Assam Rifles, the country's oldest para-military force (established 1835), is poised to take over all counter-insurgency (CI) operations in the northeastern states to relieve the Army and other forces for deployment elsewhere, Director General Assam Rifles, Lt. Gen. HS Kanwar told this writer in an interview in Shillong last week.
Gen. Kanwar said: "This decision taken in recent months is in keeping with the recommendations of the Group of Ministers (GoM) task force set up in the wake of the Kargil conflict." The GoM had sought torationalize the force deployment by recommending a 'one border one force policy.'
Under this policy, the Assam Rifles, which is primarily a force raised and stationed in the northeast, has been given the responsibility to guard the Indo-Myanmar border and will look after the counter-insurgency operations in the seven northeastern states barring Assam.
The force, headquartered at Shillong, has already replaced the Border Security Force (BSF) along the Myanmar border. Simultaneously, the Special Service Bureau (SSB) is being gradually inducted along the Indo-Bhutan border replacing the BSF which will be looking after the Indo-Bangla border in the Eastern sector.
The Assam Rifles, raised way back in 1835, is currently 36-battalion strong force. In the next five years its strength is set to rise to a total of 60 battalions. Stationed primarily in the northeast, Assam Rifles is administratively controlled by the Union home ministry but manned by officers from the Indian Army.
Operationally, so far the Assam Rifles used to be under the Army formations but all that is set to change in the coming months. In keeping with the new scheme of things, the DG Assam Rifles will be like a full-fledged Corps Commander in the Army with the entire paraphernalia of logistics, intelligence and administastion coming under one officer of the rank of Lt. General.
Gen. Kanwar, who is overseeing the change in the Assam Rifles structure said: "A modernization programme is already underway. The DGAR (Director General, Assam Rifles) HQ will be controlling the entire deployment of forces for counter-insurgency operations in the north-eastern states, except Assam. We also have the responsibility to man the Indo-Myanmar border."
In accordance with the new plan, another inspector-general of Assam Rifles is scheduled to be appointed. The post of inspector-general of Assam Rifles (South) has been "approved" The DG said. "It is likely to be established by the end of the financial year," said the source.
At present, there is only one inspector-general of Assam Rifles (North), who also takes care of operations in Manipur as well as Nagaland. The Indo-Myanmar border is guarded by the Assam Rifles. The new post will take the recently raised battalions of the Assam Rifles under its wings. This new officer will be stationed in Imphal, the capital of Manipur.
Gen. Kanwar said the Assam Rifles is uniquely placed to work in the region since about 30 per cent of its troops are recruited from the seven northeastern states. "We are a force of and for the people of the north-east and therefore better understand the sentiments of the people," Kanwar said.
Under a long-term perspective plan, Assam Rifles, like the Rastriya Rifles in Jammu and Kashmir, will relieve the army of CI operations leaving the troops to do their own tasks. Currently, at least three divisions of the army are engaged in CI operations in the northeast. Indeed many towns in the northeast have developed around an Assam Rifles post. Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, or even Kohima are prime examples.
One tricky issue however needs to be sorted out as far as effective utilization of the Assam Rifles is concerned. Currently it is under the administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) but the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is apparently seeking the transfer of Assam Rifles under its wings since 90 per cent of its officer cadre strength is drawn from the Army which deputes officials to this force. This issue is still being discussed and debated at the highest levels in the Centre.
There is another hurdle that is likely to come up in the near future and that is the proposal to a unified counter-insurgency strategy for the entire northeast. The Assam Rifles DG, who is also the security adviser to the North Eastern council (NEC) suggested in the NEC meeting held at Gangtok last week that a unified command structure to deal with insurgency across the region would be more effective and 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 in any case.
Later Tarun Gogoi told Outlook: "We are all for cooperation in terms of intelligence sharing and joint operations if need be but to hand over the entire counter-insurgency operations in the northeast to Assam Rifles is not acceptable to us." Clearly, the Assam Rifles will have to manouvre itself cautiously before all states can come round to accept its efficacy.