Shame and scandal in the Assam Rifles

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

The explosive story this weekend by the irrepressible Tehelka Magazine, has revealed much more than just the stinking rot that has seemingly set into the very being of the Assam Rifles. Although the sensational nature of the story of how Army officers on deputation to this paramilitary unit have been making Faustian deals and selling their souls for filthy money over the years has somewhat overshadowed everything else the story also points to, it must be reiterated that the story`™s inferences on certain other departments of the government were equally damning. In particular, it also spoke of the complete failure of the intelligence wings of the government establishment, in particular the Intelligence Bureau and Vigilance Department. Not the least, the absolute silence of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, in its annual reports on the state of finance management by various other departments of the government, is bewildering. How did they not even get even a wind of an ongoing robbery of this dimension under their very noses in all these years is a question which cannot be raise without suspicion of complicity of these departments in crime as well. Were they all scratching each others`™ backs, turning a blind eye to each others`™ crimes, in what can be described as a collaborated institutional thievery?

As it is turning out once again, very often it is the lowly paid journalists who do much better investigation jobs than those in the cocoon of government services, paid solely to investigate and alert the system of crimes already committed and of possible crimes the government can take precautionary measures against. In this case, as also in the infamous July 13, 2009, BT Road broad daylight murders, by police commandos, it was not local journalists who got the story first. Instead it is yet again a journalist of a newsmagazine from Delhi. This is understandable, for in the state of exception that Manipur is plunged in, with draconian laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, in promulgation in all its unaccountable brutality, it would have been extremely dangerous and practically impossible for local journalists to have gone about snooping into the affairs of the security establishments.

According to the Tehelka story, backed up amply by video and audio recordings of the crimes as they happened, acquired in a daring sting operation assisted by an Assam Rifles empanelled contractor, Assam Rifles officers, engineers and other petty officials, have been in a systematically orchestrated manner, illegally deducting as much as 30 percent of the civic developmental funds allotted to them as part the military civic programme of the Union government meant to warm the hearts and minds of the people of the Northeast towards the military. The annual budgets for this ongoing project is by no means paltry. In the last three years alone the budgets according to the Tehelka report is: Rs. 3,580 crores for 2014-15, Rs. 3,358 crores for 2013-14 and Rs. 2,966 crores for 2012-13. Just to have an estimate of the size of the racket, in just these three years, the amount siphoned off and thereby converted to black money by these officers would be close to Rs. 3000 crores, if 30 percent is what is deducted from every contract job outsourced in the course of this project, as reported by Tehelka.

Quite obviously, insurgency has made many supposed insurgency fighters multi millionaires and this being the case, it would be obvious now as to who are the ones who have a sinister vested interest in perpetuating the conflict situation in the Northeast. What a dismal picture. On the one hand these killing fields have been fertile grounds where gallantry medals are wilfully cultivated and harvested by the madness with a method perfected and elevated to an art form by the security establishment called `fake encounters`, and on the other, rich dividends are being reaped by the same perpetrators of such violence by siphoning off taxpayer money meant for generating goodwill amongst the public. For all this while, everybody was led to believe it was the civil establishment where corruption was institutionalised, but the rot it seems has reached even institutions once thought to be incorruptible. The new UPA government at the Centre, it seems will now have a lot more house cleaning to do than Prime Minister, Narendra Modi had imagined he would be called upon to do.

We do earnestly hope the Tehelka report is taken seriously by the powers that be and the alleged crime officially investigated to ultimately award penalties proportionate to the crime to the perpetrators if the charges are proven. However, if as reported this atrocious practice was so widespread in the organisation and has already corroded the vitals of the system, then it is to be expected that coordinated efforts at covering up too would have already begun. This only means investigations would have to begin at the soonest possible. It is a comforting thought this time that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, will not provide any immunity to those caught red handed committing the serious perfidy against their profession as well as the nation. The AFSPA only allows killing but not pocketing taxpayer money illegally.

It is also difficult not to see poetic justice at play in this sorry episode, as much as it difficult not to assess it against the morality of the AFSPA. Brutality it seems is not just about the strong victimising the weak. If it destroys the victims physically, it also destroy the souls of the of the perpetrators. In works of fiction this morality play has been told so many times. Among the most convincing of these is the Hollywood classic of the 1970s, `Apocalypse Now`, a film based on Joseph Conrad`™s novel `Heart of Darkness`. Just as Kurtz ended up destroying his soul by his own savagery on others, the savagery of the AFSPA has not only caused innocent deaths, but it has also blackened the perpetrators`™ souls irretrievably. Describing Kurtz`™s madness Conrad notes quite memorably `alone in the jungle he had a peep into his own soul, and beware, he went mad`. Kurtz himself describes his own madness to himself as `the horror, the horror`. The excruciating pain in these words could not have been brought out more chillingly than Marlon Brando who mumbles to himself these words in `Apocalypse Now`. Surely a lot many have also said these words to themselves, and a lot more will be doing so too, if not already doing it by now. That is, provided those in the moral dock now do not have Teflon-coated, shame-resistant, guilt-immunised souls as hard as carbon-alloyed metal.

The development is sad for a much more historical reason. The Assam Rifles is 179 years old and its history is almost intrinsically linked with the modern history of the Northeast. It was founded in 1835, nine years after the Treaty of Yandaboo 1826, concluding the first Anglo-Burmese war and marking the takeover of Assam by the British. By Assam in 1826, it meant virtually the entire region that we know today as Northeast, with the exception of Manipur and Tripura, which were independent kingdoms. After the British annexed Assam and included it as a new territorial extension of its province of Bengal, they felt maintaining a military there was no longer cost effective. The Burmese had just been beaten off comprehensively and ceased to be a threat to the British, and other European powers such as the French and the Germans with their `spheres of influence` (Curzon`™s lecture of 1907) in Indochina and Yunnan were too distant at the time for the British to worry. The British did fight two more wars with Burma in 1852 and 1885, but these were not a result of any Burmese aggression and instead were, as historians note, mere excuses of the British to annexe Burmese territories they coveted. In the 3rd Anglo Burmese war, the whole of Burma was to be annexed into British India. In the words of well known academic Alastair Lamb, `Britain swallowed Burma in three gulps`.

In other words, in the 1830s after the British took over Assam, it had eliminated all possible threats of immediate external aggression on its eastern territories. So it began withdrawing its military to be deployed where they were more urgently needed, such as in the Afghanistan frontiers. But in the 1830s, Assam`™s commercial interest began growing after the discovery of tea by Robert Bruce, and the British need for security cover again increased. It was then the idea of setting up a civil militia occurred to a civil officer called E.R. Grange. The idea received approval and a militia called Cachar Levy (I suppose like the Salwa Judum, or in Manipur`™s context, the VDF), was set up. This militia men were to be better armed than the police but less paid than the military (L.W. Shakespear). More militias came to be set up thereafter under the same initiative, such as the Jorhat Militia, but all of them ultimately merged with the Cachar Levy, and came to be known under different nomenclatures in the course of the years, most prominently as the Assam Military Police. The unit was soon to become indispensable to the British administration in the Northeast, and was instrumental in the subjugation of `wild tribes` in the hills adjoining the Assam plains. It also became an important feeder institution for the various Gurkha Regiments of the British Indian Army.

To cut the story short during the First World War, this militia sent so many invaluable experienced soldier recruits for the Indian Army to fight in Europe that after the war, in recognition of the service the unit rendered, the title Assam Rifles was given to it.

The Assam Rifles`™ affinity with the Gurkha Regiment is historical and even today, the original five battalions are still linked by umbilical cords to different Gurkha Battalions each served as the feeder unit in the early days of its formation. Hence the 1st Assam Rifles, (Lushai Hills Battalion) is affiliated with the 2nd Group, 2nd and 9th Gurkha Regiment, the 2nd A.R. (Lakhimpur Battalion) is affiliated with the 5th Group, 7th and 10th G.R., the 3rd A.R. (Naga Hills Battalion) is affiliated with the 1st Group, 1st and 4th G.R., the 4th A.R. (Manipur Battalion) is affiliated with the 4th Group, 5th and 6th G.R., and the 5th A.R. (Darrang Battalion) is affiliated with the 3rd Group, 3rd and 8th G.R. (Shakespear).

Today, the Assam Rifles has grown several times its original strength and from the original five, it has now 46 battalions. It has gone through many ups and downs in its long history, as any organisation of its nature is expected to, but never has its image been tarnished so disgracefully as it has just been, if the Tehelka story is anything to go by. Reading the history of the Assam Rifles is also almost akin to reading the history of modern Northeast. Perhaps the contractor culture and the brazen corruption the Assam Rifles has been exposed to be diseased by, is also symptomatic of the larger disease of corruption and unconcern of the political leadership of the Northeast towards the wellbeing of their own peoples. In the end, it is, as they say, dust unto dust. The Assam Rifles began as a civil militia. From what it appears today, the paramilitary unit of such distinction and history seems to be returning to its original state of indiscipline as a civil militia once again.

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