Who gets to control the Assam Rifles (AR) may be decided in a courtroom later this year amidst a tussle between the Defence and Home ministries over control of the country’s most decorated paramilitary force.
Currently AR is administered by the Home Ministry whereas its operational control is with the Army, which is under the Defence Ministry. The Amit Shah-headed Home Ministry is looking to merge the oldest paramilitary force raised in 1835 with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), arguing that all the border guarding forces in the country should be under its full control for an integrated border management.
Manning the borders
AR guards the India-Myanmar border and the ITBP patrols the Line of Actual Control with China. India’s borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan are manned by the Border Security Force while the Nepal and Bhutan borders are guarded by the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB).
All these border guarding forces, except the AR which is also involved in counter-insurgency operations in the Northeast and also in Jammu and Kashmir, are under the exclusive control of the Home Ministry. The Ministry now wants to bring AR totally under its ambit through the merger, a proposal vehemently opposed by the Army as well as those who have served the Assam Rifles.
The Defence Ministry’s contention is that AR has been trained to be a military force and has been a force multiplier for the army in counter insurgency operations, sources said.
Eighty per cent of the AR officers are on deputation from the Army. The force is headed by a director general, who is an Indian army officer of the rank of Lieutenant General.
What the Army want
Far from giving away the operation control of the Assam Rifles, the Army even wants the operational command of the ITBP that guards the highly sensitive 3,488-km India-China border, Central government sources said.
The recent stand-off along the LAC in eastern Ladakh showed that the paramilitary force was not adequately equipped to deal with the challenges posed by the People’s Liberation Army, China’s main military force, the Army has reportedly told the government, to make its case to take over command of the ITBP.
The problem is that though the Army wants operational control of these paramilitary forces, it does not want to take exclusive control of them, ostensibly to avoid additional financial burden.
The Defence Ministry did not even appear before the Delhi High Court when a petition filed by the Assam Rifles Ex-Servicemen Welfare Association (AREWA), seeking to scrap the dual structure, came up for hearing on April 5. The High Court has now given a “last opportunity” to the Defence Ministry to file a counter affidavit within six weeks.
The court will again hear the case on November 1 to decide the fate of the dual-control system which is not only creating coordination problem, but also depriving AR personnel of the benefits entitled either to the Army or the paramilitary forces.
“We are neither here nor there. The Assam Riles personnel for their gallantry are entitled to get the Sena Medal, an Indian military decoration, but are not treated as senas (army personnel),” said Tulsi Nair, general secretary of the AREWA.
He pointed out that in pay, allowances, pension (including arrears) and ex-servicemen facilities, AR personnel are below par with the Army. There is a difference of around Rs 20,000-25,000 in the pension of a retired subedar of the AR and the Army, said Nair, who himself retired as subedar of the AR in 2002.
Ironically, when it comes to some other benefits like say promotion, AR personnel do not get the benefits enjoyed by the members of other paramilitary forces.
In other paramilitary forces, a jawan is eligible to fill the officer-cadre departmental post after three years of continuous service. But an AR personnel needs to wait for 13 years to apply for the departmental officer post as per the policies of the defence ministry.
There are also allegations of prejudice of army officers on deputation in the AR against the jawans of the force, Nair said.
The AREWA, however, strongly oppose putting the force under the exclusive control of the Home Ministry, saying it would be a demotion to this highly trained combat force that has earned nearly 80 gallantry awards.
“We want AR to be brought under the complete jurisdiction of the Defence Ministry just as it took control over the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAK LI), which was raised initially as a paramilitary force under the home ministry,” Nair added.