Whom Does the Assam Rifles 'Belong' to?

As the home ministry and Army tussle over the control of the oldest paramilitary force in the country, a look at what is driving the fight.

As part of a long drawn out tussle, the Indian Army has red-flagged the home ministry’s proposal to take full control of the Assam Rifles, the oldest paramilitary force in the country.

At present, the Assam Rifles are controlled by both the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the Indian Army under the Union Ministry of Defence. 

Opposing the MHA’s demand, the Army said that such a grab for control would have serious national security implications along India’s disputed border with China. In addition to the appeal to continue with the status quo, the Army has also sought responsibilities of guarding the Sino-India border to deal efficiently with any Chinese transgression.

Two weeks ago, it also raised the issue with the defence ministry, seeking its immediate intervention.

While administrative control of the paramilitary force lies with MHA, it has now made a bid to take over operational control as well. The home ministry plans to merge Assam Rifles with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), which guards the Indo-China border. The Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) happens to be another Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) which is deployed at the Indo-Bhutan border. Both ITBP and SSB are controlled by MHA. 

Also read: Army Red Flags Home Ministry’s Proposal to Take Full Control of Assam Rifles

Assam Rifles currently guards the India-Myanmar border. With Amit Shah at the helm and former home secretary Rajiv Gauba as the current Cabinet Secretary, MHA has now put its full force in lobbying to take over all operations at the India-Myanmar border as well. 

Often referred to as the ‘right arm of the civil and left arm of the military’, the 185-year-old Assam Rifles  is the only paramilitary force which is not solely controlled by the MHA. If the proposal is accepted, it may come across as a huge achievement for Amit Shah. 

The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to assess the home ministry’s proposal on the control and merger. MHA has, reportedly, prepared a draft note to be presented to CCS seeking total control of the Assam Rifles. 

The history

Assam Rifles officers have been facing multiple issues of varying complexities because of this ‘dual’ degree of control. A petition was filed by the Assam Rifles Ex-Servicemen Welfare Association via lawyer Neha Rathi on the difficulties faced by retired personnel of the force in securing their pensions.

The petitioner had also said that the objective and functions of the Assam Rifles were that of a military and paramilitary force and its categorisation as a police force was arbitrary, unreasonable and in violation of the rights of its personnel. The petition also seeks grant of pay, allowances, pension (including arrears) and ex-servicemen facilities to Assam Rifles personnel at par with the Indian Army.

Notably, the plea sought directions to remove the Assam Rifles from control of two authorities and bring it solely under the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

There is no provision for ‘dual control’ in the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961.

Assam Rifles is the only paramilitary force performing army duties under army commanders without any consequential benefits – be it pre or post retirement.

However, the tussle between MHA and MoD over control of Assam Rifles goes back a long way. It emerged from a decision to bestow the Army with operational control after the 1962 China war. Three years later, it was decided that the MHA will only have an administrative hold over the force.

The matter resurfaced when in January 2013, the MHA under the UPA-II government proposed that the Assam Rifles be replaced with the BSF on the Indo-Myanmar border. It sought the transfer of operational control of the force to the home ministry. A draft was prepared for the CCS. Although the MoD had no qualms with the former part of the proposal, it wanted the Army to retain the operational control. 

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An affidavit filed by MHA with Delhi high court states that Rajiv Gauba, the former Home Secretary, held a meeting with Sanjay Mitra, former Defence Secretary, to discuss the issue on April 4, 2019 The meeting discussed a note moved by the MHA for the CCS on March 20 to resolve the issue.

On April 15, MHA conveyed to Delhi high court that it would abide by any decision made by the CCS on dual control. In response, the court issued a notice to the Cabinet Secretary to inform it about the decision of the CCS. The CCS is now headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and consists of the Minister of External Affairs, the Home Minister, the Finance Minister and the Defence Minister.

Upsides and downsides

Lieutenant General (retd.) P.C. Katoch said in an opinion piece, that the difficulties in payment of pensions are not insurmountable, and that it needs to be linked with operational control. He said that the courts should not have operational control especially with the mounting internal and external threats to India’s national security.

Over the past decades, the Assam Rifles (which has expanded from 17 battalions in 1960 to 46 battalions with more than 46,000 personnel) fills the void when Army needs to advance in battle.

The force has played an instrumental role in all wars since Independence (including the Sino-India War 1962, 1971 war and Operation Pawan in 1987). Also, the Cachar Levy (name coined by the British in 1835 when the force was established) also handles the counter-insurgency programmes in the northeast.

Colonel (retd.) Ajai Shukla, who writes on security issues regularly, feels there are more downsides to moving operational control under MHA, than advantages. “Merging the paramilitary force, which is the Assam Rifles, with a central armed force will leave you with an animal that is neither a horse or a donkey. You do not know whether it is going to be a para-military force or what the plan is for the officers in this new force,” he told The Wire.

He added that merging the two would mean fewer vacancies in the military. The retired colonel said the matter was essentially a turf war in which forces are worried about vacancies and promotions.

Lieutenant General (retd.) H.S. Panag has a different view. “I personally find this to be a non-issue. Assam Rifles is a real paramilitary, not a full-fledged army wing. It is a matter of state policy. Whether or not the units of Assam Rifles are engaged in counter-insurgency, they will have to function under the respective director general of police of the state as is the case of CRPF in Jammu and Kashmir,” he said.

He, like Shukla, also believes that this is an issue of turf-guarding.

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He explains, “Any change in the status quo is always opposed. There is a general perception that the Army is a more efficient force but the police forces can also become like that. Army should stay out of it. It is a matter for the government to decide, in consultation with the MHA and MoD.”

Major General (retd.) Harsha Kakar strongly believes that other than financial aspects, there would not be any benefit in a merger. “These two diverse units – ITBP and Assam Rifles – have different roles. When you try and merge them, you break the structure of both organisations. You want to convert a paramilitary into a CAPF; what you are doing is that you are actually downgrading it. Operation and efficiency is going to suffer,” he said.

He speaks about the upside too. “NFFU [Non-Functional Financial Upgradation] is sanctioned for the CAPF. Assam Rifles is a paramilitary force, hence it doesn’t fall in that category. Because of this shift, it will be added to that category. Assam Rifles is not part of the Army. The men who join have to pay for their own pension whereas in Army you do not because you retire early. You retire at 60 in Assam Rifles like in the police forces. If you move them under the Army, the Army rules will also come into play. That will also be another upheaval.”

An alternative to this, according to Kakar, would be to regard Assam Rifles like the Coast Guard. “The Coast Guard is under the Ministry of Defence. It may be headed by a naval guy but it has its own cadre. They follow the cadre rule. If you adopt the same coast guard model. that would be a better option,” he suggests. “You are going to damage the system, damage functioning, damage capabilities.. for what? To create avenues because otherwise it does not make sense and nor is the MHA going to say that we’ll handle insurgency in northeast and the army should move out.”

Shukla added, “In the final balance, I see a strong downside. India’s oldest armed police force is a very fine and effective force. If it is not broken, then why are you fixing it?”

Nidhima Taneja is an editorial intern at The Wire.