The Assam Rifles, India’s oldest and only paramilitary force under the control of two Central ministries, has taken the rough with the smooth since it was raised as a private militia of British tea planters in 1835.
The force has earned many bouquets as well as brickbats over the years, particularly in counter-insurgency operations after Independence. In an exclusive interview to Hindustan Times, AR Director General Lt Gen KS Yadava discussed what it means for his force to be completing 175 years of service on March 24.
Is there more to the evolution of Assam Rifles from a private militia guarding British business interests against tribal marauders to fighting insurgent outfits in the Northeast seeking ethnic identities?
There is, though it did not appear so in the years after Independence. The British raised AR to safeguard their interests in tea and timber, and the force was accordingly permanently deployed at their business centres. The job of AR then entailed fending off tribal raiders and gaining control of tribal areas.
The force was gradually upgraded to be as efficient as the army. Post-1947, AR got engaged in a series of battles with tribal groups seeking independence or self-rule, and since non-locals, mostly Nepalese, comprised the manpower, it seemed that nothing really changed with change of masters from British to Indians.
Things have changed in the past few years with locals now making up close to 40 per cent of AR’s manpower. This was made possible through a clause in the recruitment policy for reserving 20 per cent posts for people in the border areas and 20 per cent more from CI (counter-insurgency) affected states. Today, the local content in AR has helped increase the friendship quotient and bridge the mental gap.
The situation on ground is quite different from the days of grouping of villages and barricading. The pressure today is on us; we cannot afford to do anything against families of our soldiers. It’s an advantageous situation, not a hindrance.
AR has almost been synonymous with human rights violations under cover of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1948. Do you envisage an era without this contentious Act?
More often than not, human rights violation cases are one-sided. Doesn’t a soldier functioning under the government’s order deserve his rights? Is anyone concerned about our rights when leads fly in from all directions? If a soldier is not protected to do his legitimate job, why shall he do it? He needs AFSPA; it is like a bullet-proof vest which gives strength to a soldier going to war. Any Act that ensures certain kind of insulation for a soldier in conflict situation is necessary. As long as he is within his legitimate duty, there are no problems. Even with the Act, we have allowed civil law to take over wherever we have crossed the line. We are answerable to the society, after all.
Can the AR, then, look forward to an age with less dichotomy and disgruntlement within the force?
AR is under administrative control of the Union home ministry and operation control of the defense ministry. Hence 80 per cent of its officers come from the Army with AR officers making up the rest. The arrangement was made to ensure a region-specific paramilitary force that would be as efficient as the army and be deployed in battles with external forces, if required. The Army connection is apparent in this force if you compare it with other paramilitary forces in India.
Yes, some AR personnel did demand pay and perks equal to that of the Army. But one has to go by service rules. The government has been providing to the best of its capability and the Sixth Pay Panel has been quite generous. Frankly, there’s no end to demanding. Even I can demand facilities equivalent to that of an American general.
In another eight years, AR will be 72 battalions strong. Will that leave the Army with nothing to do in the Northeast?
Apart from CI operations, we have been entrusted with guarding the 1,643 km Indo-Myanmar border. Accordingly, we will be raising 26 battalions with Intelligence units. This entails building roads, helipads, barracks and outposts along the border besides fencing. In the first phase, we’ll be raising three battalions (each 1,000-personnel strong) in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh within a year. The rest will follow.
The new responsibility will not be at the cost of CI ops, for which we already have 46 battalions. The Army isn’t likely to be involved with CI or law and order duties in the Northeast after all the AR battalions are raised. It will then have to look beyond the borders (pointing to China on a map on his desk) in this strategic region.
Though AR was named after the erstwhile undivided Assam province, it has lesser presence in Assam than other northeastern states. Since it has undergone several changes in nomenclature, will it wear a new name or is Assam Rifles too strong a brand?
Assam Rifles indeed has grown to be a brand name. And people in uniform are very chary about changing traditions. But there has been a lot of in-house debating on whether we should sport a name that reflects the entire region. We have zeroed-in on Northeast Rifles, but whatever the name, AR is here to stay in the Northeast for life.