The Delhi High Court has granted 12 weeks to the Union government to decide on whether to scrap or retain the dual control structure for Assam Rifles, which comes under both the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Observing that the matter has been pending for almost three years, the court said it appears that an in-principle decision has been taken to keep the central armed police force under the exclusive control of MHA, but the final decision has not yet been taken.
The order was passed on a petition filed by Assam Rifles Ex-Servicemen Welfare Association. Its plea contends that dual control prejudices the personnel of the force.
What is Assam Rifles?
Assam Rifles is one of the six central armed police forces (CAPFs) under the administrative control of Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The other forces being the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Border Security Force (BSF), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB).
It is tasked with the maintenance of law and order in the North East along with the Indian Army and also guards the Indo-Myanmar border in the region. It has a sanctioned strength of over 63,000 personnel and has 46 battalions apart from administrative and training staff.
How is it unique?
It is the only paramilitary force with a dual control structure. While the administrative control of the force is with the MHA, its operational control is with the Indian Army, which is under the MoD. This means that salaries and infrastructure for the force is provided by the MHA, but the deployment, posting, transfer and deputation of the personnel is decided by the Army. All its senior ranks, from DG to IG and sector headquarters, are manned by officers from the Army. The force is commanded by Lieutenant General from the Indian Army.
The force is the only central paramilitary force (CPMF) in real sense as its operational duties and regimentation are on the lines of the Indian Army. However, its recruitment, perks, promotion of its personnel and retirement policies are governed according to the rules framed by the MHA for CAPFs.
This has created two sets of demands from both within the Assam rifles and by MoD and MHA for singular control over the force by one ministry. A large section within the force wants to be under the administrative control of the MoD, as that would mean better perks and retirement benefits which are far higher compared to CAPFs under MHA. However, Army personnel also retire early, at 35, while the retirement age in CAPF is 60 years.
Also, CAPF officers have recently been granted non-functional financial upgradation (NFFU) to at least financially address the issue of stagnation in their careers due to lack of avenues for promotion. But Army personnel also get one-rank-one-pension which is not available to CAPFs.
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Why do both MHA and MoD want full control?
MHA has argued that all the border guarding forces are under the operational control of the ministry and so Assam Rifles coming under MHA will give border guarding a comprehensive and integrated approach. MHA sources also say that Assam Rifles continues to function on the pattern set during the 1960s and the ministry would want to make guarding of the Indo-Myanmar border on the lines of other CAPFs.
The Army, for its part, has been arguing that there is no need to fix what isn’t broken. Sources say the Army is of the opinion that the Assam Rifles has worked well in coordination with the Army and frees up the armed forces from many of its responsibilities to focus on its core strengths. It has also argued that Assam Rifles was always a military force and not a police force and has been built like that. It has argued that giving the control of the force to MHA or merging it with any other CAPF will confuse the force and jeopardise national security.
How old is the issue?
Both MHA and MoD have wanted full control of the force for a long time. Opinions to this effect have been expressed by both Army and police officers from time to time in public domain.
However, it was in 2013 that MHA first made a proposal to take operational control of the Assam Rifles and merge it with the BSF. There were discussions held between MHA and MoD, however, no agreeable ground could be found.
In 2019, after Amit Shah took over as Home Minister, the proposal was renewed – this time with a plan to merge Assam Rifles with the ITBP. The matter is said to be pending with the Cabinet Committee on Security and discussions are on between the two ministries concerned.
Since then the Indian Army has actually been pushing for not only total control of Assam Rifles but also operational control over ITBP, which guards the Sino-Indian border and is currently engaged in a standoff with the Chinese PLA in eastern Ladakh.
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Meanwhile, Assam Rifles Ex-Servicemen Welfare Association filed a petition in the Delhi High Court seeking its intervention in the matter. Its plea expressed difficulties faced by the personnel due to the dual control structure and even called the force’s categorisation as a police force as arbitrary. It also demanded pay and perks on the lines of the Army for Assam Rifles personnel.
What has been the contribution of Assam Rifles?
Assam Rifles is the oldest paramilitary force raised way back in 1835 in British India with just 750 men. Since then it has gone on to fight in two World Wars, the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and used as an anti-insurgency force against militant groups in the North East.
Raised as a militia to protect British tea estates and its settlements from the raids of the NE tribes, the force was first known as Cachar Levy. It was reorganised later as Assam Frontier Force as its role was expanded to conduct punitive operations beyond Assam borders.
Given its contribution in opening the region to administration and commerce, it came to be known as the “right arm of the civil and left arm of the military”.
In 1870, existing elements were merged into three Assam Military Police Battalions, named as Lushai Hills, Lakhimpur and Naga Hills. The ‘Darrang’ Battalion was raised just before the onset of World War I. Since Reservists were difficult to be called on short notice and Gurkha Battalions’ soldiers were on leave in Nepal, the Assam Military Police were tasked to take their place. Thus, this force sent over 3,000 men as part of the British Army to Europe and the Middle East. In 1917, recognising their work during the World War I, fighting shoulder to shoulder with Rifle Regiments of the regular British Army, the name of the force was changed to ‘Assam Rifles’.
The post-Independence role of the Assam Rifles continued to evolve, ranging from conventional combat role during Sino-India War 1962, operating in foreign land as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka in 1987 (Operation Pawan) to peacekeeping role in the North-Eastern areas of India.
It remains the most awarded paramilitary force in both pre- and post-independent India. During the World War I, the force was awarded 76 gallantry medals, including seven Indian Order of Merit awards and five Indian Distinguished Service Medals, for its contribution in Europe and the Middle East during the conflict.
In World War II, after the lightning Japanese advance in 1942, the Assam Rifles fought a number of independent actions behind enemy lines as the task of rear-area defence and rear-guard often fell to them during the Allies retreat into India. They also organised a resistance group—the Victor Force– on the Indo–Burmese border to counter the Japanese invasion and to harass the enemy line of communications. The force was awarded 48 gallantry medals during the war.
Since Independence, the force has won 120 Shaurya Chakras, 31 Kirti Chakras, five Vir Chakras and four Ashok Chakras, apart from 188 Sena Medals.
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