Come March 24 and India’s oldest paramilitary force will turn 175. For a force raised as a rag-tag, ill-dressed militia in 1835 specifically to protect the estates of British tea planters in Assam’s Surma or Barak Valley, it has been an often torrid journey for the Assam Rifles (AR).
Evolution has been one thing constant for the AR since a civilian British officer named Grange raised it as the Cachar Levy. Two more levies – Jorhat and Kuki – were raised by 1950 to be stationed at British commercial establishments before they were reorganized into the Frontier Police (FP) in 1862.
The FP became the Assam Military Police (AMP) in 1882 until it was reorganized as the Assam Rifles in 1917. Like the name, the uniform, insignias, designations of officers and personnel also changed. But the mandate of the force remained more or less the same – protect British interests, combat tribal marauders and gain control over their land.
Post-independence, the AR had a change of master – from British India to the Government of India, though control shifted from Ministry of External Affairs to MHA on August 1, 1965. But the increasing role in counter-insurgency operations (CI Ops) against Naga, Mizo, Manipuri and other rebel outfits representing various ethnic groups, made it hard for the AR to shake the pre-1947 ‘anti-tribal’ tag off. And the focus on the force vis-à-vis ‘misuse’ of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1948 didn’t make things easier.
AR has also had to contend with rebellion owing to its dichotomy – it is the only force under dual control of the MHA (administrative) and Ministry of Defense (operational). Its personnel had sought pay and perks equal to their counterparts in the Army “for doing the same job”.
“The perception is changing thanks to induction of almost 40 per cent local people in our force,” AR Director-General Lt Gen KS Yadava told Hindustan Times in an exclusive interview. So is the force, from CI Ops specialists to multitasking as guardians of the 1,643 km Indo-Myanmar border and producing personnel with army-like efficiency for war or any other eventuality.
On the verge of completing ‘an eventful’ 175 years, AR is set to add to its 46 battalions across the Northeast. This entails raising 26 new battalions to guard Indo-Myanmar border and setting up necessary infrastructure within the next eight years.
Assam Rifles timeline
1835: Cachar Levy, forebear of AR, raised
1838: Jorhat Levy raised
1850: Kuki Levy raised
1862: All levies named Frontier Police (FP)
1865: First recruiting depot for FP established in Sylhet (now in Bangladesh)
1882: Frontier Police reorganized into Assam Military Police (AMP)
1917: AMP becomes AR
1937: AR becomes a federal force on April 1
1942-43: AR placed under operational control of Army from April 7 and under Army Act; olive green uniform introduced in 1943
1947: Separated from Assam Police, AR gets its first Inspector General (IGAR) on September 17
1948: Colonel Sidhiman Rai becomes first Army officer and first Indian to be appointed as IGAR on 15 August
1950: North East Security Committee defines role of AR
1950-1968: Government decides to raise new AR battalions every year
1955: AR begins battling Naga rebels
1963: AR adopts its own formation sign
1965: Control of AR transferred from Ministry of External Affairs to MHA on August 1
1966: 1 AR faces Mizo rebels
1979: IGAR re-designated as Director General Assam Rifles and rank upgraded from Major General to Lieutenant General
1980: 4 and 20 AR given responsibility to handle Manipuri militants
1988-90: Three AR battalions deployed in Sri Lanka as part of IPKF
1994: AR designated nodal Agency for conduct of counter-insurgency training for Central paramilitary forces in the Northeast
2000: MHA sanctions raising five more AR battalions
2002: MHA assent to modernization plan of force
2009: AR Headquarter Directorate General shifts permanently to Laitkor, Shillong
2010: MHA decision to raise 26 new battalions to guard Indo-Myanmar border