The volatile situation in Manipur took a turn for the worse earlier this month after the State Police registered a case against the Assam Rifles, the oldest paramilitary force deployed in the region to restore peace. The Manipur Police claimed the Assam Rifles had disobeyed the law by “obstructing duty” and accused its personnel of blocking police vehicles and helping Kuki militants flee.
The Assam Rifles, one of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), deployed to tackle the situation when ethnic clashes between the Meitis and the Kukis erupted in May, has faced relentless attacks from the Meiti leaders and civil society members in the BJP-ruled State. The latest face-off has exposed deep divisions within the security apparatus.
The history of the Assam Rifles dates back to 1835 when it was raised by the British as ‘Cachar Levy’ to protect its settlements from tribals living in the hilly areas. Additional units were subsequently merged into the ‘Frontier Force’ that extended the administrative control over remote tribal areas. During the First World War, 3,000 men were sent to Europe and West Asia as part of the British Army. It was christened the ‘Assam Rifles’ in 1917, in recognition of its services for fighting alongside the rifle regiments of the British Army. By the Second World War, the Assam Rifles performed multifarious tasks. Besides evacuating refugees from Myanmar (then Burma), it was part of a resistance group, the Victor Force, which countered the Japanese on the Indo-Burmese border.
Post-Independence, it took part in the 1962 and 1965 wars after which its operational control was given to the Army. The Assam Rifles was part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka in 1987 and tackled tribal unrest and insurgency in the northeast. The paramilitary force has grown from 17 battalions in 1960 to 46, with a sanctioned strength of 63,000 personnel. It is primarily led by officers of the Indian Army. The northeast is its main area of operation. Currently, the Assam Rifles guards the India-Myanmar border while the Army secures the India-China border.
The Assam Rifles has been an integral part of the counter-insurgency operations, which earned it the sobriquet of the ‘sentinels of the northeast’. The paramilitary force, however, has had strained relations with the northeastern region, primarily because of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
The Act has repeatedly come under public scrutiny, with the locals accusing the security forces of staging encounters, killing civilians and violating human rights. In 2000, the Malom massacre in Manipur prompted Irom Sharmila to embark on a hunger strike that would go on for 16 years. Ten civilians were gunned down by the paramilitary force in Malom. Four years later, the custodial rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama led to widespread protests.
In 2013, an SC-appointed committee to probe six instances of alleged fake encounters found that the encounters were not “genuine”. In 2021, an officer of the Assam Rifles was killed by an insurgent group along with his family in an ambush in Churachandpur. A month later, 15 civilians and a soldier were killed in a botched ambush and retaliatory violence in Nagaland’s Mon.
Ambiguity in the command and control of the Assam Rifles has added to its problems. The force operated under the MEA under the North East Frontier policy till 1965. Currently, it is administratively under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), while the operational control is with the Ministry of Defence. This duality has been part of a drawn-out tussle. In 2019, the MHA proposed to take over operational control by merging the force with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). The Army, however, believes that shifting the operational control will jeopardise the surveillance along the LAC and impact the assistance the force provides. The tug of war continues.