Assam Rifles Officer Arrest: Fallout Of Paramilitary Being Deployed For Wrong Purpose?

Assam Rifles Officer Arrest: Fallout Of Paramilitary Being Deployed For Wrong Purpose?Assam rifles (MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
    • A colonel of the Assam Rifles was recently arrested in Aizawl on charges of gold smuggling
    • Such embarrassments are more likely to occur if the military and para-military forces are deployed for policing purposes
    • But, if a state police force has been found inept in tackling a law-and-order or security issue, what option does a state administration have?

Last week’s arrest of the commandant of the 39th battalion of the Assam Rifles, India’s oldest paramilitary force that is officered by the army, is an ugly blot on the fair record of our armed forces. A blot which, like other similar ones, could have been avoided. Colonel Jasjit Singh, according to the special investigation team set up by the Mizoram Police, received a tip-off that a vehicle bearing a certain registration number would be entering state capital Aizawl with gold bars smuggled from Myanmar.

The Colonel reportedly asked a few of his men to set up a roadblock and check the said vehicle on the night of December 14. Soldiers of his battalion, helped by some Mizo men, allegedly confiscated 52 gold bars worth 14.5 crore rupees from the gearbox of the vehicle. The heist came to light on April 21 when the driver of the vehicle (who was also the carrier of the smuggled gold) lodged a complaint with the police.

The police drew a connection with the arrest of two men—relatives of an Assam Rifles jawan—who were trying to sell two gold bars in Aizawl a month before the police complaint was lodged. Police investigations then led to more arrests, including Assam Rifles jawans and a non-commissioned officer who, on interrogation, reportedly named the Colonel as the mastermind of the heist.

This shameful incident pitchforks to the center-stage the very pertinent issue of the army being deployed for internal security duties. The reason why the army, which is trained to thwart external aggression, is deployed for IS duties is that the police forces in the states where the army is deployed had failed to maintain law and order, primarily to combat insurgents in their states. This has happened in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam and some other north-eastern states that have been affected by militancy.

The primary reason why the police forces of these states had failed to effectively tackle militancy and insurgency in their states is that they had been rendered thoroughly incompetent and ineffective through decades of interference by politicians who have often treated the police with scant respect, ignored the modernisation of the force and used the police for political purposes, thus politicising the force. Often, the excuse given by state administrations and the political rulers of the states for their police’s inability to tackle militancy is that militants operate across interstate and international borders. As a result, they argue, their police force that can only operate within that particular state’s borders are not equipped to curb militancy because of the interstate and international dimensions of the menace.

This is a specious argument and the success of the Punjab police in curbing militancy in that state a few decades ago gives lie to this argument. Under the legendary KPS Gill who modernised the Punjab Police in double quick time, provided strong leadership to the force and gave it the much-needed spine, and completely stopped all political interference, the Punjab Police succeeded in wiping out the Khalistanis. The Khalistanis were receiving material support from Pakistan and some other countries, but that didn’t come in the way of the Punjab Police in eliminating them.

Similarly, though on a much lesser scale, the Meghalaya Police was successful in rooting out militancy from the Khasi Hills a decade and half ago. The militants operating in the Khasi Hills had their hideouts in Bangladesh. The reason the police forces of these states were successful was due to strong leadership and the carte blanche given to them by politicians to end militancy. The same Meghalaya Police, on the other hand, have been unsuccessful in tackling insurgency in the Garo Hills region of Meghalaya primarily because some powerful politicians there are reported to have strong links with the militants.

There are other inherent dangers, and some of them have long-term and adverse implications on deploying the army for internal security duties. The army, for one, is not really trained to operate in civilian areas within our country. It is a force that is trained to attack and counter-attack external enemies of the nation. But deploying the army for internal security duties often puts the force into confrontation with the civilian populace of an area. The army is ill-equipped to deal with civilians and in such a position, uses maximum force that result in civilian casualties and earns the force a bad name and a volley of brickbats.

The army, as a senior officer once told me in the wake of deaths of some civilians in firing by army jawans in J&K, is not trained to lathicharge, lob tear gas, fire rubber bullets or aim below the waist and fire as the police are required to do. “We are trained to deal with the enemy and when we shoot, we shoot to kill. Internal security duties require an entirely different training and the army is not meant for that,” he had said.

The army’s deployment in civilian areas to deal with internal security issues often puts the force in a very delicate situation. “The militants often have no qualms in using civilians as shields while attacking us. We are trained to retaliate against and repulse attacks by an enemy and for that, we are trained to use maximum force. We are not trained to shoot discriminately or pluck out targets from a large crowd in front of us and neutralise them. So, in such situations, collateral damage (deaths of or injuries to civilians) is inevitable that earns us a very bad name and affects the morale of the force,” the officer explained.

Another negative fallout of tasking the army with tackling militancy is that it prevents our soldiers from training for future battles. In other words, it seriously affects the battle-preparedness of our army. When not deployed to defend the borders and the icy heights of Siachen, army units should ideally be training at the various training institutes and regimental centers. But the continuous pressure of serving in forward areas and then being engaged in counter-insurgency operations inside the country is taking a grave toll on our soldiers’ health, psyche and battle-preparedness. Army units are supposed to have rotating tenures in forward areas and ‘peace’ postings, but their deployment in IS duties cuts into their ‘peace’ posting tenures. This causes many problems; soldiers’ suicides and incidents of soldiers training their guns on colleagues or superiors is the direct fallout of the physical and psychological pressure that our jawans, NCOs, JCOs and officers are continuously being subjected to.

And then there is the undesirable effect of army units being made to operate in close proximity with civilians. The corrupting influence of this is evident. And the case of Colonel Jasjit Singh is only one example of this. Right from the time a person enrols into the army, and be it as a jawan or an officer cadet, he or she is imbued with certain values and ethos. Throughout his or her professional life, these values and ethos keep on getting reinforced. But prolonged exposure to civilians and the civil administration dilute these values and army men are then exposed to many corrupting influences. “The temptation to do wrong, cut corners and indulge in corrupt practices manifests itself when army officers or men are made to operate in civilian settings. In the forward areas or in ‘peace’ postings, army units are generally insular and it’s best that we stay that way,” the officer referred to earlier said.

But all this is not to justify or provide any rationale for wrongdoings by the men in uniform. Also, the army has to take the blame for transgressing the law and frequently overstepping its brief, as often happens in north-eastern India. Colonel Jasjit Singh had no business to order his men to check vehicles on a highway. Mizoram is a peaceful state and insurgency there ended with the signing of the Mizo Accord three decades ago. There is no reason why Assam Rifles units stationed in Mizoram should take it upon themselves to check vehicles on the highways. They should confine themselves to their barracks and only aid the civil administration if they are specifically asked to do so.

However, army and paramilitary men stationed in the North-east are often seen overstepping their brief. This should be halted immediately and army and paramilitary units deployed in the North-east and also in J&K should be given a clear set of guidelines. They should know that transgressing the law or acting in a high-handed manner will have grave consequences.

If found guilty, an example should be made of Colonel Jasjit Singh so that no army officer or man brings dishonour to the army and taints its fair reputation.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.


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