Defence

Assam Rifles-ITBP Merger: Why Bureaucrats Are Pushing This Bad Idea Despite Army’s Opposition

Assam Rifles (Aditya Raj Kaul/Twitter)
Snapshot
  • Assam Rifles has long suffered from dual control: it is under the MHA’s administrative control and under the MoD’s operational control.

    The Army leadership has prepared a presentation for Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, making a convincing case for bringing the Assam Rifles under the total control of the MoD.

    Further they have also asked for handing over operational command of the ITBP and BSF units posted along the active borders with Pakistan and Tibet to the Army.

A proposal by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to take the Assam Rifles out of the operational control of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has raised the Army’s hackles once again.

The 184-year-old Assam Rifles has long suffered from dual control: it is under the MHA’s administrative control but under the MoD’s operational control.

The MHA has prepared a draft note proposing that the force’s operational control be handed over to the MHA and that it be merged with the ITBP. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), headed by the Prime Minister and comprising the Home, Defence, Finance and External Affairs Ministers, will take a final decision on this.

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The reason why the Army is strongly opposed to the MHA’s move is because it would sound a death knell to the fighting force that has won many laurels and gallantry medals in many conflict zones, and is also crucial for counter-insurgency (CI) operations in the North East.

The Assam Rifles has 46 battalions and 65,000 soldiers, and 80 per cent of its officers are drawn from the Army.

“The Assam Rifles shares the Army’s operational ethos and culture and is a fine fighting force. It fought in the 1962 border war with China, was part of the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka, and conducted itself in an exemplary manner in various UN missions as well as other operations.

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“It frequently operates alongside the Army in the Northeast and the existing synergy between the Assam Rifles and Army is essential for the successful conduct of operations,” said a retired major-general who served in the Assam Rifles.

“Since most of the officers of the Assam Rifles are drawn from the Army, the two entities perform in unison in the CI grid in the Northeast, just like the Army and the Rashtriya Rifles (manned by Army officers and soldiers) do in Kashmir,” said a serving senior Army officer at the Eastern Command headquarters in Kolkata.

If the Assam Rifles goes under the total control of the MHA, Army officers will no longer be deputed to the force. “That will immediately lead to the force losing its fighting edge. And the synergy with the Army that is necessary for successful CI operations will be missing.

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“The major reason for the success of CI operations in the Northeast, and for insurgency being curbed in the region, is the great synergy between the Army and Assam Rifles that have conducted countless joint CI operations,” said the Brigadier-rank officer stationed in Kolkata.

But the powerful IPS lobby within the MHA is not bothered. For them, it appears, bringing the Assam Rifles under the operational command of the MHA and merging it with the ITBP will open up cushy positions within that force for them.

The Assam Rifles will then become another Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) like the CRPF, ITPB, SSB, CISF, BSF and the NSG whose higher echelons are manned by senior IPS officers.

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For IPS officers, a deputation to a CAPF is a sinecure of sorts. “They enjoy the perks of office, and in a CAPF the perks are generally better than in a state police force. And they don’t have much work to do, nor do they lead their men in conflict situations,” said an Army officer.

In the CAPFs, IPS officers occupy the senior positions from the DIG level right till that of the director-general (DG).

“These are usually office jobs. But the CAPFs have a lot of resources like airplanes and choppers, which the IPS officers deputed to the CAPF gain access to and are known to misuse. They lead lavish lifestyles, live in huge bungalows and enjoy life in general,” said a BSF officer (not an IPS) who retired from the force’s North Bengal Frontier HQs with the rank of a DIG (deputy inspector general).

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Generally, IPS officers opt for deputation to the CAPFs once they cannot get along with the ruling politicians or dispensation in the state they serve in or if they get embroiled in controversies.

“IPS officers opt for CAPF posting to bide their time till conditions turn favourable for them in their states or till they can get a better posting in the MHA or at the centre. A CAPF deputation is a cushy one that offers many perks without much responsibilities,” said a senior IPS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre.

Even in a CAPF like the ITBP, it is the men and officers of that particular force — and not the IPS officers — who will be doing the actual work like guarding the borders and resisting intrusions by the Chinese soldiers.

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The IPS officers in the ITBP will rarely go to the inhospitable borders except on short inspections. Similarly, IPS officers on deputation to the BSF or CRPF deployed in Maoist-infested states or in the Kashmir Valley rarely get involved in actual operations on the ground since they occupy the higher offices of DIG and above.

As for the Assam Rifles, due to its long deployment in the Northeast and with most of its units being static (unlike regular Army battalions), the force has accumulated considerable physical assets.

The headquarters of the sectors (a DIG, now an Army Brigadier, is in charge of one sector) and inspectorate-general (headed by an IG, now an Army Major-General) are well-located and a DIG and senior ranks have access to a lot of facilities. Added to that is the prestige of being an officer in a force that has won many gallantry medals.

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Army officers say that the IPS lobby wants access to all these privileges now without actually earning or deserving them. “Army officers right from the land of Second Lieutenant on deputation to the Assam Rifles lead the men of the force from the front like they do in their regular Army units.

“The same sort of discipline, ethos, culture, training, spirit of sacrifice and combat-readiness that exists in the Army is instilled in the Assam Rifles too. All that will be lost if the Assam Rifles goes under the operational control of the MHA and IPS officers get to occupy the senior ranks of the force,” said the retired major general.

The Assam Rifles, for instance, has been closely involved in a series of joint operations codenamed ‘Operation Sunrise’ with the Indian Army that was launched from January this year.

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This operation, launched in cooperation with the Myanmarese Army, has resulted in many bases of Northeast insurgent groups in Myanmar being destroyed and cadres belonging to these outfits being arrested from both sides of the border.

Had the Assam Rifles been led by IPS officers, cooperation between forces may have been severely redistricted. “Police are trained for general law and order duties, crime detection and provisions of the IPC and CrPC.

“IPS officers are not trained for battle or CI operations that the Assam Rifles undertakes. So putting the Assam Rifles under IPS officers and merging the force with the ITBP is a sure-shot recipe for disaster,” said a serving Army officer at the Eastern Command HQs.

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“It will leave a huge void in the CI grid in the Northeast and will definitely encourage insurgent outfits to regroup and gain a fresh lease of life,” the officer added.

It is also ironic that the IPS wants control of a force that undertakes CI operations precisely because the police forces of the Northeastern states headed by IPS officers had failed to control insurgency in their own states.

“If the state police that they head had proved unequal to the task of tackling insurgency, how are they capable of heading a force specialised to tackle this threat?” wondered the Army officer.

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The Army leadership has prepared a presentation for Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, in which they make a convincing case for not only bringing the Assam Rifles under the total control of the MoD but also for handing over operational command of the ITBP and BSF units posted along the active borders with Pakistan and Tibet to the Army.

The Army HQs contends that portions of the borders guarded by the ITBP and BSF are soft spots and have witnessed repeated incursions. Hence, giving the Army operational command of the BSF and ITBP units deployed in the Indo-Pak and Indo-Tibet borders makes strategic sense.

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