Rashtriya Rifles: The Story Of Independent India’s Finest Military Experiment

Rashtriya Rifles: The Story Of Independent India’s Finest Military Experiment Rashtriya Rifles soldiers take positions during an attack by militants on the outskirts of Srinagar. (Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)  
  • The RR is well known as a specialist organisation created to fight terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, but how much do people know about India’s finest military experiment since Independence.

    Here’s a peep into an organisation, which is barely 25 years in being, yet has risen to become an icon in itself.

For a soldier the heart normally is where he has served with honour and where he has gained great experience. Thus for me, one of the organisations closest to the heart remains the Rashtriya Rifles, commonly referred as the RR. Within the Army, the RR is well known as a specialist organisation created to fight terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), but this knowledge is mainly in layman terms. People outside the Army may have just heard of it and brushed it aside as something too detailed to know about the Army. Yet, when an organisation, barely 25 years in being, rises to become an icon in itself, there must be something about it which is worth knowing. This story is all about that organisation to which the Indian people owe much; an organisation about which little is known and much needs to be written.

It may pay dividends in terms of capturing the reader’s mind if I commence this piece with a single statement, which actually says it all. The RR is India’s finest military experiment in 70 years of existence as an Independent nation. I never fail to repeat this wherever I go, ad nauseum.

The Origin

There is nothing official about it, but it is a conjecture that the origins of the RR go back to the days of Operation Pawan, in the perceived botched experiment of India’s first out of area (OOA) operations in Sri Lanka. Four frontline divisions were involved in the OOA insurgent situation in Sri Lanka leaving behind an adversely affected force structure to respond to the ongoing insurgency in the North East and none too stable situation on the western borders. Immediately thereafter the Army was again involved in holding the periphery to boost the confidence of the Punjab Police while the Punjab militancy raged in 1990-91.

With the continuous deployment of the Army in OOA operations and counter insurgency (CI) duties, even as conventional threats loomed large in the form of the unpredictable Pakistan Army exercise Zarb-E-Momin, it became clear that a special force was required to deal with India’s turbulent internal security situation; a credible force which would prevent frequent deployment of the Army’s frontline formations and units on internal security. Raised with the Punjab situation in mind, the changeover to Kashmir and then the Jammu region was quick. Lending credence to this theory that it was never J&K which triggered the idea of RR, is the fact that Headquarters (HQ) 8 Sector RR along with its three units, 18 RR, 32 RR and 33 RR was initially deployed in the North East and moved to its current location in the Lolab Valley only in 1999, at the height of the Kargil crisis.

RR was raised as a specialised CI/Counter Terrorist (CT) Force in 1990 to relieve the regular Army of its CI/CT commitments, so as to ensure its ready availability at all times for its primary task. It was originally planned to constitute RR with personnel on deputation from the Army, along with lateral inductees for permanent absorption and suitable ex-servicemen volunteers. It was however, later decided that the entire manpower would comprise serving personnel on deputation from the regular Army. The RR was thus raised with hundred per cent personnel on deputation from all Arms and Services of the Army.

The Organisation

The first few units which were raised had no regimental orientation or links but someone in authority (and to him we owe much) decided that one of the strengths of the Indian Army, its regimental system, also needed to be infused into this force. Thus came about the unique experiment of basing an RR unit on an Infantry Regiment as the core with another Arm (Armoured Corps, Artillery, Engineers and Air Defence) providing supplementary manpower; the logistics and support elements were provided by the Services.

A look at a typical RR unit’s organisation will explain this little better to a layman. One of the high achieving units, 36 RR, is organised with a little over 50 per cent manpower from The Garhwal Rifles, 30 per cent from the Artillery and rest of the elements coming from Engineers (one Engineer platoon), Signals (a communication platoon), EME (one Field Repair Increment – FRI), ASC (one Mechanical Transport Platoon), Ordnance (storemen) and AMC personnel. The total manpower comes to about 1,200 all ranks (against 840 of an Infantry unit) but the capability to have six RR companies is a definite plus.

This affords an ideal six point deployment i.e. occupation of six company operating bases (COBs) with one of the companies being co-located with the battalion HQ. The logistics is kept to the bare minimum with specialists available in each field thus obviating any training of general duties personnel in specialist fields involving logistics. The Engineers complement is a major asset because it can be employed for anti-Improvised Explosive Device (IED) role, bomb disposal, demolition tasks in CT operations and very importantly for electrification, construction of habitat and maintenance tasks. Similar is the case with Signals.

In many ways an RR represents a battalion group which can be reorganised for tailor made tasks because of the inherent flexibility. It can latch on to any logistics node or specialist logistics establishment for its logistics needs and is completely self-contained in transport.

Two other aspects need to be known. First, that RR budget is additional to Army budget under a separate head. The budget operates on Payment Book Debit System. All financial rules as applicable to the regular Army are also applicable to the RR budget. Second, the manpower is supplementary to the authorised manpower of the Army and thus comes under Composite Table II. It means that it requires a special approval of its mandate for a fixed period after which the mandate has to be approved again and that too at the highest level. This has sometimes caused problems in functioning as such approvals are known to get delayed with resultant effects on the budget.

The initial organisational concept was based upon two to three RR units functioning under a Sector HQ (equivalent to a Brigade HQ). This was supplemented in 1994 with the raising of the two HQ Counter Insurgency Forces (CIF); Victor for the Kashmir Valley and Delta for Doda in Jammu region. The CI/CT grid came under the two Force HQ which too were lean and mean, devoid of all the add on supporting units associated with a division HQ. In fact, the first ‘light division’ concept in India had thus taken birth. With the expanding arc of militancy through the nineties, it was not possible to execute the CI/CT role over the large swathe of areas North and South of the Pir Panjal with these two Forces alone. The 8 Mountain Division (from North East) became a permanent asset in the Kashmir Valley (before its move to Kargil) with the Rajouri based division and another reserve Infantry Division doing service in Jammu region.

The void created by move of 8 Mountain Division to Kargil and the increasing pressure of counter infiltration and LoC management in the Jammu region forced the raising of the additional Force HQ for the Valley and south of Pir Panjal. Kilo, Uniform and Romeo Force HQ thus came into existence. That is where it rests today with the strength of units going up from 36 in 1999 to 63 by 2003. There are 15 Sector HQ to control these, along with the five Force HQ. The Directorate General of Rashtriya Rifles (DGRR), located as part of the Integrated HQ of the MoD (Army) at Delhi, controls the non-operational part of the management of the Force.

The Ethos And Mode Of Functioning

Keeping the North East model as the backdrop, interoperability between the RR and the regular Army was ensured. Thus RR units form part of regular Infantry formations just as an RR Sector HQ can have regular Infantry units placed under it.

The CO is mostly an Infantryman from the same regiment as the Infantry troops. While an officer may have his core competence based on his Arm or Service, no one denies him an operational role in the command of troops. This gives huge fillip to the self-esteem of officers who proudly wear the RR badge, shoulder titles and lanyard, temporarily casting aside their original embellishments. The Military Secretary’s branch has done its bit by ensuring that service in RR (usually 30 months) fetches the qualitative requirements (QRs) for consideration for foreign postings and career courses of instruction. While many an old timer from the Infantry may consider CI/CT operations as a purely Infantry domain based upon core competence of Infantry officers, the RR experience has proved beyond doubt that ultimately it is an officer’s personal involvement, willingness to learn and bond with troops from all Arms and Services and flexibility of the mind which makes him a competent CI/CT leader. I can say with confidence that besides numerous Infantry officers who perform outstandingly, there are an equal number of officers from Armoured Corps, Artillery, Air Defence, Engineers or Signals who perform exceptionally well under the most stressful conditions. Equally, I have found officers from the ASC who go about the operational task most competently. A Regimental Medical Officer (RMO) is a must, considering the fact that casualties are frequent and the rule of Golden Hour applying in most cases, necessitating the presence of an RMO at the site of operations.

The organisational ethos has refined over time with every effort to ensure that each RR unit has a fixed number of Infantry and other Arm units to subscribe the manpower. RR companies are a proportional mix of Infantry and the main Arm which provides the manpower. It should be noted that the Indian Army’s concept of service in an operational area is quite different to that of Western armies where a single tour of duty of its servicemen is no more than six months. Officers and jawans in RR units serve for approximately 30 months during which there is no absence for training, temporary duties etc; the only time an officer or jawan may not be present is during the period of his authorised leave. Every effort is made to ensure that these personnel proceed home on leave at least once in three months. There are no training courses or promotion cadres in the RR, which can keep jawans away from operations. The central government’s decision to provide two free railway warrants to personnel in operational areas has paid dividends in terms of morale. The various chartered flights to Srinagar have also contributed towards this.

A senior DG of a Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) once after spending a day with an RR unit at his request, expressed his perception. In his view it was the regimental system which was the glue which had the right portion to give these units a high. Of course, he had volumes to speak about the professionalism of the RR officers and men, the flexible yet firm control that the Sector and Force HQ ensured over all operational activities, the readiness to learn from mistakes and very importantly the continuity of presence in a given area of deployment where the unit gelled with the local population. He also observed how much importance was being given to intelligence gathering, briefings and debriefings.

A word on continuity. An RR unit turns over almost 50 per cent of its manpower every year, which means 600 men come and 600 go, making it an average of 50 a month. An RR CO may see as many as 2,000 personnel through his command tenure. At any time, there is transition which is on, but the fact that the unit remains static except for minor tactical redeployment contributes to its hold over its area. The terrain is well known, the sources are more loyal, the SOPs are easier to follow and lessons of the past are always applicable to the same ground. Besides a very simple direction is followed; no man can operate unless he undergoes pre induction training at the Corps Battle Schools (CBS) of either 15 or 16 Corps. These are very important institutions where the continuity factor is also ensured. Commonality of understanding the mission, the force ethos and the ramifications of various actions have to be starkly brought to the mind of every man. General Officers and Sector Commanders have to ensure they address their men right there at the CBS. It makes a world of a difference when you have such a focused command.

Operational Aspects

The RR has evolved over a period of time confronting first the hard core cadres of the Ikhwan (later a counter group), Hizbul Mujahideen, JKLF and Harkatul Ansar and then confronting the foreign terrorists who started to enter the Valley in droves. As cadres of the Lashkar e Taiba (LeT), Al Badr and Jaish-e-Mohommad (JeM) started to emerge in greater strength the degree of coordination from across the LoC enhanced exponentially. Operational concepts had to rely on large scale cordon and search operations (CASO) of urban areas bringing the RR into direct contact with the people. There was then little need for intelligence, so intense and dense was the presence of the terrorists. They employed IEDs at will and even confronted the RR troops frontally in encounters in the jungles of Rajwar, Hafruda and Rafiabad. It needed diligence and a degree of risk to move for operations. The terrorist cadres then used simple VHF radio for communications. This moved on to mobile technology before resting on satellite phones (Thuraya). The emergence of the jihadi radical as a modern technical whiz kid (4th Generation Warrior) employing social media and Skype for communication forced the RR to technicalise both with authorised equipment and a lot of jugaad. The RR today reflects the technical savviness of the modern generation. A major challenge that any RR unit faces today is the absolute need to ensure minimum collateral damage during an operation. The kinetic aspect of disproportionate use of force of which CI/CT units are often blamed remains a critical component of execution and operations may be delayed for long only for this need.

The RR has also travelled through the transforming conflict with aplomb. It is now also doing service in counter infiltration in the vicinity of the LoC in various areas and is optimised to be available for conventional role too. Its primary role in conventional conflict remains Rear Area Security. However, it has gone on to train and be ready for confrontation at the LoC itself. The transforming internal conflict scenario has also left many in a quandary about understanding the RR’s role in conflict stabilisation and conflict termination. For a professional, it is important to realise that with derived clarity of the continuously changing role of the RR this one aspect will remain constant. This is the original task; the mainstreaming of the people of J&K with mainstream India. It has never been articulated, but is the intellectually evolved role which should have been spelt out at the outset. Thus, while many may bemoan the fact that today in some areas in Jammu division there are very few terrorists for the RR to eliminate and the romanticised and gung ho role may be over, the more difficult task starts now; the task of continuity of stability. No organisation is better suited for this than the RR. With intimate knowledge of the socio-cultural landscape and sensitivities this Force now needs the right orientation to hold the periphery and assist in the integration effort which must be undertaken by the central and state governments in earnest. Its quasi-military experience of executing the hearts and minds game most innovatively over the years should give confidence to the various stake holders.

Last, the RR has the experience, the organisational capability and the leadership like no other organisation in India. If J&K has to be fully mainstreamed in mind and spirit a long continuation of the RR’s mandate is an absolute must.

(Adapted from the original in South Asia Defence & Strategic Review, by the author who wrote the original piece too)


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