The Assam Rifles came into being in 1835, as a militia called the ‘Cachar Levy’.
With approximately 750 men, this Force was formed to primarily protect British Tea estates and their settlements against tribal raids.
Subsequently, all these Forces were reorganised and renamed as the ‘Frontier Force’ as their role was increased to conduct of punitive expeditions across the borders of Assam. This Force significantly contributed in opening the region to administration and commerce and over time they came to be known as the “right arm of the civil and left arm of the military”. In 1870, existing elements were merged into three Assam Military Police Battalions, named as Lushai Hills, Lakhimpur and Naga Hills. The ‘Darrang’ Battalion was raised just before the onset of World War–I. Since Reservists were difficult to be called on short notice and Gurkha Battalions’ soldiers were on leave in Nepal, the Assam Military Police were tasked to take their place. Thus, this Force sent over 3000 men as part of the British Army to Europe and the Middle East.
World War I and up to World War II
During World War I, men from what was then known as the Assam Military Police were part of the Indian forces that fought in Europe and the Middle East. Over three thousand men from the force were provided to the Gorkha regiments of the Indian Army in this time, earning seventy-six gallantry awards during the conflict including seven Indian Order of Merit awards and five Indian Distinguished Service Medals. These men performed with such distinction that the name Assam Rifles was assigned in 1917 as recognition of their part in the war. Elements of the force were also utilised in India during the war, being used to maintain internal security in order to free up troops from the army for use overseas. During this time, the most notable action occurred in 1917 when columns of the Assam Rifles were despatched to Patna, to restore law and order in the riot-torn city. In 1917, recognising theirwork during the Great War, fighting shoulder to shoulder with Rifle Regiments of the regular British Army, the name of the Force was changed to ‘Assam Rifles’.
After the war the force returned to northern India where they were used to maintain security amidst growing civil unrest and disorder. In concert with the British Indian Army, they also undertook a number of expeditions into remote tribal areas along the north-east frontier and into Burma. In 1924 they were sent to Malabar, which was then still part of the Madras Presidency, to carry out operations against the Mopla rebels.
World War II
During World War II, the role of the Assam Rifles evolved once more as they were called upon to undertake even more varied tasks due to their status as both a police and military organisation. This time, however, their service would be undertaken closer to home. After the lightning Japanese advance in 1942, the Assam Rifles fought a number of Independent actions behind enemy lines as the task of rear-area defence and rear-guard often fell to them during the Allies retreat into India. Later, as a large influx of refugees fled from the advancing Japanese into India, the Assam Rifles were given the task of managing and organising this mass of humanity.
They also organized a resistance group on the Indo–Burmese border to counter the Japanese invasion and to harass the enemy line of communications. This group became known as “Victor Force” (or sometimes V-Force), and the nucleus of it was formed from platoons made up of men from the Assam Rifles. As part of this force, Assam Rifles platoons were used as covering forces during the latter stages of the Burma Campaign. Other elements fought in the defensive “boxes” around Kohima, whilst another, from the 4th Battalion, trained as airborne troops, was dropped near the Sittang River behind Japanese lines. The 1st Battalion, as part of Lushai Brigade was sent ahead of the rest of the force to provide resistance in the Chin Hills. As a testament to the performance of Assam Rifles men during the war, members of the unit received forty-eight gallantry awards. These included: three MBE’s, five Military Crosses, 4 Orders of British India, one Indian Order of Merit, 13 Military Medals, 15 Indian Distinguished Service Medals and 7 British Empire Medals.
Following the end of the war the five Assam Rifles battalions became part of the civil police under the Assam Inspector General of Police. After independence, however, the Indian government assigned the Assam Rifles its own Director General. As the numbers of the force and the number of battalions gradually increased, the rank of the force commander was also upgraded until now it is that of Lieutenant General.
The Post-Independence role of the Assam Rifles continued to evolve ranging from conventional combat role during Sino-India War 1962, operating in foreign land as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka in 1987 (Op Pawan) to peacekeeping role in the North-Eastern areas of India in the face of growing tribal unrest and insurgency wherein the maintenance of law and order, countering insurgency and reassuring the people of the region became important tasks for the Assam Rifles.
Today the Force remains deployed in some of the most remote and under developed areas and provides security to locals. Assam Rifles has grown substantially over the years from 17 battalions in 1960 to 46 battalions at present. The Force also has a Training Centre and a number of Logistics Units. Through its long deployment in the tribal belt, the Assam Rifles has earned the complete confidence of the locals and has helped considerably in bringing the people of this region into the national main stream. The humane, just and ever helpful approach of the men of Assam Rifles has truly managed to win hearts and minds earning the Assam Rifles the sobriquet of ‘Friends of the North East’.
Prior to 1965, this force was under the Ministry of External Affairs who were looking after NEFA affairs. It was transferred to the Ministry of Home Affairs when the latter took over this responsibility. From a nominal complement of only five battalions in 1947, it has grown to 33 with several range HQs. A training center, and a number of logistics units function under the HQ DG AR, Shillong. The Assam Rifles Public School is a much sought after education institute in the North East.The role of the Assam Rifles continued to evolve when in 1950 a devastating earthquake hit the Assam region and the force was called in to assist in the reconstruction of the areas and help in the resettlement and rehabilitation of those affected by it. Later the force was once again called to undertake a combat role when, during the 1962 Sino-Indian War elements were used to delay the advancing Chinese forces so that the Indian Army could establish its defence lines. During this time and since then, the Assam Rifles also maintained their peacekeeping role in the northern areas of India in the face of growing tribal unrest and insurgency. In this environment the maintenance of law and order, countering insurgency and reassuring the people of the region became important tasks for the security forces and initially they fell to the Assam Rifles before the Army assumed control, and then later their experience and goodwill in the region was drawn upon in order to assist the army in conducting these tasks. In recognition of the unit’s skill in counter insurgency operations, three battalions were deployed on Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka between December 1988 and February 1990.
Through its deployment in what has become known as the “tribal belt”, the Assam Rifles have developed an ethos that is based primarily upon the notion of extending the hand of friendship with the people of the region despite the troubles that have occurred there. This has resulted in their employment in a number of developmental activities in the region as they have worked to bring order and security to it. As such, their role has been further expanded to include the provision of medical assistance and basic education, assisting in reconstruction and agriculture and handling communications in remote areas.
From a force of five battalions in 1947, the Assam Rifles has grown substantially over the years. In 1960 there were seventeen battalions, in 1968 there were twenty-one and today there are forty-six battalions. In addition, the force has several area HQs, a training centre that processes up to 1,800 recruits at time, and a number of logistics units.
In 1987, the Assam Rifles outpost in the Oinam Village in Manipur was attacked by NSCN militants. This led to Operation Bluebird, which was a devastating counter-insurgency operation that has left scars in the Oinam village to this day.
Fondly called ‘Friends of the North East People’, the Force is the highest awarded and decorated Para Military Force of the Republic of India. The “Sentinels of the North East” aptly epitomizes the role of the Assam Rifles.
For Wikipedia entry on Assam Rifles, click here.
For more articles in Policepedia, click here.