The Union government is considering a phased withdrawal of the Rapid Action Force (RAF), a specialised anti-riot Central police force, from violence-hit Manipur. A senior government official told The Hindu that the continuous exposure of the RAF to the anti-insurgency theatre may be not suitable for a force trained in crowd control and law and order duties, including agitation and communal incidents.
Presently, 10 companies of the RAF are deployed in Manipur — eight in the valley districts, and two in the hills.
Other than the police, around 36,000 paramilitary forces or the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF), including Indian Army personnel, are deployed in the State. The ethnic violence between the Meitei and the tribal Kuki-Zo people that erupted in the State on May 3 has claimed at least 175 lives so far.
The Centre has sent an additional 4,500 CAPF personnel on the request of the State government.
Several Meitei groups and legislators from the community have demanded the removal of the Indian Army and Assam Rifles, the oldest paramilitary force in the country, from the “buffer zones”, accusing them of bias towards the Kuki-Zo people.
Since September 15, fresh CAPF deployment has been taking place in certain sections of the buffer zones, where Meitei and Kuki-Zo settlements lie adjacent to each other. These are also the areas that have witnessed the maximum violence, which is continuing.
An internal report sent by the RAF on July 6 highlights the crisis. The report, accessed by The Hindu, says an RAF unit was attacked with “glass balls, stones, sharp iron rods and petrol bombs” when they tried to stop a mob of around 3,000 persons from looting weapons from a police armoury in Thoubal on July 4.
The Indian Army had said in statement then that “one rioter was killed while few others were injured during the failed attempt” to loot weapons from the India Reserve Battalion (IRB) at Khangabok in Thoubal.
The report by RAF said that on July 4, two companies were rushed to the incident spot around 4 p.m., and they were attacked by “a mob of women folk Meira Paibi”, who did not allow RAF troops and Assam Rifle combatants to move to the IRB camp despite repeated requests and announcements.
The troops used tear gas smoke shells to chase the mob. “On reaching the incident site mob of approximately 1000-2000 persons started pelting stones, glass balls and petrol bombs on RAF” and its vehicles. “Later from the incident spot one case of 7.62 bullet, one lever of hand grenade was recovered by indicating that it may have been fired by unruly mob which implicates that the violent mob is using sophisticated weapons,” the report said.
The report flags the lack of judicious use of the RAF, and its inappropriate deployment in high risk areas, with the absence of senior police officers and magistrates at the scene of the incidents.
“One major concern is the disregard for the specialised nature of the RAF,” treating it as ‘regular CAPF’, “neglecting the fact that RAF has minimal fire power and focuses on quick response with minimal lethality”.
The RAF is a part of the CAPF. It was raised in 1992 to deal with riots. At any point, only one-third of the personnel are armed and deployment in Manipur is “exposing them as a bigger target for firearms of miscreants”, the report said.
The report added that the deployment in districts covered by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) presents a significant risk, and as the current trend in Manipur indicates, the “crowd composition consists mainly of women and civilians, while the latter has been observed to resort to firing weapons”.
“This poses a threat to security forces particularly the RAF whose primary responsibility is for dealing with riots arising from agitations, bandhs and strikes of religious and communal nature and shall not be deployed in anti-terrorist counter insurgency operations. It is not structured and equipped to counter any insurgency situation. Use of TSMS [tear gas smoke shells] by RAF in such situations may be met with firing from within the mob which may result in loss of precious lives,” the report said.
It added that the RAF had encountered many incidents where senior police officers and local magistrates were not present at the scene, for instance in the Thoubal incident.
“The superintendent of police (SP) of the district fails to visit even once to the incident spot. Additionally, despite repeated request magistrates are often unavailable/ not provided at critical incidents. This demonstrates a significant insensitivity and lack of coordination resulting in mismanaged crowd control and handling of serious conflicts,” it said.
The report said that the force should not be deployed during night hours in far-flung areas without regular troops, and that, “Deploying RAF against its mandated role could lead to serious untoward situation considering the present scenario in Manipur.”