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Frontier force

Print edition : Jun 18, 2010 T+T-
in Dimapur

Six platoons of new recruits marched in perfect rhythm and synchronisation into the parade ground of the Assam Rifles Training Centre and School at Sukhovi in Nagaland on February 27. The occasion was the special attestation parade to mark the completion of 46 weeks of gruelling training in battlecraft, weapons handling, jungle-lane shooting and other specialisations in counter-insurgency operations for them.

The recruits, mostly tribal youth from the northeastern States, and their parents, who were also present, were greeted by a display of hot-air ballooning, breathtaking motorcycle rides, and so on. The event was part of the celebrations marking 175 years of the Assam Rifles, the country's oldest paramilitary force.

The passing-out parade was reviewed by Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai in the presence of the Director General of Assam Rifles Lt. Gen. K.S. Yadava; General Officer Commanding, 3 Corps of the Army, Lt. Gen. N.K. Singh; and other senior officers of the Indian Army and the Assam Rifles.

The Assam Rifles Training Centre and School, situated on a 800-hectare campus about 20 kilometres from Dimapur, the Nagaland capital, makes perfect riflemen out of fresh recruits. The training imparted is as good as in the Indian Army as far as military expertise, battlecraft, physical fitness, firing standards, reflexes and reaction shooting are concerned, and the recruits can confidently go to the battlefield if and when called.

The centre, which trains 2,200 to 2,400 recruits at a time, is one of the largest training centres for armed forces in the country.

History of the unit

From a semi-military body formed in 1835 to protect the tea gardens and other British establishments by undertaking punitive expeditions against various tribes in the northeastern part of India, the Assam Rifles has metamorphosed into a region-specific force that has the northeastern region as its area of operation.

The unit is commanded by an officer of the rank of lieutenant general in the Army. The headquarters of the Director-General of Assam Rifles (DGAR) is located in Shillong unlike other central paramilitary forces, all of which have their headquarters in New Delhi. Apart from this, the Assam Rifles has two Inspector-General-level headquarters and nine sector headquarters.

Of its 46 battalions, 31 are for counter-insurgency operations and 15 are for guarding the borders. At present, all the border-guarding battalions are deployed along the Indo-Myanmar border to check infiltration and the smuggling of arms, ammunition, drugs, fake currency notes and so on. Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram are the four northeastern States that share the 1,643-kilometre-long border with Myanmar.

Colonel L.W. Shakespear's History of The Assam Rifles (published by Firma KLM Private Ltd on behalf of Tribal Research Institute, Aizawl, Mizoram; first printed in 1929 and reprinted in 1977) gives an elaborate historical account of the paramilitary force :

Excessive annual expenses in keeping a large force of troops in Assam, when the country had settled down and only depredations of wild hill tribes remained to be guarded against, caused Government to review the situation from the defensive aspects and to reduce the military force, which in about 1840 was brought down to the four regiments.

From 1830 the armed Civil Police had been gradually increased in numbers, and now, with the reduction of troops in the province, the first idea of a Levy or Militia body was put forward to be a separate force under the Civil Government and apart from the armed police branch. This proposed Levy was to be placed on a better footing than the ordinary police, would perform military duties, and would replace the troops in certain parts of the border.

It was to be a cheap semi-military body, clothed like the Civil Police and armed with the old Brown Bess, but it was badly paid, though slightly better than was the case with ordinary people this first unit of this new organisation was definitely raised by Mr Grange, in civil charge of the Nowgong district during 1835 and was named the Cachar Levy with a strength of 750 of all ranks, viz., inspectors, head constables and constables, as they were called until 1883, in virtue of their being a purely civil force. This Cachar Levy thus formed the earliest embodied unit of what eventually developed into the fine force of the five Assam Rifles battalions of the present day.

The primary role and task of the Assam Rifles is to conduct counter-insurgency operations in the north-eastern region and other areas, where deemed necessary, under the control of the Army. During times of peace and proxy war', it has to ensure the security of the India-China and India-Myanmar borders. In internal security matters, it acts under the purview of the Army, as the penultimate interventionist force of the Central government when the situation goes beyond the control of other Central paramilitary forces.

Lt. Col. R.S. Chhettri notes in the Guardians of the North East The Assam Rifles 1835-2002: The whole of nineteenth century and the first half of twentieth century is full of myriad expeditions launched by the British with Assam Rifles as their spearhead to get control of the entire northeast. The Assam Military Police in conjunction with the Army carried out various expeditions. Some of the famous ones are: Kuki Operations of 1880-82 and 1917-1919, Manipur Expeditions of 1886, Lushai Hills Expeditions of 1880-90, 1896 and 1917-19, Abor Expeditions of 893-94, 1911-12, Apatani Expedition of 1887 and Mishmi Expeditions of 1899-1900, 1911-12.

During British rule, the force helped in the colonial expansion of the country's northeast.

After Independence, it has been playing a key role in extending India's administrative arms to the remotest areas of the region.

Vijaynagar, an inaccessible settlement in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh located at the tri-juncture of India, Myanmar and China, came up around an Assam Rifles post established in 1962 (see Frontline, October 9, 2009). Flights of Indian Air Force (IAF) transport aircraft carry supplies of essentials to its 13 villages.

When the flights get cancelled for too long, Assam Rifles and IAF personnel share their rations with the residents of the settlement, which has neither road connectivity nor electricity supply and is not covered by the public distribution system (PDS).

The Assam Rifles also serves as a major employer for the youth of this and several such remote settlements in the region.

The famous anthropologist Dr Verrier Elwin, Adviser to the Governor of Assam on Tribal Affairs from 1953-64, described the Assam Rifles as Friends of the Hill people, in recognition of the roles it played in the region. The custodian of law and order, pioneers of every advance into the interior, the guardians of our border and, above all, the friends of the hill people. Modestly, without fuss, they have faced every possible hardship and difficulty and thousands of villagers in [the] wildest areas think of them with affection and gratitude. May they long continue to provide the foundations of security and order in our border areas, he wrote.

Unlike other paramilitary forces in the country, the Assam Rifles has been built on a military pattern since the British period and is now officered almost entirely by Army officers on deputation and officers released by the Army who are then re-employed as officers in the paramilitary force.

Although the Assam Rifles was meant to be a force specific to the northeastern region, its troops, because of their vast experience and expertise acquired during decades of counter-insurgency operations in the northeastern States, had been deployed in Jammu and Kashmir and in Sri Lanka and had won many bravery awards, Lt. Gen. Yadava told Frontline. It also took active part in both the World Wars, the India-China war of 1962 and the India-Pakistan war of 1971. Therefore, he said, it was considered a fully alert and fully trained force that could back the Indian Army in the event of an external threat.

With the Government of India pursuing a look east' policy in order to achieve closer economic cooperation with South-East Asian countries, the DGAR foresaw a larger role for his force. It might be called upon to protect the huge road, rail and other infrastructure that will come up in the northeastern region in the coming years as a result of the implementation of this policy. The rapidly changing face of the northeastern insurgency poses tough challenges before the Assam Rifles. However, the obstacles and challenges it has overcome in the 175 years of its existence have turned it into a confident force.

In recognition of its confidence and dedication, the Government of India decided, on February 27, to send a group of Assam Rifles personnel to quake-hit Haiti under the aegis of a United Nations mission in April a just tribute to its oldest paramilitary force.