Manipur Unrest and Unfair Demonising of Assam Rifles

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assam riffles demonised
Women in Manipur shout "Assam riffles dont leave us" (Photo: News Intervention)

It’s distressing to hear that 40 Members of the Legislative Assembly [MLA] belonging to various political parties have sought replacement of Assam Rifles to assist Manipur police for restoring peace in violence hit Manipur by other “trustworthy central forces”. However, since this bizarre demand is clearly an attempt by some politicians to score brownie points, it doesn’t come as any big surprise.

Assam Rifles enjoys an unblemished 188 year old legacy of selfless service in protecting locals living in India’s troubled north east and that’s why this force is aptly referred to as ‘friends of the hill people’.  So, even though casting aspersions on the professional integrity of Assam Rifles borders on the blasphemous, it’s not for the first time that this force has become the target of political intrigue.

Those who have served with the Assam Rifles are sanguine that while locals have always reposed immense faith in this force because of its impartial dealings, it is seen as a ‘spoiler’ by certain groups and individuals with motivated agendas associated with illegal as well as anti-national activities and there’s no dearth of those who have an axe to grind with Assam Rifles.

A record seizure of drugs worth more than. Rs 1,610 crores by Assam Rifles in the last 12 months alone would have most certainly earned the ire of the drug mafia in the north east. Similarly, by providing accurate information regarding the influx of refugees from Myanmar, it has understandably upset human trafficking syndicates. Most importantly, relentless operations against terrorist groups as well as concerted action against well-entrenched gangs of extortionists have enraged inimical forces to no end. 

As these criminal lobbies have both the requisite money and muscle power, shaping public opinions to suit vested interests through inducement or intimidation isn’t very difficult.

It is clarified that there’s no intention to suggest or imply that the MLA’s who want that Assam Rifles be withdrawn from Manipur are in any way involved in or associated with illegal or anti-national activities. However, since politicians have to keep their constituencies in good humour, they at times have to accede and lend support to pressure groups and public sentiments, even when they know very well that the same are motivated or infructuous.

Anyone who has served in the Assam Rifles would recollect instances of local politicians confiding that while they firmly stood by this force one a given issue, political expediency compels them to side with their voters and raise their voice against the same. Nevertheless, MLAs levelling allegations that Assam Rifles has been discriminatory in its dealings with the Meitei vis-à-vis Kuki ethnic groups is a very grave issue that cannot be defended or summarily wished away.

Furthermore, with Manipur police filing a First Information Report [FIR] accusing Assam Rifles of allowing Kuki militants to “escape freely to a safe zone”, this issue assumes an exceptionally serious connotation as it implies organisational involvement of a Indian central armed police force in an anti-national act.

The media has quoted unnamed government sources confirming that the FIR lodged by Manipur police is likely to be withdrawn, but even if this happens, the damage caused to the reputation of Assam Rifles cannot be condoned.

In another development, 10 MLAs have submitted a memorandum requesting Manipur Chief Minister [CM] N Biren Singh not to withdraw Assam Rifles. Claiming that the Assam Rifles withdrawal demand had been made by some “biased” MLAs, the memorandum accused Manipur police of “lodging false and fabricated FIRs against the Assam Rifles.”

This memorandum goes on to state that “on behalf of all tribal communities, we the elected tribal representatives [MLAs] humbly pray to you not to remove the Assam Rifles from our state as it would harm and jeopardise our safety and security.”

While this earnest plea reflects public confidence in Assam Rifles, attempt by some to sully its image is something that can’t be allowed to go unquestioned and hence allegations of Assam Rifles displaying partiality towards a particular community, rightfully demands thorough investigation as it so that the record is set straight.

The first thing that needs to be understood is that Assam Rifles draws its manpower from all over India and as such, allegations regarding existence of an ethnic bias within this completely heterogeneous force are a bit too far-fetched. So, any apprehension of discrimination that exists within a particular community is largely illusory and due to prejudices that one develops due to disinformation spread by inimical elements.

Secondly, though a Central Armed Police Force administered by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Assam Rifles is entirely commanded by officers of the Indian Army on tenure based deputation. This ensures that the Indian army’s ethos of the nation coming first- always and every time, flourishes within the rank and file of Assam Rifles and effectively immunises this force from petty and disruptive influences of religion, caste and community.

Thirdly, though Assam Rifles battalions are stationed in India’s north east, they are not permanently based in a particular location. So, since Assam Rifles battalions move to a different location after completing the stipulated tenure at its current station [which could well be in another state], the inference that Assam Rifles battalions could develop special affinity towards a particular ethnic community on account of prolonged co-location, doesn’t hold water.

Fourthly, alongwith people from virtually every religion, caste and community of India, Assam Rifles also has a fair share of soldiers belonging to Meitei and Kuki communities and they, like all others, serve side by side and stay together through thick and thin. So, had there been even an iota of suspicion that Assam Rifles harbours bias against a specific ethnic group, then the soldiers of that particular community would have certainly objected and such remonstrations would definitely have found their way into social media.  

Lastly, besides providing security to both the Meitei and Kuki communities, Assam Rifles is also taking proactive actions to apprehend trouble makers and where necessary, even using force in the discharge of this duty. Yet, there hasn’t been even a single complaint regarding unwarranted or excessive use of force by any community and this fact in itself buttresses the “friends of the hill people” sobriquet bestowed on Assam Rifles.   

As regards the FIR lodged by Manipur Police against Assam Rifles, the less said, the better. Maintenance of law and order is the primary responsibility of state police, and Assam Rifles has been requisitioned by the civil administration in Manipur to help in restoring normalcy as the situation had gone beyond the control of the police. It goes to the credit of Assam Rifles that despite grave provocation and hostile attitude of Manipur Police, it has maintained its impeccable code of conduct and is carrying out its assigned duties with military aplomb.

Since both the Assam Rifles and Manipur police are working towards the same objective, the latter accusing the former for impeding its operation is regrettable. Manipur Police plan of action entailed breaching the inviolable sanctity of the established ‘buffer zone’, which if allowed could have snowballed into a major crisis by reigniting the wildfire of ethnic animosity.

Since Assam Rifles was acting strictly in accordance with the laid down orders and instructions, which Manipur police is well conversant with, its objection is inexplicable. Moreover, well-established protocols are already in place to resolve operational or functional differences between different government organisations that may arise while trying to restore law and order. Hence, choosing to file a FIR instead of seeking internal resolution of this issue is definitely distasteful.

Accordingly, the need for Manipur police to take the puerile step of lodging a FIR that is not only infructuous but also an insult to professional integrity of a reputed force which is acquitting itself creditably. So, this incident needs to be investigated and taken to its logical conclusion. Any attempt to water down this issue will set an unhealthy precedent and give inimical forces an opportunity to drive a wedge between the government forces and the people.

Tailpiece: The saving grace is that unlike politicians who are overly concerned about their vote bank and have no qualms turning into loose cannons, there’s no need for soldiers to indulge in theatrics or populism as they don’t have to stand in elections. Hence, irrespective of what comes its way, Assam Rifles will continue to implicitly follow the orders and directives of Dimapur based Spear Corps [which is overseeing the aid to civil authority operations in Manipur] to “Continue to be fair to all and Fear None” directive- both in letter and spirit!

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