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Why Replace the Assam Rifles along the Indo-Myanmar Border?

Shivananda H. is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • July 29, 2011

    Replacing the Assam Rifles with the BSF along the Indo-Myanmar will be a sub-optimal option to ensure security in the Northeast region.

    The Assam Rifles, which is deployed along the Indo-Myanmar border, was put in an awkward situation when the ministry of home affairs (MHA) proposed to replace them with the Border Security Force (BSF). The matter became a tussle between the MHA and ministry of defence (MOD) when the latter contested the proposal. The disagreement has been reportedly referred to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) for an ultimate resolution. The issue became further complicated when it emerged that the army is demanding operational control over the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force (ITBP) positioned along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China.

    The Assam Rifles, the oldest paramilitary force in India (raised in 1835), is administratively under the MHA but operational control over it is exercised by the army (MOD). It was entrusted with the responsibility of guarding the 1643 km long Indo-Myanmar border in 2002, when its force strength was 30 battalions; it moved in to replace the BSF. Currently, the Assam Rifles consists of 46 battalions, of which 31 are deployed for counterinsurgency (CI) operations while the rest are tasked with guarding the India-Myanmar border, including the prevention of arms and drug trafficking.

    The MHA is under the impression that the Assam Rifles, traditionally a CI force, has not proved to be efficient in this task while at the same time it is not guarding the border properly as well. According to media reports, the MHA has observed that the AR has not been able to check the trans-border movement of the Northeast militants from their bases in Myanmar. But, the MHA seems to have overlooked the fact that the Assam Rifles alone is not responsible for counter insurgency in the Northeast region.

    Nonetheless, the issue of reshuffling the forces came up in April 2010 when the MHA informed the MOD that its was entrusting the BSF with responsibility for guarding the Indo-Myanmar border. It had also been found that most of the Assam Rifles’ posts were located much inside Indian territory and only a few posts were positioned near the zero line of the international border. The MHA has further stated that Home Minister P. Chidambaram had taken up the issue with Defence Minister A.K. Antony on several occasions and requested him to direct the Assam Rifles to move its troops right up to the zero line, at least along the vulnerable areas of the border. But, the Assam Rifles was unable to comply since it was faced with the problem of inadequate infrastructure including transportation. Interestingly, when the Assam Rifles sought an increase in its battalion strength, the MHA had refused to give the go-ahead and instead had asked the force to move right up to the zero point of the border as a precondition for the sanction.

    The MHA argues that relieving the Assam Rifles from border duty would allow it to focus on CI operations. Further, the MHA has sought the implementation of the “one border, one force” doctrine of 2001, recommended by the border management task force formed after the 1999 Kargil conflict and the group of ministers’ report on reforming the national security system. But, interestingly, the deployment of the BSF in place of the Assam Rifles along the Indo-Myanmar border would be an additional responsibility for the BSF, which has just moved into the left wing extremism affected areas apart from continuing to perform its primary task of guarding the Indo-Bangladesh and Indo-Pakistan borders; even this is contrary to the “one border, one force” concept.

    On the other hand, the MOD has opposed the proposal for moving the Assam Rifles from the border on the grounds that the force and the army would be deprived of its knowledge of the area and the operational experience it has gained in the region especially considering the potential threat from China. Sino-Myanmar military cooperation, which started with Myanmar’s purchase of arms including jet fighters, armoured vehicles and naval vessels in 1989, has become much deeper now. Myanmar has brought the Chinese to India’s eastern flank with the upgradation of infrastructure like dams, bridges, roads and ports including electronic-intelligence and maritime reconnaissance facilities. Recently, on May 13, 2011 the president of Myanmar, U Thein Sein publicly appreciated the military cooperation extended by China when the vice chairman of China’s Military Commission, Xu Caihou visited Myanmar. China’s interest in infrastructure development inside Myanmar along with its strategic military ties is also enhancing China’s military capabilities. The Chinese are keen to rebuild the old Stilwell Road and are developing several air fields as well.

    Against the backdrop of this emerging security environment and further considering the vulnerability of the border areas, the MOD is justified in wanting to keep the Assam Rifles under the control of the army along the Indo-Myanmar border. The Assam Rifles also supplements the army’s combat capability since it is integrated with the latter’s overall operational role and profile. It is unique among the seven paramilitary forces in India and has a specialised knowledge of the Northeast environment. Known as the “the sentinels of the Northeast” and “friends of the hill people”, the force has performed commendably in various CI operations in the region and has in addition contributed to the uplift of the local tribes in the hostile remote border areas. Ninety per cent of the force’s officer cadre is on deputation from the Army; thirty per cent of its troops are recruited from the Northeast region; and the training and ethos are similar to that of regular infantry regiments. Since the Assam Rifles is commanded by officers on deputation from the army, any expansion of the force would mean the need for more officers; which is difficult to envisage given the massive shortage of 11,238 officers that the army suffers from.

    Given that the Assam Rifles has been deployed in the Northeast since its inception, no other forces in India is more experienced or has a better understanding of the ground scenario. Therefore, replacing the Assam Rifles with the BSF along the Indo-Myanmar will be a sub-optimal option to ensure security in the region.