Tuesday, March 16, 2010

From private militia to army-like force

Come March 24 and India’s oldest paramilitary force will turn 175. For a force raised as a rag-tag, ill-dressed militia in 1835 specifically to protect the estates of British tea planters in Assam’s Surma or Barak Valley, it has been an often torrid journey for the Assam Rifles (AR).

Evolution has been one thing constant for the AR since a civilian British officer named Grange raised it as the Cachar Levy. Two more levies – Jorhat and Kuki – were raised by 1950 to be stationed at British commercial establishments before they were reorganized into the Frontier Police (FP) in 1862.

The FP became the Assam Military Police (AMP) in 1882 until it was reorganized as the Assam Rifles in 1917. Like the name, the uniform, insignias, designations of officers and personnel also changed. But the mandate of the force remained more or less the same – protect British interests, combat tribal marauders and gain control over their land.

Post-independence, the AR had a change of master – from British India to the Government of India, though control shifted from Ministry of External Affairs to MHA on August 1, 1965. But the increasing role in counter-insurgency operations (CI Ops) against Naga, Mizo, Manipuri and other rebel outfits representing various ethnic groups, made it hard for the AR to shake the pre-1947 ‘anti-tribal’ tag off. And the focus on the force vis-à-vis ‘misuse’ of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1948 didn’t make things easier.

AR has also had to contend with rebellion owing to its dichotomy – it is the only force under dual control of the MHA (administrative) and Ministry of Defense (operational). Its personnel had sought pay and perks equal to their counterparts in the Army “for doing the same job”.

“The perception is changing thanks to induction of almost 40 per cent local people in our force,” AR Director-General Lt Gen KS Yadava told Hindustan Times in an exclusive interview. So is the force, from CI Ops specialists to multitasking as guardians of the 1,643 km Indo-Myanmar border and producing personnel with army-like efficiency for war or any other eventuality.

On the verge of completing ‘an eventful’ 175 years, AR is set to add to its 46 battalions across the Northeast. This entails raising 26 new battalions to guard Indo-Myanmar border and setting up necessary infrastructure within the next eight years.

‘Armed Forces Act like bullet-proof vest for soldiers in war’

The Assam Rifles, India’s oldest and only paramilitary force under the control of two Central ministries, has taken the rough with the smooth since it was raised as a private militia of British tea planters in 1835. The force has earned many bouquets as it has brickbats over the years, particularly in counter-insurgency operations after Independence.

In an exclusive interview to hindustantimes.com, Assam Rifles Director General Lt Gen KS Yadava batted away at some comfortable and not-so-comfortable questions ahead of his force completing 175 years.

Is there more to the evolution of Assam Rifles from a private militia guarding British business interests against tribal marauders to fighting insurgent outfits in the Northeast seeking ethnic identities?

There is, though it did not appear so in the years after Independence. The British raised AR to safeguard their interests in tea and timber, and force was accordingly permanently deployed at their business centres. The job of AR then entailed fending off tribal raiders and gaining control of tribal areas. The force was gradually upgraded to be as efficient as the army. Post-1947, AR got engaged in a series of battles with tribal groups seeking independence or self-rule, and since non-locals, mostly Nepalese, comprised the manpower, it seemed that nothing really changed with change of masters from British to Indians.

Things have changed in the past few years with locals now making up close to 40 per cent of AR’s manpower. This was made possible through a clause in the recruitment policy for reserving 20 per cent posts for people in the border areas and 20 per cent more from CI (counter-insurgency) affected states. Today, the local content in AR has helped increase the friendship quotient and bridge the mental gap. The situation on ground is quite different from the days of grouping of villages and barricading. The pressure today is on us; we cannot afford to do anything against families of our soldiers. It’s an advantageous situation, not a hindrance.

AR has almost been synonymous with human rights violations under cover of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1948. Do you envisage an era without this contentious Act?

More often than not, human rights violation cases are one-sided. Doesn’t a soldier functioning under the government’s order deserve his rights? Is anyone concerned about our rights when leads fly in from all directions? If a soldier is not protected to do his own legitimate job, why shall he do it? He needs AFSPA; it is like a bullet-proof vest which gives strength to a soldier going to war. Any Act that ensures certain kind of insulation for a soldier in conflict situation is necessary. As long as he is within his legitimate duty, there are no problems. Even with the Act, we have allowed civil law to take over wherever we have crossed the line. We are answerable to the society, after all.

Can the AR, then, look forward to an age with less dichotomy and disgruntlement within the force?

AR is under administrative control of MHA and operation control of the Defense Ministry. Hence 80 per cent of its officers come from the Army with AR officers making up the rest. The arrangement was made to ensure a region-specific paramilitary force that would be as efficient as the army and be deployed in battles with external forces, if required. The Army connection is apparent in this force if you compare it with other paramilitary forces in India.

Yes, some AR personnel did demand pay and perks equal to that of the Army, but one has to go by service rules. The government has been providing to the best of its capability and the Sixth Pay Panel has been quite generous. Frankly, there’s no end to demanding. Even I can demand facilities equivalent to that of an American general.

In another eight years, AR will be 72 battalions strong. Will that leave the Army with nothing to do in the Northeast?

Apart from CI Ops, we have been entrusted with guarding the 1,643 km Indo-Myanmar border. Accordingly, we will be raising 26 battalions with Intelligence units. This entails building roads, helipads, barracks and outposts along the border besides fencing. In the first phase, we’ll be raising three battalions (each 1,000-personnel strong) in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh within a year. The rest will follow.

The new responsibility will not be at the cost of CI Ops, for which we already have 46 battalions. The Army isn’t likely to be involved with CI or law and order duties in the Northeast after all the AR battalions are raised. It will then have to look beyond the borders (pointing to China on a map on his desk) in this strategic region.

Though AR was named after the erstwhile undivided Assam province, it has lesser presence in Assam than the other northeastern states. Since it has undergone several changes in nomenclature, will it wear a new name or is Assam Rifles too strong a brand?

Assam Rifles indeed has grown to be a brand name. And people in uniform are very chary about changing traditions. But there has been a lot of in-house debating on whether we should sport a name that reflects the entire region. We have zeroed in on Northeast Rifles, but whatever the name, AR is here to stay in the Northeast for life.

1,900 Mizo refugees' camps destroyed in Tripura fire

Around 1,900 tribal refugees, who were living in north Tripura for the past 13 years after they fled from neighbouring Mizoram following ethnic trouble, became homeless after their makeshift camps were gutted in a major fire, officials said Tuesday.

"About 371 tribal refugee families comprising 1,855 men, women and children have been shifted to nearby areas after their temporary huts made of bamboo and hemp at Hamshapara in northern Tripura were reduced to ashes by the fire that broke out late Monday night," Sub-Divisional Magistrate Dilip Chakma told IANS by phone.

The cause of the fire is yet to be determined.

Over 37,000 Reang tribal refugees have sought shelter in six camps in north Tripura, adjacent to Mizoram, since 1997 when they fled western Mizoram following ethnic clashes with the majority Mizos over the killing of a forest official.

The union home ministry through the Tripura government has so far spent around Rs.1.64 billion for their upkeep.

The Tripura government and the union home ministry has been asking the Mizoram government to take back the refugees. However, the government is yet to take any steps for their repatriation.

MCD officials threatened me, alleges RTI applicant

Thirty-three-year-old Mohit Sharma from Delhi took the RTI route to put an end to the civic mess in his colony, caused by rampant unauthorised construction. But now he claims a threat to his life. And his finger is pointed at the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD).

"I sought this information regarding illegal constructions in Shahdara. As a consequence, I started receiving threat calls. But on March 12, three MCD employees came to my home and threatened my family," said Mohit.

East Delhi resident Mohit works for an NGO and also runs a confectionery store. He had applied for information under RTI Act 2005, regarding the illegal encroachments in his area. The Central Information Commission (CIC) has heard the matter three times and the fourth hearing is scheduled for March 17.

The CIC has also ordered the Public Information Officer (PIO) to provide all the information at the earliest, but Mohit said he has not received the full details so far.

"On March 12, executive engineer BMN Rao and assistant engineer Umesh Singh came to my home. Singh threatened me by saying you are too young to be flirting with danger. You do not have any idea of what you are doing. He also said I must accept before the information commission that I have received all the details or they will kill me," said Mohit.

A written complaint was filed by Mohit at Seemapuri police station on March 13.

When contacted, MCD official Umesh Singh rejected all charges against him. "We have done nothing. We are government employees. How can someone expect us to go inside someone's house and give death threats? Mohit is a smart guy; he has filed the RTI since he himself is living in a 5th floor flat, which is illegal," said Singh.

In a freak accident, the Navy guns down one of its own

It was a misfire that killed Anil Kumar Pradhan, a young sailor with the Western Naval Command. Official versions put it as a rarest of rare incident, but sources indicate a big operational faux pas on one of India's finest warships.

On March 12, Pradhan, onboard the INS Delhi in Visakhapatnam, came under fire from an anti-aircraft gun on another warship. The 12.5 mm bullet killed him on the spot.

More alarmingly, the mishap occurred on one of the Indian Navy's finest warships, INS Mumbai. "It's unbelievable that the incident took place on INS Mumbai. It is the finest warship with a battle hardened crew which simply can not commit any mistake," said a naval officer on the condition of anonymity.

"But the vital question is about the round which should not have been there in the anti-aircraft gun during the system check. It indicates towards gross negligence on part of the crew of the INS Mumbai. Thankfully, it was a single bullet, otherwise the gun, which is used to shoot down aircraft, would have caused massive damage to the crew and other systems of INS Delhi," said another officer .

The incident occured soon after the culmination of the joint exercise, Tropex 10, by all the three armed forces, off the Visakhapatnam coast-the headquarters of the Eastern Naval Command. "After the exercise was over, some of the ships had anchored at Vizag port and were scheduled to sail for their return passage to the base port, Mumbai," said a naval officer.

INS Mumbai and INS Delhi were anchored side by side and were scheduled to undergo final systems check before sailing. But apparently during the procedure, the anti-aircraft gun mounted on the deck of INS Mumbai fired accidentally. The bullet directly hit chief radio electrical artificer (equivalent to the rank of chief petty officer) Anil Kumar Pradhan, posted on INS Delhi, and killed him. "There is a procedure to check every single system on the warship before it sails for the high seas. During that exercise the anti-aircraft gun fired, which was loaded with one single round," the officer added.

Pradhan (31) was unmarried and is survived by his parents. He was a native of Sarangpur district in Orissa. Indian Navy spokesperson, Commander PVS Satish said: "A Court of Inquiry (CoI) has been ordered to investigate the incident, but it's an extremely rare incident."

Navy officials also ruled out any doubts regarding the AK-360 anti-aircraft gun. "It's one of the most dependable guns with the Navy and this is the first such unfortunate incident related to it. The actual cause would be known only after the CoI. But it surely indicates towards a very serious blunder on the part of the crew and command of the INS Mumbai," said an officer.

Losing Good Men
It's not just the Indian Navy which has been robbed of good sailors by freak mishaps. On Sunday night, four Indian Army jawans lost their lives when an 81 mm mortar cell exploded at a firing range in Pokhran. A Court of Inquiry (CoI) has been ordered into the incident. The Navy lost two of its pilots earlier this month, when an aerobatic display plane crashed into a building in Hyderabad.

Delhi: Swami had a network of 1000 prostitutes, say cops

The Delhi Police submitted before a court that self-styled Godman Shiv Murat Dwivedi was running a huge network of flesh trade involving more than a hundred brokers and thousand prostitutes across the country.

Appearing before Special Judge S K Sarwaria, the investigating agency pleaded for extension of his custodial interrogation to unearth the vast network.

"We have to unearth the whole network in which more than hundred brokers and thousand prostitutes are involved. He has also amassed huge property in Mumbai, Noida, Kolkata, Varanasi and Gowardhan," the police contended, also placing eight diaries and five CDs seized by it before the court.

It further contended that the dairy contains information pertaining to money transactions contact details of more than three thousand persons which has been written in coded language.

The court after hearing the police's contention accepted its plea and extended Dwivedi's custodial remand for four more days.

Dwivedi, is accused in four cases under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act and one case of robbery. He was arrested on March nine under the provisions of the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA).

Dwivedi is alleged to have earned crores of rupees through the sex racket.

Where is Mayawati's garland of money now?

Her critics have asked, in Parliament, who paid for it? An angry public wants to know why flaunt it? As for Mayawati, well, she's keeping it.

Her party workers say the garland made of thousand rupee notes is "with the Chief Minister of UP, where it belongs". (Read: Maya's 200-cr rally, despite Bareilly tension)

The garland was placed around Mayawati's neck on Monday at a silver jubilee celebration for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). It was so lavish that it seemed over-the-top even at a rally that cost 200 crores. Money, her party adds quickly, that came from its own donors and members, and not from taxpayers.

Naseemuddin Siddiqui, a minister in Mayawati's government, says the garland "came from the Lucknow unit (of the BSP) and was made with the contributions of the workers here. We are all a part of it....its cost is 21 lakh rupees."

Angry Opposition leaders claim the garland is worth several crores. Siddiqui says their math is incorrect. "If someone has counted the money, they should tell us.... the Opposition is threatened by the success of the rally and the party and that's why they are making these baseless allegations." (Read: Opposition slams Mayawati)

Siddiqui says the BSP actually chose a more refined way of valuing its leader. Other parties, he points out, weigh their leaders in coins. This was more practical. He adds, "In all parties, packets of money are presented to leaders...they are only troubled because it's a Dalit party and Mayawati is a Dalit's daughter. This is hypocrisy."

Teen sons of sex workers live football dreams

Thirteen-year old Sajjak Ali, the son of a sex worker, dreams to play football for India one day after he was enthused with with praises for his performance at the under-14 national football championship in Jamshedpur last month where he represented Bengal .

Rocky Gayen and Surojit Bhattacharya, both inmates at the home of sex workers' children at Baruipur in the southern fringe of the city, now also aim to represent the state.

All three are members of the soccer XI run by Durbar Mahila Samannaya Committee, an NGO of 65,000 sex workers in West Bengal, as well as residents at the Rahul Vidya Niketan home who adhere to a strict regimen of morning practice,prayers and studies at the home.

"We have 14 sex workers' children in the boys team, in the under-12, under-14 and under-16 age categories while the remaining 20 boys hail from a mainstream background," their coach and former Mohun Bagan player Biswajit Majumder said.

Stating that there was initial opposition to the football squad raised a few years ago, he says parents of children have now become more receptive with other boys also availing the coaching provided by Durbar and practising side by side with sex workers' children.