The country’s oldest counter-insurgency force, Assam Rifles, is staring at a bit of an uncertain future.
The Cabinet Committee on Security has to take a call soon on the issue of dual control of the force.
The home ministry has told the Delhi High Court recently that it would accept whatever the CCS decided on the issue.
In an affidavit filed to the Delhi High Court, the MHA has conveyed that the Union home secretary had a meeting with the defence secretary on April 4 to discuss the issue.
Assam Riffles, now 184 -year-old, is under the administrative control of the ministry of home affairs (MHA) but the operational control lies with the ministry of defence (MoD).
The meeting discussed about a note moved by the MHA for the CCS on March 20 for resolving the issue of dual control over Assam Rifles.
The CCS is chaired by the Prime Minister and comprises the minister of external affairs, the home minister, the finance minister and the defence minister.
The court is now learnt to have issued a notice to the cabinet secretary to inform it as to what decision the CCS had taken on the note forwarded to it by the MHA, an official said.
The court was hearing a petition filed by the Assam Rifles Ex-Servicemen Welfare Association through lawyer Neha Rathi on the difficulties faced by the retired personnel of the force with regard to the payment of pension due to the dual control of the force.
The officer corps of the Assam Rifles is drawn from the Army, which heavily supports and sustains the counter insurgency force.
These officers worry that the military ethos of the Assam Rifles and its focus on Northeast will be severely undermined if the force was brought under complete control of the home ministry.
That would open its top echelons to Indian Police Service officers as is the case with BSF and other central para-military forces.
But the Assam Rifles, like the Army, is organised into companies and battalions, which would be difficult to man without deputations from the Army.
The Assam Rifles was set up by the British in 1835 as the ‘Cachar Levy’ with nearly 750 men to primarily protect British tea estates and their settlements against tribal raids.
Subsequently, all these forces were reorganised and renamed as the ‘Frontier Force’ as their role was increased to conduct of punitive expeditions across the borders of undivided Assam.
This force significantly contributed in opening the region to administration and commerce and it came to be known as the “right arm of the civil and left arm of the military”.
In independent India, Assam Rifles continued to evolve, handling conventional combat role during the Sino-India War 1962 to deployment as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force or IPKF in Sri Lanka in 1987 (Operation Pawan) , but it’s prime focus has been counter insurgency in Northeast .
The force has grown substantially over the years from 17 battalions in 1960 to 46 battalions at the moment.
With a new assertive home minister in Amit Shah and the former home secretary Rajiv Gauba likely to take over as Cabinet Secretary, the stage seems set for a complete takeover of Assam Rifles by the home ministry.
What worries the officer corps most is the possibility of removing the force from its border guarding role on India’s border with Myanmar.
This role has been integrated with its counter-insurgency duties in Northeast and involves a lot of interaction with the Burmese army.
Continuing the status quo is preferred by most in the strategic community.