An ill-advised proposal

Merging Assam Rifles with ITBP will impinge on national security and affect the morale of the force

Updated - November 25, 2019 12:39 am IST

Published - November 25, 2019 12:15 am IST



Reports suggest that an attempt is under way to shift the operational control of Assam Rifles from the Army to the Home Ministry. This is not the first time that such an attempt is being made to ride roughshod over Assam Rifles in the sensitive Northeast region to serve vested interests. In 2009, the draft Cabinet note for the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) was moved to amalgamate the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), a Central Armed Police Force, and provide leadership from the police, replacing military leadership. This proposal was turned down by the CCS, understandably recognising the importance of the history and traditions of Assam Rifles, and the crucial role it continues to play in the security of the Northeast region. Since then, at least seven attempts have been made to target Assam Rifles in order to enlarge options for cadre management of police. Having failed to convince the discerning political leaders, the current effort is to hijack Assam Rifles by transferring its full control to the Home Ministry, and replace Army officers with police officers.

Downgrading Assam Rifles from its present status of paramilitary force by merging a part or whole of it with a Central Armed Police Force will not only impinge on national security but also affect the strength and morale of the force.

Operating in a sensitive region

A peep into the history of Assam Rifles shows that the force, created in 1835 to protect British interests in the Northeast, continues to operate in that region with the advantage of understanding the terrain and the people. Having participated in all the major wars and insurgency situations in the country, Assam Rifles has been awarded over 1,700 gallantry and distinguished service awards for its service to the nation. All this was possible due to the military training, ethos and leadership provided by Army officers since 1884.

The Northeast is the most volatile and insurgency-affected region of India after Kashmir. Besides operating from within the region, militants surreptitiously operate from neighbouring countries by exploiting the free movement regime along the India-Myanmar border and inaccessible terrain. These borders, though settled, require specialised skills, not just mere policing functions.

Recently China has brought its frontier troops, including those guarding its border with India, directly under the military command, removing civilian control over them. The India-Myanmar border, though manned by Myanmar’s Border Guard Police, is also controlled by Myanmar’s Army for conducting seamless operations against insurgent groups operating against the state. India is busy in divesting the Army of operational control of a force which has imbibed military ethos and special skills, and handing it over to police officers to command. Additionally, at present ITBP is guarding the 3,388 km India-Tibet border; assigning them another 1,643 km of the India-Myanmar border will be a command and control nightmare for the Director General of ITBP.

The elephant in the room

The proposed merger of ITBP with Assam Rifles is premised on the profile management of an already expanded IPS cadre. However, both these systems follow very different sets of rules, hierarchies and operating philosophies. A more viable alternative for the Home Ministry would be to look inwards and merge ITBP with the Sashastra Seema Bal to space out the almost continuous high altitude tenures of ITBP personnel. Since both are being led by police officers, internal management would be easier. However, the need is to address the elephant in the room. It is more prudent to have a specialised counterinsurgency force, which doubles as a reserve for conventional war. This is due to its continued functioning, manning and training under the Army with a similar ethos and structure. Shifting Assam Rifles under a cadre which is looking to just create career opportunities places personal interests over national security.

Lt Gen G.K. Duggal (retired) is former Director General, Assam Rifles

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