Oldest paramilitary force in country blighted by new questions in Manipur
India's oldest paramilitary force, Assam Rifles, is facing allegations of discrimination against the Meitei community in Manipur.
India’s oldest paramilitary force, the Assam Rifles, finds itself haunted by new questions in crisis-hit Manipur, where ethnic violence that erupted in May 2023 has left hundreds of people dead and tens of thousands displaced, and where the force that dates back to 1835 is fighting allegations of discrimination against the Meitei community.
The role of the Assam Rifles in the Northeastern state returned to the spotlight three weeks ago when a radical Meitei group demanded its withdrawal from Manipur, while Kukis sought to nip any such move, exposing deep fissures in Manipuri politics and society that have obstructed peace.
At a meeting called by the radical Meitei group Arambai Tenggol in Imphal on January 24, as many as 36 Meitei legislators and two MPs took an oath to protect Manipur’s integrity and signed a memorandum to be sent to the Centre. Among the six demands in the oath was the removal of Assam Rifles from Manipur.
The Kukis reacted in less than 24 hours, with a demand of their own.
On January 25, 10 Kuki MLAs wrote to home minister Amit Shah about the meeting called by the Meitei radical group and the demands of the Meitei legislators to replace Assam Rifles with another force. The Kuki MLAs made a request too — the Assam Rifles should stay put in the state for the safety of the tribals.
The ethnic clashes and the turn of events in Manipur, which have left at least 210 people dead and around 50,000 displaced, have driven a wedge between the people over the role of the Assam Rifles, whose responsibilities include counterterrorism operations in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, and guarding the India-Myanmar border that passes through Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Twenty Assam Rifles battalions are deployed along the border.
The Assam Rifles can also be called to assist the army in warlike situations. It took part in the two world wars, the 1962 war with China and the 1971 India-Pakistan war. It was also a part of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s.
Serving Assam Rifles personnel on the ground and the army’s former top commanders who HT spoke to believe a variety of reasons are behind the attempts to tarnish the Assam Rifles’s image, including a controversial past, a possible administrative miscalculation to post the force near Kuki areas and a false narrative set by militants from both sides.
“A strict teacher is not liked by the students,” said a senior officer, who is posted in Manipur and learnt his trade operating in the Northeast.
“We followed the law. In the initial months after the clashes erupted, Kuki militant groups, who are under the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement, were not part of the violence,” he explained, asking not to be named.
To be sure, some SoO militants also joined the conflict later.
“But the valley-based militant groups were active. When our personnel stopped such militants and chased them back, they mischievously started a narrative about the force being biased. The protests began sometime in June-July last year.”
The Assam Rifles has a sanctioned strength of almost 67,000 personnel.
The administrative control of the force is with the Union ministry of home affairs, while its officers are drawn from the Indian Army. Over the years the force has been more active in Manipur and Nagaland because of the insurgent groups there and cross-border smuggling.
While the Assam Rifles has played a key role in bringing peace to the region, the force has also had its brushes with controversy.
In July 2004, 12 Meitei women stripped outside Imphal’s iconic Kangla fort to protest the killing of a 32-year-old Meitei woman, Thangjam Manorama, who they alleged was gang-raped and murdered by Assam Rifles personnel. Allegations of extra-judicial killings have also cast a shadow over the force’s role.
Lieutenant General Konsam Himalay Singh (retd), who has had four tenures in the northeast region, said the latest controversy could be “historically and psychologically linked” to the past. It may have started with a security decision too, he said.
“When the so-called buffer zones (sensitive zones) were set up last year, the Assam Rifles was mostly located closer on the side adjacent to the adjoining hills dominated by a few Kuki tribes, while CAPF/state police forces were seen alongside the valley villages. This could have also led to some affected parties perceiving the force is close to the Kukis.”
Singh also attributed the controversy to the prevailing climate of suspicion, fear and uncertainty thereby magnifying every friction on the ground “
“Some elements on both sides have also made attempts to portray the forces as partial and project armed civilian volunteers as saviours. The entire force shouldn’t be targeted because of isolated incidents.”
Assam Rifles personnel said the criminal groups used women to block roads and interfere in the force’s operations.
“Women, especially the elderly, were put in front of mobs to stop the security forces. This was carefully done by the criminal elements to ensure that the forces did not reach the crime spots on time. There are so many viral photos of elderly women refusing to let the forces move ahead. Our food trucks were robbed too. At some places such women protesters even demanded identity card of the Assam Rifles personnel before letting them move in the villages. But our boys exercised restraint. There was not a single controversy,” said a second officer, who also asked not to be named.
On July 26, the army released a video calling out women protesters for blocking routes and interfering in operations.
“The residents do not have a problem. They saw how the force rescued both communities. The Assam Rifles personnel also helped people who were unwell at the relief camps. At least four children must have been born in such relief camps. Another reason why there are protests is because the force is actively recovering drugs and weapons from the criminals,” the second officer said.
But even nine months after the clashes began, there are Meira Paibis (Meitei women) who continue to guard roads because they say they do not trust the Assam Rifles. On the Imphal-Bishnupur highway, Meira Paibis sit in tents and keep the area under watch through the night, people aware of the matter said.
“I was a part of the 2004 protest when the 12 women stripped in Imphal in 2004. We do not trust the Assam Rifles. They have always helped Kukis. So every night, at least one woman from each household leaves their house and joins the others in standing guard. The Kuki groups may attack anytime. The state police is not equipped so we sit guard and inform our volunteers the moment anyone spots armed Kuki militants,” said Sylvis, the head of the Meira Paibi group at the Uripok Lamboikhongnangkhong Impha village near Imphal.
But experts reiterate the force is doing its best and the question of replacing the force does not arise.
The call to remove the Assam Rifles from Manipur is unrealistic, said Lieutenant General Shokin Chauhan (retd), a former director general of the force.
“The Assam Rifles is an all-India, all-class force and does not discriminate against any community,” said Chauhan, who has also served as the chairman of the Ceasefire Monitoring Group responsible for implementing ceasefire ground rules between the Centre and Naga insurgent groups, he added.
Assam Rifles personnel said the situation along the India-Myanmar border would improve significantly in the backdrop of the government’s suspension of the free movement regime (FMR), which allowed people from both sides of the frontier to travel 16km into each other’s territory without paperwork.
Last week, Union home minister Amit Shah said the Centre is set to build a border fence along the India-Myanmar border. The 1,643-km border, of which only 10km is fenced, is used by smugglers and insurgent groups from across the border. Over the last four years, the force has seized drugs worth at least ₹4,500 crore, mainly sourced from Myanmar, according to official data.
“Our force does not report to the state government. The massive crackdown on drugs by us does hurt the local criminal elements. Some of these criminal elements are influential. They want the force to be removed from Manipur. Manipur police are also not biased. But almost 90% of people in the state police will be locals so these criminal elements want to have a force where the personnel are locals. They may believe that it is easier to influence a state force,” said a third officer.
Military affairs expert Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd) said the Assam Rifles will have a key role, especially after the government’s latest announcement on border fencing and ending FMR.
“The Assam Rifles is engaged in border guarding and counter insurgency duties. It is a known fact that the India-Myanmar border is unfenced. It is also a fact that there are many militant groups, especially in Manipur and Nagaland, who use the porous border. But with FMR suspension, I see the Assam Rifles as more effective. With the movement of people at the border restricted, I see them focusing more on counter insurgency,” Hooda added.
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