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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 11 New Delhi March 2, 2019

Assam Rifles in the Role of the Police

A new Role with Implications

Sunday 3 March 2019

by Gautam Sen

The Government of India has issued a notification on February 21, 2019 empowering the Assam Rifles (AR), presently a Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) and de-facto the oldest para-military force of the country, having the historically embellished appellation of “Sentinels of the East“, with extensive police powers. The powers bestowed are from personnel of the lowest rank of AR, under sub-section (1) of section 41 and sections 47, 48, 49, 51, 53, 54, 149, 150, 151 and 152 of the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr.P.C.), to undertake certain operational measures in the interest of internal security, within the local limits of the border districts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram. Such powers are normally bestowed on the police forces.

Hithertofore, some of these powers could be exercised in areas of the North-East under the jurisdiction of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) only. This is an exceptional measure of enabling the AR to perform police functions in the designated areas, virtually at par with police forces of the States within the ambit of the latest order, namely, arrest persons, seize property, weaponry and items for violent, anti-state activity, and counteract the means intended to disturb peace and order, etc. The intention is obviously to maintain internal peace and security—particularly in areas afflicted by militancy and near the border and sensitive areas—with these special powers. The decision of the Central Government also indicates that the State Police forces have failed to obtain the desired internal security outcome. However, what is of significance is that, a CAPF has been given original police powers beyond those codified in the statute governing its existence and operational scope, as a virtually parallel police force.

Following strong political opposition in Assam, the Central Government has put the notification on hold on February 22, 2019 inter-alia indicating that the matter would be discussed with all stakeholders. The Assam Rifles Act incidentally had a clause earlier, empowering this paramilitary force to invoke certain Cr.P.C. provisions during its operations, which were removed when the Act was amended in 2006. This subsequent development apparently indicated that the North-East State governments had reservations on the extension of the legal ambit of the AR.

Civil society and wide sections of the public in the North-East have been resentful of the AFSPA and insistent, for quite some time, for scrapping this statute. The AFSPA has been withdrawn over large parts of the region. Tripura is an example of near-total success in controlling internal disturbance and externally supported insurgency. The statute has been withdrawn from the State long back. Nearly the entire States of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Mizoram are no longer declared “disturbed areas“ and broadly outside the ambit of the AFSPA. However as a virtual anomaly and owing to the inability of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to adopt a holistic decision, in Nagaland, a State with a modus vivendi with major militant groups and in an apparently peaceful condition, the AFSPA is operative. In this backdrop, empowering the AR to act with police powers under the Cr.P.C. is anomalous and indicative of the Central Government‘s intention to augment this CAPF‘s role as a parallel or supportive police force without attracting the odium of entrenching the AFSPA and deployment of CAPFs under this statute.

The views of the State governments in such matters are of essence. Internal security, constitutionally, is basically in the domain of the State governments. Though presently, the North-East State governments are under the control of the Central ruling political dispensation or its allies, there is no indication of an express political consensus among the Central and the North-East State governments, before the controversial decision of the MHA was issued. As a consequence of the decision of the MHA on February 21 regarding the AR as above, the concept of ‘deployment of Central forces in aid to civil authorities’ will be eroded. This concept or mechanism presupposes that it is the State governments which will determine the state of internal security, law and order situation, etc., and as a conscious decision of the State Government’s executive authority, as a sequel to its assessment and consequent decision, on its request, the Central forces are to be deployed. It is quite possible that henceforth unilateral action in matters within the ambit of the latest notification by the AR may take place. A proper and sensitive application of the enhanced powers of the AR can only be possible if the internal security apparatus and police echelons of the State governments function within an unified decision-making structure as part of a continuum. The ground reality and past experience indicates that there is quite a hiatus in this respect.

The primary need is to ensure that a democratic polity, as envisaged in the Constitution, prevails with jurisdiction and responsibilities delineated therein. The aim is to have a welfare state with its security and of its people protected. Within this overarching framework, the status of States and role of their governments cannot and should not be undermined. The decision regarding expansion of the AR’s powers may unfortunately do so. It is possible that the contention against the AFSPA may not subside and take on a new dimension. In the interest of the Indian nation-state and its constituents, it is of essence that respect and faith of the people in the coercive apparatus of the state, that is, its law and order and internal security machinery, be maintained. While the discontent against the AFSPA simmers, it should not happen that such discontent becomes more manifest against the AR and also spills over to the State Police forces working alongside, in the near future. Action taken by the AR units unilaterally or in a dissonant manner, by virtue of their new powers, may aggravate the situation.

Another aspect which needs to be reckoned is that the AR operates under the Army‘s operational command, though it has a degree of autonomy in its administrative and logistical matters. Past experience shows that on many occasions in deployment and operational aspects, the AR, at the behest of the Army’s Corps Headquarters at Tezpur and Dimapur, had adopted less than a synchronous or unified posture vis-à-vis the North-East State governments. It will be important for the MHA and Ministry of Defence to ensure that a proper macro framework operates for the purpose of coordination with the State governments, and political sensitivities and basics of normal civic life are not disturbed. Even the Ministry of External Affairs will have to be factored in because a free border regime (enabling people residing within a 16 km belt of the international border with Myanmar, to move freely across pursuant to their livelihood activities), prevails, and issues of security management and contraband flows have to be frequently addressed, intervened upon and resolved by the two national governments. With the new institution of the AR operating under the Cr.P.C., the issues touched upon above will be more onerous.

A question arises, whether at this stage the institutional change, as effected this month, was required. It is not clear whether the matter was decided in a professional manner, consensually and in a broader perspective. A dualism in internal security management has been attempted to be introduced which may not enable concerted and focused action in this domain. There can be repercussions or rather demands for adoption of similar measures mutatis mutandis in other parts of the country, particularly in Left-wing extremism-affected areas. Such demands from the CAPF establishments or moves towards such ends by the MHA cannot but distort our existing constitutional polity. If there are public repercussions, the dignity and respect for our Centrally-controlled internal security forces and their operational efficacy may also be affected.

A proper political strategy to deal with insurgency, divisive forces and bring to fruition the aspirations of different ethnic, socio-cultural groups and their basic minimum needs in an inclusive way still does not seem to be in place. Adoption of ad-hoc steps or tinkering with existing statutory institutions for short-term gains, will only lead to further discontent among the affected people and precipitate more discord. For example, a turn-round of the socio-economic conditions of the tribal people of Tirap-Changlang-Longding (TCL) districts of Arunachal Pradesh, an area affected by insurgency at a low but consistent scale over two decades, is still to be achieved. This is a very sensitive tract in north-eastern Arunachal Pradesh on the Myanmar border not far from the India-China-Myanmar tri-junction. A TCL package with an outlay of nearly Rs 1025 crores is under execution in a disjointed manner. The package is for providing alternative means of livelihood to the people indulging in narcotics, poppy cultivation and gun-running at the behest of the NSCN insurgents. The State Government, its development machinery and its police have to gear up to deal with the militancy on a long-term profile. In such a situation, deployment and exercise of powers now proposed to be extended to the AR (also operating in the TCL), may not achieve the desired outcome.

The author is a retired IDAS officer, who has served in senior appointments under the Government of India, State governments and as a Financial Adviser, Assam Rifles. The views expressed here are personal.

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