The Assam Rifles is a central paramilitary force responsible for border guarding and internal security in Northeast India. Also utilised as a combat force in times of conflict, it has been administered by the Ministry of Home Affairs since 1965 but is under the operational control of the Indian Army since the 1962 India-China war. The Assam Rifles’ rank and file is recruited by the MHA, but it is led by Army officers on deputation. India’s oldest paramilitary force, 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 was 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.
Intentional vilification of Assam Rifles
Throughout history, the relationship of the Meitei, Kuki-Zo, Naga and Mizo communities with the Army and Assam Rifles has oscillated between the good, the bad and the ugly. These fluctuations have been influenced by varying contexts determining the weakening/strengthening of governmental efforts to control violence in the region.
The ongoing violence that erupted on 3 May following the Manipur High Court’s ruling regarding granting tribal status to the Meitei community has witnessed the resurfacing of old antipathies fundamentally rooted in dominant narratives. While the Kuki-Zo people trust the Army/Assam Rifles personnel, the Meiteis deem them biased. Thus, in the context of these clashes, it appears that the Assam Rifles is being intentionally vilified, and that too under the patronage of Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh. A recent incident illustrates this.
What started it all
Before the recent round of clashes, the newly created Inter-Agency Unified Command structure headed by Security Adviser and former Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) chief Kuldiep Singh included the Army, CAPFs, Manipur Police, and intelligence agencies. It established buffer zones to keep the Meiteis of the Imphal Valley separate from the Kuki-Zos of the hill areas. This choice was influenced by the fact that much of the violence between the communities had transpired along this periphery. The modus operandi adopted was to establish checkpoints in the four sensitive districts manned either by the Army/Assam Rifles or CAPFs such as CRPF, the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) along access routes traversing fringes of the Imphal Valley and going into the hills. In effect, the circle of a buffer zone represented the front lines of a civil war situation.
The responsibility to supervise the checkpoints in the buffer zone between the Meitei-dominated Bishnupur district and the Kuki-Zo-controlled Churachandpur was given to the Army. The checkpoints were handled by Army or Assam Rifles units whose operational control was exercised by Headquarters 3 Corps through 57 Mountain Division or Inspector General of Assam Rifles (IGAR)–South.
Around 3 am on 5 August, some Kuki militants crossed the buffer zone and killed three people at the Kwakta village inhabited by Meitei Pangals. A couple of hours later, a posse of Manipur Commandos in about a dozen Casspar and light vehicles were dispatched from Imphal. In practice, Manipur Commandos are a group of about 300-400 police personnel operating directly under the CM. When the commandos reached the checkpoint manned by 9 Assam Rifles (9 AR), they were stopped, and heated arguments ensued. The commandos insisted they be allowed to cross the buffer zone into the Kuki-populated hill areas.
The 9 AR personnel stood their ground. But the commandos allegedly used adjacent areas to fire two-inch mortars upon Kuki-dominated villages, with unconfirmed reports saying two Kukis were killed.
The operation by the Manipur Commandos highlights the cycles of revenge that now characterise the ongoing ethnic conflict. With the Imphal Valley being more or less ethnically cleansed of Kukis-Zos in the first phase, the current ethnic strife seems to be about deterring the former through punitive retaliation aimed at the vulnerable section of the community. What is particularly galling is that the state’s political leadership is utilising its armed instruments on behalf of the Meitei community to inflict revenge, and has, apparently, accumulated blood on its hands in the process.
The distressing incidents were followed by the defamation of the Assam Rifles through print and social media, and truth became the first casualty of internet blockage. The slander was aimed at strengthening the already prevalent narrative among some Meiteis that the Assam Rifles were anti-Meitei and pro-Kuki-Zo. Furthermore, as part of the vilification process, a false report was put out stating that CAPFs had replaced the 9 AR at a particular post.
The statement issued by HQ 3 Corps on 9 August flags attempts to tarnish the image of Assam Rifles. It asserts that in the first incident of blocking the Manipur Commandos, the action was strictly in accordance with the mandate of the unified headquarters to implement buffer zone guidelines to prevent violence between the two communities. The second report regarding moving 9 AR out of a particular area is not even related to them. It clarifies that an infantry battalion was deployed in the stated area and remains stationed there.
A calculated move to defame
The pertinent question is why the Assam Rifles is being defamed with the tacit approval of the Manipur government. The slander and the misinformation, reinforced by an FIR filed by the police against 9 AR and a memorandum from state BJP MLAs to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, cannot be disputed. The answer to the question could only be conjectured if the ultimate political purpose of the BJP government is discerned. What has politically transpired thus far is that the Kuki-Zo and Meitei communities have been physically separated, with Meiteis seeking refuge from the hilly areas dominated by the Kuki-Zo and the latter fleeing Imphal Valley to seek shelter in the hills.
It appears as if the Manipur government is actively preventing the Kuki-Zo from resorting to violence in order to deny their post-clash demand of becoming a separate state or union territory.
To prevent the percolation of violence from the hills to the valley, punitive retaliation may continue, as seen in the Kwakta case. It would be easier to retaliate in revenge if the Assam Rifles and the Army were sidelined and did not interfere in the state government’s orchestration of retaliation through the police force. It must be noted here that the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from most violence-affected areas has defanged the Army. It cannot conduct search operations and arrests essential to apprehend culprits and recover the 4,000-odd weapons concentrated mainly in Meitei hands after being looted/handed over from police stations/armouries. Should the Assam Rifles be moved or sidelined, it could be replaced by CAPFs distributed piecemeal and operating jointly under the local police, making it easier to facilitate a policy of reprisals.
Connivance of governments
The time factor could also influence the calculations as even if the violence is controlled and peace negotiations commence, the solidified demands of the Kuki-Zo for separation could be dragged on endlessly and require parliamentary consent that may never be forthcoming. With parliamentary elections due in less than a year, the prospect that looms large is of Manipur remaining ethnically divided in geographic terms and continued violence with the partisan state or Union government battling the Kuki-Zo community, who, in all probability, may turn to adopting hit and run tactics.
There is also the greater possibility that one of the main interlocutors of Kuki-Zo, represented in the nearly 25 former Kuki insurgent groups that signed a tripartite agreement called the Suspension of Operations (SoO) with the government of India and the state of Manipur in 2008, may now get directly involved in the conflict. They might probably already be doing so. This will further complicate the situation and could ignite tensions with the Naga groups demanding a greater Nagaland, including the Kuki-Zo areas of Manipur.
The connivance of the state and Union government in letting the violence spiral out of control and not adequately utilising the available instruments of the central government, especially the Army and the Assam Rifles, seems deliberate, irresponsible and extremely dangerous in terms of national security. Manipur is located in a sensitive and volatile area that adversarial powers like China could exploit through its proxies in Myanmar. But regretfully, the Union government, in cahoots with state governments, has preferred to look at short terms electoral gains instead of larger national interests. The manner in which the situation in Manipur is being handled could turn out to be an unforgivable lapse on the part of the Centre, for which the nation may have to pay dearly for a long time.
Controlling violence is the most essential condition for political dialogue. It cannot be done without empowering the Army/Assam Rifles with AFSPA. Also, the central government will have to temper its ideological proclivities despite Manipur possibly being the country’s oldest Hindu Kingdom.
Considering the lackadaisical actions taken by the Union and state governments in Manipur, PM Modi’s optimistic expectation voiced in the Lok Sabha – “The way efforts are being made, the sun of peace will definitely rise in the near future” – seems highly improbable.