by Subir Bhaumik *

Indian Navy and its marine commandos Marcos have come in for global praise for its multi-focal special operational capability during the high season during their recent operations to rescue Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi sailors taken hostage by Somalian pirates.

Indian army’s parachute commandos have already demonstrated deep penetration strike capabilities in enemy territory but the force that has come in for much praise and occasional criticism ( from majoritarian groups seeking to subdue minorities) as India’s unique asymmetric warfare force is the 1835- vintage Assam Rifles. It is India’s oldest central paramilitary force,  responsible for border guarding and internal security in Northeast India. Also utilised as a combat force in times of war,  it has been administered by the Ministry of Home Affairs since 1965 but has been under the operational control of the Indian Army since the 1962 India-China war.

The Assam Rifles’ rank and file is recruited by the Home Ministry but it is led by Army officers on deputation. It was originally raised in 1835 as Cachar Levy, has had several designations and got its present name in 1917. Throughout its history, the Assam Rifles has served in many roles, conflicts and theatres, including World War I and II, in Europe, the Middle East, and Myanmar. After 1959, the Assam Rifles were tasked with handling Assam’s section of the Tibetan Sector. It has earned a very impressive number of gallantry awards before Independence. Post-Independence, Assam Rifles personnel were awarded four Ashok Chakras, 33 Kirti Chakras, five Vir Chakras, 147 Shaurya Chakras and more than 400 Sena Medals. The awards speak for the force’s professional performance and courage.

Assam Rifles has 46 battalions and has been guarding the India–Myanmar border since 2002. I asked the present Director General Of Assam Rifles Lt Gen P Chandran Nair what makes the Assam Rifles tick so well as a counter-insurgency and border guarding force at the same time. “The Assam Rifles recruits across the country but mostly from the tribes of Northeast and the redoubtable Gorkha warriors which gives it the unique ability to embed itself among the local populace of Northeast,” said Nair. “So it is seen as the force of the people and not a central force imposed on locals.” Nair said the key to winning an asymmetric war is to win the confidence of the local people.

“Asymmetric conflict is not a military conflict, so it is no good trying to impose a military solution. If we win the confidence of the people and impress on the insurgents the futility of fighting a war of secession, the battle is won,” said Lt Gen Nair. So, he said, his force builds up a people’s connection with multidimensional civic outreach like training locals to enter key educational institutions or picking them for a sports career. The Northeast now produces some of India’s best sportspersons, many of them first spotted by Assam Rifles talent scouts. “The key to defeating insurgents is to win people’s confidence and we have done it so successfully,“ Nair said.

Belatedly, the Assam Rifles has been dogged by controversy in crisis-hit Manipur, where ethnic violence since May 2023 has left more than 200  dead and tens of thousands displaced. A radical Meitei group demanded the withdrawal of Assam Rifles units from Manipur, while Kuki tribals opposed such moves, exposing deep fissures in the state bordering Myanmar. At a meeting called by the radical Meitei group Arambai Tenggol in Imphal on January 24, as many as 36 Meitei legislators and two MPs took an oath to protect Manipur’s integrity and signed a memorandum to be sent to the federal government. Among the six demands in the oath was the removal of Assam Rifles from Manipur.

The Kukis reacted in less than 24 hours, with a demand of their own. On January 25, 10 Kuki MLAs wrote to Home Minister Amit Shah about the meeting called by the Meitei radical group and the demands of the Meitei legislators to replace Assam Rifles with another force. The Kuki MLAs made a request too – the Assam Rifles should stay put in the state for the safety of the tribals.

The ethnic clashes and the turn of events in Manipur, which have left at least 210 people dead and around 50,000 displaced, have driven a wedge between the people over the role of the Assam Rifles, whose responsibilities include counterterrorism operations in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, and guarding the India-Myanmar border that passes through Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Twenty Assam Rifles battalions are deployed along the border.

The Assam Rifles can also be called to assist the army in warlike situations. It took part in the two world wars, the 1962 war with China and the 1971 India-Pakistan war. It was also a part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. Serving Assam Rifles personnel on the ground and the army’s former top commanders were behind the attempts to tarnish the Assam Rifles’s image, including a controversial past, a possible administrative miscalculation to post the force near Kuki areas and a false narrative set by militants from both sides.

“A strict teacher is not liked by the students,” said a senior officer, who is posted in Manipur and learnt his trade operating in the Northeast. “We followed the law. In the initial months after the clashes erupted, Kuki militant groups, who are under the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement, were not part of the violence,” he explained, asking not to be named.

To be sure, some SoO militants also joined the conflict later. “But the valley-based militant groups were active. When our personnel stopped such militants and chased them back, they mischievously started a narrative about the force being biased. The protests began sometime in June-July last year.” The Assam Rifles has a sanctioned strength of almost 67,000 personnel. The administrative control of the force is with the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, while its officers are drawn from the Indian Army. Over the years the force has been more active in Manipur and Nagaland because of the insurgent groups there and cross-border smuggling.

Lieutenant General Konsam Himalaya Singh (retd), who has had four tenures in the northeast region, said the latest controversy could be “historically and psychologically linked” to the past. It may have started with a security decision too, he said. “When the so-called buffer zones (sensitive zones) were set up last year, the Assam Rifles was mostly located closer on the side adjacent to the adjoining hills dominated by a few Kuki tribes, while CAPF/state police forces were seen alongside the valley villages. This could have also led to some affected parties perceiving the force as close to the Kukis.”

Singh also attributed the controversy to the prevailing climate of suspicion, fear and uncertainty thereby magnifying every friction on the ground. “Some elements on both sides have also made attempts to portray the forces as partial and project armed civilian volunteers as saviours. The entire force shouldn’t be targeted because of isolated incidents.” Lt Gen Nair rubbished claims, mostly by Meitei politicians, that Assam Rifles was biased. “What we do is to deal with insurgents and troublemakers on all sides,” he said. “But troublemakers who fear us are the ones who defame us,” Lt Gen Nair said.



* Subir Bhaumik, journalist and author, has been the BBC’s North East India correspondent for many years, a senior editor of Myanmar’s leading media group Mizzima and a contributor to the international news channel Al Jazeera. In India, he writes for a wide range of publications

On the cover photo, Indian army practice their parade during republic day © SumanBhaumik/