Recently, the Ministry of Home Affairs proposed to merge the Assam Rifles with the ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) for efficient utilization of resources & better management of Indo-Myanmar border. Currently, the Assam Rifles, which is a paramilitary force, is under the administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affairs & operational control of the Army. The Army has opposed this demand of MHA citing that changing the status quo would bring in serious implications on the national security along the disrupted Sino-India border and also in dealing with the North Eastern insurgent groups based in Myanmar.
However, this is not the first attempt to ride roughshod over the Assam Rifle in the sensitive North-Eastern region for serving vested interest. In the year 2009, a draft Cabinet note for the CCS (Cabinet Committee on Security) was moved to merge the ITBP & Assam Rifles, which is a Central Armed Police Force, to shift the operational control into the hands of the police replacing military leadership. The CCS had turned down this proposal recognising it’s the rich history & traditions besides considering the crucial role that it play in providing security in the North-eastern regions. Atleast seven more attempts were made since then to amalgamate the Assam Rifles with the main objective to expand options for cadre management of police. By not able to convince the discerning political honchos, the present effort is being made to hijack the Assam Rifles by passing on its full authority and control to MHA and swapping Army officers with police officers.
The two forces were raised for fulfilling different objectives & purposes and hence amalgamating them solely with the intention of enhancing promotional avenues may be imprudent as it could possibly destroy the work ethos and tradition of both the organization. Assam Rifles was raised in 1835 by the British for assisting them in maintaining peace in the North-eastern region. It was initially termed as “the Cachar levy”. Since then it has always proved its capability & efficiency in numerous operations. It had undergone four name changes (the Lushai Hills Battalion, the Lakhimpur Battalion, the Naga Hills Battalion and the Darrang Battalion) before it became the Assam Rifles in 1917. And henceforth, Assam Rifles continued to be a regular armed police battalion with the ‘Rifles’ tag which is a matter of honour for its competence on a par with other regular Army battalions. Currently, it comprises of 46 battalions and has 80% officers from the army.
It is administratively under the Home Ministry while operationally under the army, thus presently it operates under dual control. Over the years it has participated in several army operations (like 1962 war, as a part of IPKF in Sri Lanka) and counterinsurgency operations in the North-Eastern regions. Additionally, it has been given the responsibility of securing the disrupted Indo-Myanmar border & a few border areas of Arunachal Pradesh. In the North-Eastern region it is commonly known as the “Friends of the North East”. It is imbibed with the culture & ethos of the army. It is the only paramilitary force that performs the duties of the army under army commanders, all others being CAPFs.
The Indo-Tibetan Border Police is a Central Armed Police Force which was raised in 1962 for reorganizing the “frontier intelligence & security set up” along the Indo-Tibetan border. Currently, it has 56 service battalions along with four specialist battalions. ITBP has been given the responsibility of securing the border areas with China along the Line of Actual Control. It had replaced Assam Rifles in 2004 along the Indo-China border in Sikkim & in a few parts of Arunachal Pradesh. The government wants to adopt the concept of “one force, one border”, which in itself is flawed. Army has been given the responsibility for ensuring the security along the LAC with China and LOC with Pakistan, while forces deployed at certain places are the ITBP & BSF.
Officers of Assam Rifles have been facing various issues on varied complexities due to the ‘dual’ control as mentioned above. However, it should be noted that in accordance with Government of India (allocation of Business) Rules, 1961, no such provisions had been made for ‘dual control’. The tussle between the Home Ministry & the Defence Ministry first came to limelight during the 1962 China War when it was decided to bestow the Army with operational control. After three years, hence, another decision was taken to hand over the administrative control over the force to MHA. The matter again resurfaced in January 2013, when the Home Ministry under the second UPA government made a proposal to replace Assam Rifles with the BSF along the Indo-Myanmar border region. It had sought transfer of operational control to the Home Ministry. Thereafter, a draft was drawn up for the CCS. Though there was no reluctance from the part of Defence Ministry with the former part of the proposal, but, it did not wanted the transfer of operational control from the hands of the Army.
An affidavit was filled by the MHA with the Delhi High Court which stated that a meeting to discuss over this issue was held between the Home Secretary & Defence Secretary. Thereafter, on 15th April Home Ministry conveyed to the High Court that it would comply with the decision that CCS will take over dual control. In response to this, a notice was issued by the court to the Cabinet secretary to brief it about the decision of CCS. Presently, CCS is headed by the Prime Minister and consists of the Home Minister, Defence Minister, Finance Minister and the Minister of External Affairs.
Operating in Sensitive Region
History tells us that Assam Rifles was initially raised by the British for protecting their interest in the Northeast region but continued to operate because of having the advantage of understanding the terrain & the people there. It has participated in various major wars & in insurgency situations within the country and has received over 1700 gallantry & distinguished service awards for rendering its unconditional service to the nation. However, it is crucial to remember that all these were possible largely because of the leadership, ethos & training provided by the army officer since 1884.
After Kashmir, the most volatile & insurgency affected region of India is the North-Eastern region. The militants not only operate from within the region but also surreptitiously operate from the neighbouring countries by exploiting free movement regime along Indo-Myanmar border areas & inaccessible terrain. Specialized skills and not just mere policing strategies are vehemently required to efficiently control and keep the region secured. Additionally, ITBP is already entrusted with the duty of guarding the 3,388 km long India-Tibet border. Merging Assam Rifles with ITBP would mean adding up of another 1643km of India-Myanmar border. This would possibly be a nightmare for the Director General of ITBP to command & control the vast area along the border.
Is the Decision of Merging a Good Step?
The Army argues that Assam Rifles must be merged with it, for ensuring national security. This is valid argument as if the merger becomes successful then the Army would definitely lose its operational avenue as the full control will get transferred to the Home Ministry. As currently, more than 80% of the officers’ ranks are held by Army officers with designation of Major or above with Director General of Assam Rifles being a Lieutenant General of the Army, it is quite natural that Army will oppose the move. Moreover, the merger will also lead to coordination difficulties as the top officers will be from the Indian Police Service cadre, who will obviously have a different perseverance as they are inducted at the staff level without having ground experiences.
The ITBP & Assam Rifles have different organisation structures, role & task to perform. Their level of training & motivation is also different from one another. The Assam Rifles not only assist the army in fighting insurgency in the north-eastern region but also enables the government in maintaining the strength of the army. Thus, the question that needs much consideration is that how much MHA would gain by taking up the control of Assam Rifles into its hand apart from increasing a few vacancies for the IPS seeking deputation outside its state. Moreover, neither it seems that the Home Ministry will take over the responsibility of existing insurgency in the North east region and relive the army nor shift the Assam Rifles in place of ITBP along Indo-Tibet border region for which it is responsible or would move ITBP for counterinsurgency operations in the North East. Further, the Home Ministry would never leave Assam Rifles under the Army as it never has done with the CRPF in J&K or BSF and ITBP along the LoC/LAC. Hence, it is more likely that it would add to operating complications rather than fostering the operation realm. In summation to these, the problem would further escalate when the decades old trust & confidence of joint operation between the Army and Assam Rifles would get shattered.
If the entire exercise of the merger is more likely to bring damage than gains, then what is the need for it? In case the national security is paramount, then it would be more ideal to keep the Assam Rifles under the Defence Ministry and operational control of the Army or maintain the status quo. A viable alternative for the MHA would be to merge the ITBP with the Sashastra Seema Bal to give a little relief to the ITBP personnel who are continuously serving at high altitudes. Since both these two organizations are headed by police officers, there would be no difficulty in internal management. However, the need of the hour is to address the elephant in the room. There is a urgent need to have a specialised counter-insurgency force that would help in doubling the reserve for conventional warfare. This is because of its continued training, manning and functioning under the Army with similar ethos & structure. Shifting the Assam Rifles under the cadre that is aiming towards creating new career opportunities puts personal interests before national security.