A R: Kartavyam Sarvotam

BHARAT RAKSHAK MONITOR - Volume 4(5) March-April 2002

Feature Articles

Kartavyam Sarvotam

The Assam Rifles

Lt Col A K Sharma (Retd)

Para Military Forces first came to be employed on the Indian sub-continent, some time in the mid-19th century, essentially to consolidate and extend the annexation of the northeastern and the northwestern portions of the Indian landmass, with the least expense to the treasury. The then sovereign authorities found it increasingly difficult to garrison newly conquered territories; lying at great distances from the Presidency towns; with the regular troops. This was mainly owing to the exorbitant outlays involved. Paucity of readily available units was another reason. The problem was solved by raising special local units, such as the Punjab Irregular Frontier Force in the Punjab. In the northeast, the Assam Rifles (AR), initially named the Cachar Levys, came into being. Assam Rifles is the oldest para military force in India; rather the only para-military force in the strictest sense of the term. Its primary role as of now is to keep a vigil on a portion of India’s northeastern International Border (IB). It also has the role of maintaining law and order in the tribal areas of Assam; a role that is now being abrogated to the police forces of the States and Union Territories that have emerged in northeastern India.

The AR traces its genesis back to 1835, when it was raised as a semi-military force known as the Cachar Levy with a complement of only 750. The role of this Force, as it was then conceived, was to maintain law and order in the Lushai Hills, and more generally to safeguard British interests; like tea gardens and other developmental work in relation to the opening up of the Assam area from the depredations of the head-hunting tribes which found great outdoor relief in raiding neighbouring settlements just for adventure and the fun of it. The Force was extensively used for extending administrative control over remote tribal areas in very difficult conditions with only rudimentary administrative back-up and at nominal pecuniary cost; however, it bore all odds with exemplary fortitude and stoicism - characteristics which still underlie the ethos of the Force to date. Small townships, such as Aizawl, Lungleh, Kohima, Mokokchung, Tuensang, Haflong, Cherrapunji and Tura gradually mushroomed around its outposts. These are bustling population centres now. Variously designated and reorganised from time to time, as the Assam Frontier Police (1883), the Assam Military Police (1891) and Eastern Bengal and Assam Military Police (1913), it came to be known by its present name of the Assam Rifles in 1917 in recognition of its contribution to the war effort during the Great War.

The Force performed very commendably in the World Wars. In WW I it provided 23 officers and 3,174 soldiers to the various British Indian Army Gurkha Regiments, a process, which over the years resulted, into permanent affiliations of the battalions of AR to different groups of the Gurkhas. They fought shoulder to shoulder alongside regular army troops in the Middle East and acquitted themselves creditably, bagging as many as 76 decorations in the bargain. Later on, men were provided to the army columns engaged on punitive expeditions into the erstwhile Assam Hill Districts and North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA) and also some in trans-border reprisal missions into Burma. It was used for restoration of law and order in Patna in 1917 and also against the Moplah rebels in 1924. WW II saw it functioning as an element of the much-fabled, hush-hush and ghost-like “V” Force, on reconnaissance and harassment missions behind Japanese lines in Burma. Many of its sub units fought alongside regular British and Indian troops in the fiercely contested battles of the Burma Front from Ukhrul to Kohima. One platoon was even para-dropped behind the Japanese on the Sittang River. Though only five battalion strong then, it soldiered on valiantly to tally up a staggering total of 48 battle gallantry decorations/ medals. Some of its units did a historic and yeoman service in the management, evacuation and control of refugees staggering out on long, arduous and miserable treks in the dense jungles of Burma/NEFA in the face of the Japanese onslaught.

The AR along with the Church, have managed to transform pre-historic animalistic societies of the northeast from the stone-age to space-age in three or four generations. Their humane and tactful handling of the inhabitants of our far-flung regions and tribal areas; be it during the initial era of pacification, or in the immediate post-Independence period of political turmoil, instability, ethnic tribal aspirations and resultant disturbed conditions; the AR troops have managed to win the hearts and minds of the populace in a good natured and large-hearted manner. It is, therefore, not for nothing, that the famous and erudite anthropologist and naturalist, Verrier Elwin has bestowed on them a singularly significant sobriquet of sorts: “The Friends Of The Hill People”! This is what he has said of them in tribute:

“The custodians of law and order, the pioneers of every advance into the interior, the guardians of our borders and the friends of the hill people. Modestly, and without fuss, they have faced every hardship and difficulty, and thousands of villagers in the wildest of areas think of them with affection and gratitude.”

The AR operations are characterised by their total lack of any unfavourable post-operation fall-out whatsoever. They rely heavily on real-time intelligence and very swift reactions against pinpointed targets and specific individuals. They are loath to the ham-handed ways of the other forces, including the army, which only go to firm up the resolve of the dissidents and those gone astray, apart from antagonising the general public. They are past masters at roughing it out, and of course, very adept at improvisation, make do and living off the land with good grace. They know the border areas of their deployment like the palms of their hands. Experts in water crossing expedients, braving the elements and long cross-country marches on a self contained basis, they lend themselves excellently to their role as “the sentinels of the North East” as Major General DK Palit, VrC, FRGS (Retd) refers to them in his definitive regimental history of this remarkable Force. The AR units communicate on a very reliable, quick-response, secure and efficient static radio grid. Their MT drivers are experts in winding up and down narrow hill tracks in all kinds of weather conditions. It speaks volumes of their savvy in daily technical chores that, despite the step-motherly treatment meted out to them, they manage to keep the large vehicle fleet in a good roadworthy condition. These soldiers are quite skilled at elementary civil engineering tasks like construction of living quarters and road building including bridging. The troops are very mature, hardy, weather beaten, courageous, and know how to get on with the job at hand. They have the added advantage of conversing in the local lingo - a definite asset in a counter insurgency environment. This capability of the AR is further augmented by the presence of the locally recruited lads in units. Properly handled, these boys are real treasures in different situations such as in disturbed areas. Contrary to a misconception, the AR ethos is, in fact, one of accountability and honesty; sincerity and sagacity; the ‘do or die’ kind. Despite all these substantial positive attributes, it generally takes committed and sympathetic leadership to bring out the best in the men. They cannot be taken for granted for they can see through commanders in no time. Army officers have generally earned a good reputation for themselves. Names like Sushil Kumar, Father Lazarus, OP Bhandari, Sidhiman Rai, Kukreti, Jas Ram, RS Dayal and Krishan Pal are legends. One or two of these officers are even revered as demi-Gods, and this is no hyperbole!

Till Independence, the AR formed an integral part of the civil police under the Inspector General of Police, Assam. At that time, the units were commanded by civilians/police officers, though only those with a military background were preferred. This arrangement was not found to be particularly satisfactory, as it did not provide the desired degree of military captaincy particularly on mobile missions. This lead to the army providing officers on a volunteer basis. For over a hundred years now, the Indian Army has been providing the higher echelon leadership in the AR. On the transfer of power, Colonel Sidhiman Rai MC was appointed the first Indian IG AR. Since then, army officers have led the AR at different rungs of command. Prior to 1965, this Force was under the Ministry of External Affairs which was looking after the tribal areas till then. It was transferred to the Ministry of Home Affairs when the latter took over this responsibility.

From a nominal complement of only five battalions in 1947, it grew to 17 by 1960, to 21 by 1968 and to a substantial 31 as of now. The force is in the process of adding a further 12 rifle battalions post-Kargil. In addition, the Force has several range HQs, a training centre, and a number of logistics units under the HQ DG AR, Shillong. The Assam Rifles Public School, a brainchild of Lt Gen Sushil Kumar, the then DG AR, is a much sought after educational institute in the northeast.

Most of the AR units are under the operational control of the army. Their battle potential is as good as that of the regular infantry battalions. AR battalions are adept in counter insurgency operations, where their performance has been better than that of the Army/ Rashtriya Rifles. They are especially proficient in the un-orthodox type of small-scale missions to seek and destroy/apprehend hostiles. The study of one such mission, code named Operation “Zebra”, successfully launched and executed by 19 AR, was included in the curriculum of training of army infantry battalions being inducted for counter insurgency operations.

Organisation, leadership, equipment and training of the Force is generally on the Army pattern, however, each battalion has a unique Peace Establishment (PE). It is mostly officered by army officers who are being provided by the army on the same basis as it does for its own units. There is a fair number of ex-ECOs as also departmental promotees as well. The AR battalions have been permanently affiliated to various Infantry Regiments (mainly Gorkha regiments) for the purpose of providing officers from the regimental panels. AR commissioned JCOs lead at the sub-sub unit level. They can be easily rated above the army infantry JCOs. They have a lot of pride in the Force and their battalions; physically they are very fit, they exhibit a lot of initiative and a yen for independent command. The AR draws its rank and file from the hill tribes of northern/northeastern India, though a sprinkling of people from all corners of India is to be found down to the section level. Gorkhas, both Nepalese and domiciled, constitute approximately 40 per cent, followed by Garhwalis, Kumaonis and Dogras/Himachalis. A large number of Malayalis, generally serving in the signals/cypher/medical sub-units, have also found their way into the Force. Be that as it may, the predominant culture is Gorkhali, and Khas-kura is the unofficial lingua franca. AR battalions, also have on their rolls, a fair number of “ministerial staff” or plain civilians, including ladies, in the finance branches and integral hospitals. The rank and file of the units under the operational control of the army are subject to the Army Act, those not, can be dealt with only under the provisions of the Civil Services rules even when operationally deployed. The age of retirement of men is 57 years but this is proving a strain after prolonged and continuous deployment of the AR in remote, far flung, backward, inhospitable and under-developed tribal border areas.

Some notable achievements and landmark events concerning the AR are:

  1. In the disastrous 1950 earthquake in Upper Assam, 2 AR jawans rendered immediate and invaluable help in the reconstruction, resettlement and rehabilitation of the victims.
  2. In 1959, it was the forward elements of this Force that received His Holiness The Dalai Lama and his entourage fleeing into India, and ensured their safe passage up to Misamari.
  3. The initial onslaught of the Chinese in 1962 was borne by delaying elements of the AR. They gave a good account of themselves in this delaying role to enable the army to take up whatever defences that it was able to manage in the event.
  4. The AR filled the void in toto in Nagaland and Manipur after the army formations deployed there were pulled out for operations in the west during the 1965 Indo-Pak War. They conducted counter insurgency operations and were in addition responsible for the general law and order situation. The AR deployment was further stretched as they were to stand in for the army along the Indo-Tibetan border and the International Border with the erstwhile East Pakistan in Tripura. Rather thin on the ground, as indeed they undoubtedly were, they fulfilled their assignments with the usual élan and fortitude.
  5. Similarly, the AR relieved the army for operations in the 1971 Bangladesh War. This time, their brief encompassed not only Nagaland and Manipur but also Mizoram and Tripura, where active counter insurgency operations were in full swing.
  6. The 22nd, 23rd and 26th AR Battalions were committed for Op Pawan in Sri Lanka from December 1988 to February 1990. They were under the direct operational control of the army. Adept in the counter insurgency type operations undertaken there, they were on home ground and as such came out with colours flying very high!.
  7. Two battalions of AR, the 7th and the 26th, have operated in the Srinagar Valley with great success. Their catches were more than those of the adjoining army units and formation commanders rated their performance very high.

At present the Force is deployed primarily in the northeast. It is helping out the civil administration in the maintenance of law and order, assisting the army in counter insurgency duties, and the general welfare of the locals and development of the inaccessible areas. It has proved itself as more than a match at least, if definitely not a rival for vying for honours and awards of army units engaged in counter insurgency and border surveillance roles. It can, therefore, be safely argued that, there exists a strong case for independent and more substantial role for this extraordinary Force, in the realm of the strategic defence of the Nation.

For example, to start with, the DG AR could be entrusted with operational duties as well. He could be directly responsible to the Army’s Eastern Command for CI Ops in the northeast particularly in the troubled states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur, and Arunachal. Army formations should be pulled out from these areas, because they hardly provide any tangible benefits in a CI environment when the AR is placed under their command. In fact, they contribute in no uncertain way in fettering the AR troops and their typical modus operandi, not to speak of kindling a smouldering heart-burning as far as sharing the booty of gallantry awards goes. Some of the Army brass tries to steal their thunder and belittle the achievements of AR units. They are impatient for results and quick fixes, conveniently forgetting in their over exuberance that, quick fixes in a CI environment are few and far between. They should remember that, there are no short-term military solutions to a CI situation. Therefore, let it be stated once and for all time to come that, the army battalions, which are inducted for only fleeting tours of duty, can never aspire to be even a patch on the AR units which remain static in their areas of responsibilities for ages, and accrue innumerable operational advantages at the cutting edge of combat as a result of this.

Operations cannot be divorced from logistics, therefore, it goes without saying, that in order to shoulder this enhanced responsibility, the Force will have to be provided the requisite, integral and dedicated administrative backup, a sizeable portion of which is being provided by the Army on a book debit basis as of now. Later, suitably augmented with supporting arms, the AR could also be held responsible for guarding the entire northeastern border contiguous to the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. New raisings of AR battalions in sufficient numbers, on War Equipment Tables (WETs) similar to the infantry battalions on Modification ‘M’, will be required. The existing ones will have to be reorganised. Additional raisings will have to cater for training, rest and refitting within the Force. As of now, hardly any collective training worth its name is practicable in the continuous deployment for operations scenario. Any training the troops can manage is of the on-the-job type. This is not at all a happy arrangement. As far as rest and recuperation, and the welfare of their families goes, the picture is even more grim. Troops are prone to bouts of loneliness and battle fatigue after such a prolonged deployment in remote war-torn regions. About time they got a break. The Force will require some dedicated heli-borne air reconnaissance, lift and mobility for quick reactions and re-supply in the mountainous northeast, which even in this age, has only, a rather primitive overland communications infrastructure.

In their proposed new and enhanced commitment, the AR ranges need to be deployed in three predominant tiers. The first one on the International Border in forward defended localities and border outposts/piquets/Early Warning Elements. The second tier, about fifteen to twenty kilometres in depth along routes of ingress of the anti-national elements and enemy approaches, for interception, apprehension and annihilation. The last one has to be sited in and around important population centres/towns. This deployment will lend itself eminently to the proposed roles as it caters to step-by-step detection, discovery and planned destruction of intruders of any kind, be it the hostiles or the enemy. For effective command and control in this deployment, the DG AR will per force be required to function out of a tactical headquarters located at Dimapur, during active operations. IG HQs will have to be situated in each state. A few additional Range HQs will be imperative in the interest of methodical monitoring of the fluid and continuously changing battle situations that will invariably develop at short notice. Ranges should be closely integrated with not more than four to six battalions in each. These units should be rotated periodically within the range for rejuvenation thereby precluding the possibility of their going to seed and preventing over fraternisation with the local populace.

The AR has a proud record of devotion to duty and exemplary service. Nothing denotes it better then perhaps the honours and accolades bestowed on its rank and file. They have gone on to win as many as 534 army awards (including three Ashok Chakras Class 1, 28 Kirti Chakras, 94 Shaurya Chakras, and 5 Vir Chakras) after Independence! Civil/Police awards total a staggering 1997 (including 3 President’s Police medals, and 117 President’s Medals for Meritorious Service) 604 of them have also given the supreme sacrifice in the service to the Nation.

The author is an ex-Indian Army Officer and a former Commandant of a Battalion of the Assam Rifles.Reproduced with permission from Lancer Publishers Ltd - Indian Defence Review Volume 16 (4) 2002.

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