as battle-hardened, seasoned and effective as any infantry formation.

It wasn't, of course, all easy in the beginning. The initial Rashtriya Rifles units had certain inherent weaknesses in their class and composition. Although the logic of keeping the unit composition a mixed one was sound -- to avoid charges of bias in a class or regional based units -- it created problems in the field.

The early Rashtriya Rifles units have been described as 'transit camps', with troops coming and going at regular intervals. The camaraderie and cohesion usually evident in regular army units was missing among diverse troops.

There were also numerous problems of administration and even of indiscipline. However, because of the highest quality of leadership displayed by army officers, those initial hiccups were overcome gradually.

It also helped that under the next COAS, General Shankar Roy Chowdhury, a new formula was evolved on the basic composition of Rashtriya Rifles units. Each regiment was told to raise two Rashtriya Rifles battalions and provide 60 per cent of the strength for each unit. The rest 40 per cent were drawn from all services and arms.

Additionally, the Commanding Officer and his No 2 were drawn from the same regiment. This ensured basic cohesion and discipline. The new formula also engendered a sense of ownership amongst the regiments.

Now as a matter of routine one finds a Rashtriya Rifles battalion proudly displaying its parent regiment's name on display boards and sign posts.

So, across Jammu and Kashmir it is now common to see boards proudly displaying signs such as 36 RR (Garhwal) or 40 RR (Dogra)!

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The current clearance for the Rashtriya Rifles is only up to June 2013

Image: Rashtriya Rifles soldiers display seized RDX from terrorists in a camp near Srinagar
Photographs: Reuters

Apart from the cohesion now more than evident, on a larger scale, the Rashtriya Rifles has allowed other arms and services to get a first-hand battle experience they would otherwise have lacked.

Officers from Armoured, Artillery, Engineers, Signals or even those from the Ordnance and Supply Corps would not have had the chance to gain real combat experience had it not been for the opportunity provided by Rashtriya Rifles.

Over the past two decades, many officers from these arms and services have distinguished themselves in conflict and have in fact earned gallantry awards aplenty.

Today the Rashtriya Rifles has a separate directorate in the army HQs and is spread over five CI Force HQs, equivalent to a division.

While two are in the Kashmir valley -- CI Force (K), CI Force (V) -- the other three, CI Force (U), CI Force (D) and CI Force (R) are located south of Pir Panjal.

These 63 battalions of Rashtriya Rifles form the main CI grid in Jammu and Kashmir, thereby relieving regular army units for training and deployment in their original conventional role.

Aware of the potential of these battle-hardened Rashtriya Rifles battalions, the top military leadership in the Northern Command is now gradually thinking of assigning a new role to these formations.

Accordingly, Rashtriya Rifles battalions deployed in Kashmir's hinterland where militancy is at low ebb in the past few years are now being assigned a role along the Line of Control. By doing this, the top brass is readying the Rashtriya Rifles units for multi-tasking in the future.

If militancy remains confined to encounters along the LoC, as has been happening over the past few months, several Rashtriya Rifles units located in the hinterland may find themselves without much of a job.

If these units are slowly given the experience of guarding the LoC, many more infantry battalions can be freed from LoC deployment and can then be trained or redeployed in high altitude areas along the Line of Actual Control with China in Ladakh or in Arunachal Pradesh.

After all, India is planning to raise a full-fledged Mountain Strike Corps in addition to two mountain divisions already under raising in the north-east.

All these plans will fructify quickly once the government decides to regularise the Rashtriya Rifles and not keep a sword hanging on the army's head by giving piecemeal extension.

The current formal clearance for the Rashtriya Rifles, it must be emphasised, is only up to June 2013.

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Rashtriya Rifles needs to be nurtured

Image: The Rashtriya Rifles emblem

To implement and fine tune the new strategy, the government will have to redefine the Rashtriya Rifles's role and absorb it as a regular force and not keep it hanging as an ad hoc formation.

In the past 20 years, the Rashtriya Rifles flag -- a rifle green cloth with the regimental crest in silver zari in the centre and a crest that has two crossed rifles with the Dharma Chakra in the centre, has become an integral part of Kashmir's landscape. Its motto Dhridtha and Veerta in Hindi is visible all over J&K country-side.

Its contribution to bring back peace and stability in Jammu and Kashmir is immeasurable. The force has been able to create a situation conducive for civil governance in coordination with local population, police and civil administration.

The sacrifices made by the troops of the Rashtriya Rifles are accurately reflected in the over 4,000 individual decorations, 31 Chief of Army Staff unit citations and 46 general officer commanding-in-chief unit citations that have been conferred on it.

It is a force that needs to be supported and nurtured further to keep the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir under control.