Dual Control Plagues Assam Rifles

With no clarity on command and control, this fine fighting force is gradually losing its teeth

HJS SachdevLt Gen. HJS Sachdev (retd)

The Assam Rifles was raised as Cachar Levy in 1835 to protect the tea estates and British establishments in Assam from the tribals of the hill areas. Gradually, more units were raised with additional posts in the interiors and later it acted as the strong arm of the civil administration in extending its authority over the mountainous and treacherous terrain.

Variously designated and reorganised from time to time as The Assam Frontier Police (1883), The Assam Military Police (1891) and the Eastern Bengal and Assam Military Police (1913), it came to be known by its present name only in 1917 in recognition of its contribution to the war efforts during World War I. The force has been officered by army officers since 1884 and the same continues to date.

At the time of Independence, the Assam Rifles had only five battalions, one each in today’s Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. This soon changed because of the breakout of insurgencies in Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram in the mid-1950s. The Assam Rifles gradually expanded and more units were inducted along with the army to quell the violent separatist movements. The Assam Rifles played a major role in bringing down the threshold of the insurgent movements as they provided the foundation to the army on which the footprint of the security forces expanded to the interiors to regain control. Over the years, the Assam Rifles has gradually expanded to 47 battalions with a strength of approximately 67,000 personnel.

In February 2001, the Assam Rifles was mandated to guard the Indo-Myanmar border following a recommendation by the Group of Ministers on ‘Reforming the National Security System.’ Accordingly, its role was spelt out in the Assam Rifles Act and Assam Rules as under:

       Security of the borders (Indo-Myanmar) of India

       Counter insurgency operations in areas specified; and

       Aid to civil authorities for maintenance of law and order


Operational environment

Before analysing the dichotomies in execution of its designated roles, it is necessary to understand the ground realities in which the force has to effectively carry out its role/tasks.

Terrain: The terrain in all the border states is mountainous, full of thick jungles and interspersed with rivers and nullahs, which make operations extremely difficult. The precipitation levels are high, making it extremely exhaustive for a soldier, and the thick jungles reduce the visibility to a few yards. This demands a larger number of troops to cover an area equivalent to that in the plains of the Indo-Pak border. There is also a lack of roads and tracks closer to the border, making movement of troops and their maintenance difficult.

Indo-Myanmar Border: The Indo-Myanmar border (IMB) is 1,643 km in length. The whole border is demarcated except approximately 140 km in the north. In spite of a clear demarcation, there are a few places where there are disputes and they have to be constantly monitored. There is no fencing along the border except for a few kms, making the whole border porous and open to infiltration by inimical elements, smugglers, illegal migrants etc.

Militancy: Over the years militancy has seen a perceptible decline in terms of incidents because of the effectiveness of the Assam Rifles, the main force in the area. But the number of anti-India insurgent groups across the border has not reduced. Their forays into India and operations against the security forces still pose a threat to peace and tranquillity in these border states. The ceasefire with the Naga groups and the framework agreement with the NSCN-IM in 2015 are holding but it is very fragile and could blow up into a full-blown insurgency at a short notice, making it imperative for the Assam Rifles to be fully prepared at all times.

Free Movement Regime: This is a unique feature along the IMB wherein people living in the border areas can move freely to the other country, albeit through designated crossing points and with permits issued by the civil authorities (Nagaland does not have any authorised crossing point). The movement can take place up to 16 km into India and the period of stay is limited to three days. Myanmar permits stay up to only one day. While this measure allows people of the same ethnicity on either side of the border to interact and meet each other, it complicates the task of maintaining a check on cross border movement of insurgents and the smuggling of arms, ammunition or contraband goods, including narcotics.

Smuggling: Although this has been a feature along the IMB since decades because of the porous borders, the scale has increased of late, especially of narcotics in all its forms. Despite the seizures by the Assam Rifles to the tune of approximately Rs 1,000 crore and more, it may be just the tip of the iceberg.

Refugees: The recent influx of people from Myanmar has become a major problem. An estimated 20-25,000 may have crossed into Mizoram where the government has established camps for their shelter. More may be in the offing. The problem is not humanitarian alone but of national security as well. They need to be not only registered and confined to their camps, but prevented from spreading into the interiors, causing internal security issues.


Effective management

With the type of operating environment existing in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram along the IMB, the Assam Rifles has over the years done a tremendous job given the resources that are at its disposal. But even so there is scope for enhancing the effectiveness along the IMB. The main ingredients for effective border management are:

       Maintain sanctity of the border through regular checks of border pillars along the entire border and resolving issues if any with the other party through dialogue.

       Prevent illegal activities across the border to include the movement of insurgents, smuggling of arms, ammunition, contraband etc.

       Extending the reach of administrative authorities to interior areas in order to execute welfare schemes.

As a rule, for any force to be able to carry out its task effectively, the resources required must be commensurate with the challenges faced by it. The challenges faced by the Assam Rifles are as follows:

Manpower: The Assam Rifles has 46 battalions, excluding the National Disaster Relief Force battalions. Out of these, approximately one third are deployed along the border, which roughly means that each battalion has a frontage of 100 km. Compare this with approximately 40 km covered by a Border Security Force battalion on the Indo-Pak border in the plains where mobility, visibility, roads, infrastructure are much better than the IMB. There is a constant tussle between the demand for troops to guard the IMB and the troop requirement for anti-insurgency operations. This is a sore point between the ministry of home affairs and the ministry of defence, read the army. While the MHA wants more units to be deployed along the border, the army feels given the operating environment there needs to be a balance with a bias towards more troops in the hinterland for counter insurgency operations. There is a need to enhance the number of units along the border without diluting the CI grid in the hinterland. Therefore, more units need to be raised to plug the gaps in the border.

Fencing: Fencing has over the years proved to be an effective tool to check illegal migration, movement of terrorists/insurgents and smuggling of goods across the Indo-Pak and Indo-Bangladesh borders. While it is not fool proof, constant surveillance through human intervention and technology can bring down illegal activities across the border to negligible levels. Along the IMB this crucial factor is missing. One of the reasons for not fencing the IMB is that unfettered cross border movement by the local populace under the FMR will be curtailed, leading to further alienation. But fencing is necessary to control and check the movement rather than hinder and restrict.

Border infrastructure: Lack of roads and tracks prohibits the deployment of large forces along the borders. These are necessary for the movement of troops as well as maintenance.

Technology: Today adequate technology exists that can enhance the surveillance capability of ground forces, precluding the actual deployment of boots on the ground. While the jungle and mountainous terrain reduces their effectiveness, they can boost the present capability by keeping the border under check. Adequate funds have to be infused to induct surveillance devices such as quadcopters (day/night capable) at unit and sub-unit levels.


Command and control

Historically, the command and control of the Assam Rifles have been a bone of contention among decision makers at the highest levels with no permanent solution even after 75 years. At the time of independence, the command and control were under the ministry of external affairs, reflecting the overall perception or view of the Northeast from New Delhi. This changed only after the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, with administrative control moving to the MHA while the operational control remained with the army.

This arrangement continues to date. Despite the current arrangement having stood the test of time, it is a tangled skein of command and control and employability that has so haplessly ensnared this fine fighting force. The dichotomy between the responsibilities is evident from the issues below:

Organisation and Structure: The Assam Rifles unit is based on a six-company concept similar to other Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) and is expected to be deployed on a five-point basis. Since the commitments of the Assam Rifles was on active operations in perpetuity with no relief, the five-point basis was to enable one company to be constantly available for training and R&R. But no such concept exists in the Army and coupled with a shortage of overall manpower, the force is deployed on six to seven points leaving no troops for training or R&R. Such an arrangement is bound to reflect in the force’s alertness and effectiveness.

Arms and equipment: All units are armed and equipped as per the authorisation, which is centrally based on the lines of the CAPFs with a leeway of getting specific arms or equipment based on the peculiar requirements of the area of operations. This creates a dichotomy in the operating methodologies and the logistical requirements of the two forces.

Operating philosophy: The MHA expects the units to be deployed along the border as BOPs (Border Out Posts) for effective sealing whereas the Army believes in operating from COBs (Company Operating Bases), which are not necessarily strung all along the border.

Training: The training of a force which is constantly in operational mode is the biggest challenge. No amount of actual operational experience can be a total substitute for individual and collective training at regular intervals. While training is the responsibility of the Director General Assam Rifles (DGAR), sparing of manpower for the same is under the army. Since the units are stretched because of deployment on the ground, there is a constant tussle to find convergence. This adversely affects training.



As of now there is nobody who can claim to fully own the Assam Rifles. Apart from budgeting, the MHA has no control over its pattern of deployment and operating philosophy. On the other hand, the army can do little in administrative aspects such as funding, equipment, pay and allowances, welfare measures etc. As a result, its focus remains on operational matters only.

The officers have a tenure of 18 months to two years with no past linkages or future association, except at a personal level. As they come from different regiments/corps with different traditions, the continuity and development of the force’s own identity and traditions are hampered.

The Assam Rifles is the only force with no direct intake of its officer cadre. It takes time for one to attain a detailed knowledge of the strength, weaknesses and characteristics of the men and establishing a bond between the leader and the led, which pays rich dividends during operations, be it CI or war. Short tenures and the absence of the Assam Rifles’ own cadre are a handicap the force can do without.

In 1977, the Army headquarters came up with a policy wherein each Assam Rifles unit was affiliated with an army infantry regiment. This included the provision of officers from the nominated regiments. This arrangement allowed continuity in every aspect of the Assam Rifles unit with the Colonel of the regiment also keeping an eye over its growth. With an increase in the number of units and the central government’s policy of recruitment on an all-India basis, the policy could not be sustained and has got diluted.

The image of the Assam Rifles being part of the army, at times promoted by the force itself, has not benefitted it. The police officers in charge of planning and administration of the CAPFs and the Assam Rifles in the MHA often see the force with remoteness and they are indifferent to the force’s operational needs.


Tug of War

The force faces a complicated situation. The Assam Rifles cannot be placed under operational control of the MHA as it is officered by the army. But at the same time when it has been proposed that the defence ministry (Army) take over the overall responsibility, it has been turned down on the premise that the defence budget will go up. The Army wants the current arrangement to continue, much to the detriment of the force. New raisings in the force are a low priority with the MHA as it has no control over their utilisation as compared to other CAPFs, which have expanded at a much faster pace.

In the mid-2000s there was a proposal to replace the Assam Rifles with the BSF on the IMB, with hinterland duties continuing with the Army. The proposal was put in cold storage after the Army said there should not be different security forces in the border and the interiors. In 2015, the role of the Assam Rifles came under scrutiny again. R N Ravi, now the Tamil Nadu governor, in his report unfairly and unjustly accused the Assam Rifles of failing to execute its role in the Northeast.

As a follow up of this report, various proposals were floated. They were widely covered in the media too. Among the proposals was splitting the Assam Rifles into two, with one coming under the control of the BSF or the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. There was also a proposal to switch the roles of the ITBP and the Assam Rifles. No concrete arrangement could be worked out and the status quo remains. Is it cast in stone? Maybe not. An indication of this is clear from the MHA’s intention to recast the lead role on the China border to the ITBP instead of the Army. This is exactly the opposite of what the Army has been proposing for a long time.

In the ultimate analysis, it is evident that the Assam Rifles continues to suffer from a feeling of insecurity about its future. In spite of a firm bonding between the Assam Rifles and the Army, the Assam Rifles can claim to have no godfather among the powers that be. This is because of the dual command and control structure of the force. A dominant force in the region and called the Sentinels of the North East, it has been caught in a vice-like grip that is slowly throttling it. It is time a permanent solution is found for all the ills that are preventing the growth of the Assam Rifles, the most experienced and potent force. It should be allowed to regain its past glory and contribute gainfully towards the security of the nation.


Way Ahead

Despite all the handicaps and limitations, the Assam Rifles has always punched above its weight and built a reputation for itself that is comparable with the best. Does it indicate that the present arrangement is working fine and there is no need to tinker with it? Reforms are necessary to ensure full realisation of its potential. Some of the recommendations to enhance its combat effectiveness and administrative efficiency are as follows:

Command and Control: The foremost decision that needs to be arrived at is the question of dual control. It is imperative that the Assam Rifles be placed under a single ministry. This will ensure that a single head will exercise powers over it and be responsible and accountable for all its tasks. The MHA, with its focus on policing duties, law and order and miscellaneous tasks like election duties, is less suited keeping the role of the Assam Rifles in mind. The defence ministry is ideal to take charge since the values, ethos and work culture of the force are identical to the Army’s. It will cause least turbulence during transition. The budgetary support should be the least of the worries as the same can be transferred from the MHA head. As an interim measure, there is a need to have an inter-ministerial coordination group that could have regular, six-monthly meetings to share their concerns and resolve any differences, if any.

Operationalisation of DGAR: The DGAR headquarters located at Shillong has only an administrative role whereas the force is under the operational control of the 3 Corps headquarters. The 3 Corps is primarily responsible for countering the threat from China. Therefore, burdening the Assam Rifles with guarding the IMB and carrying out CI operations in Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and parts of Assam defies logic. Perhaps it is the dual control that is preventing the Army from placing the overall command and control under the DGAR headquarters. With increasing focus on India’s main adversary, China, operationalising the DGAR headquarters under the Eastern Command headquarters has become imperative. There will be a requirement for additional staff and other resources at the headquarters to include aviation, intelligence and surveillance assets. But the advantages that will accrue from it are manifold:

       3 Corps will be able to focus exclusively on the India-China border.

       The Assam Rifles will be under a single chain of command, bringing better cooperation, coordination and synergy among the lower formations and units.

       Responsibility and accountability will be under a single head.

Additional Raisings: The current force levels are woefully inadequate to fulfil its current mandate. With the additional problem of refugees, it has got further aggravated. A minimum of one IG headquarters along with approximately15 units are required to boost the capability of the Assam Rifles along the border. This will bring down the frontage of each unit to a manageable level (50 kms), if not acceptable levels. The raisings could be in a gradual manner and even absorb the Agniveers discharged from the Army from 2026 onwards.

Road Infrastructure: The construction of border roads needs to be taken up on a war footing to enable the deployment of additional forces along the border. The lack of it today, however, should not become an impediment and pre-requisite for deployment.

Fencing: The whole IMB must be fenced starting from areas where it is possible and slowly expanded to difficult areas. Fencing could be a part of a holistic plan and coordinated along with additional raisings and their deployment.

Revisit Free Movement Regime. Welfare measures have their place in governance but they cannot override national security considerations. The FMR, initially up to 40 km on either side, was reduced to 16 km in 2010. In view of the increasing security concerns owing to the influx of refugees and smuggling of narcotics, the FMR needs to be revisited both in terms of distances and time period.

Budgetary Support: As per the MHA’s annual report, the Assam Rifles budget in 2020-21 has increased by 20 per cent from 2015-16. This does not even cater to inflation and increase in salaries in 2016. The corresponding increase in the budget of the CAPFs varies from 31 per cent to 48 per cent. The budgetary increase should be brought on a par to enable modernisation and better administration of the force.

Officering Assam Rifles: The force should have its own cadre with direct intake of up to 20 per cent to provide continuity in the functioning of the units and bringing a sense of ownership. Even the induction of selected SSC officers after five years in the army, in vogue during 1960s and 1970s, is a viable option. Along with this the units must be affiliated to infantry regiments with the infantry officers being posted only to the Assam Rifles. The present arrangement of posting officers from other arms and services must be kept to the minimum.



In the 187 years of its existence, the Assam Rifles has been the most potent and highly decorated force in the Northeast with a glorious legacy dating back to pre-Independence era. It has participated in both World Wars, the Sino-India war of 1962, all the Indo-Pak wars, Operation Pawan, operations in Jammu and Kashmir and played a predominant role in quelling and controlling insurgencies in the Northeast, a record that would be the envy of any security force in the world.

The Assam Rifles has been recognised with more than 11,000 awards and decorations. Yet this ‘federal force’ has been reduced to a ‘regional zone’ and plagued by shortcomings. It remains on the periphery of India’s national security calculus.

No living being can flourish when its mind, body and soul are not working in tandem. Having the body of the MHA and the mind and soul of the Army is not an option anymore if India has to tackle the complex security concerns of the IMB, counter insurgency and the Chinese threat along northern borders of the Northeast. It is time the highest decision-making body in the government takes cognisance of the multifarious threats existing in the Northeast, recognise the capacity of the Assam Rifles and empowers it fully by expanding its footprint and removing the impediments in its command and control structures.

(The writer is a former DG, Assam Rifles)

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