The revolt by VDF, who went on a strike yesterday, demanding service conditions improvement, including regularisation of their employment by the Government and with it a salary hike from their present emoluments of Rs. 5000 each, is unfortunate but expected. The hasty decision four years ago to raise these village volunteers in a counterinsurgency move was in itself of doubtful legality, now their continuance in the nebulous zone of Government employment is proving a potential danger. It may be recalled, following the unprovoked killing of three people at Heirok Village on March 24 at a Thabal Chongba festival by an underground group, the people of the village rose and demanded the government to arm them so they can defend their village. Jumping to the opportunity, by May, the government started raising the VDF, with the object obviously of raising an equivalent of the infamous Salwa Judum militia in Central India raised to fight fellow Maoist villagers who were waging war against the Indian establishment. The Salwa Judum has since been banned by the Supreme Court, and the militia was subsequently disbanded. In Manipur, probably to dodge the SC ruling, the VDF was ostensibly absorbed as a state force, and this is where the problem is. To keep them as a militia is illegal now after the SC ruling, but if they are to be treated as government employees, then it is their right to demand at least the standard benefits of government employment. The government`™s problem was spelled out yesterday in a press conference by the Deputy Chief Minister, Gaikhangam. How is the government to absorb 10,050 VDF recruits into the regular police constabularies? One, this would be unfair to regular police recruits who have had to go through much more rigorous selection process (and probably have had to pay much higher bribes) to enter the service. Two, the government does not have the resource to meet the extra expenditure overheads. These questions should be posed to the Central government as well. After all, it is unlikely the state government could have gone ahead with the raising of the VDF in without an enthusiastic nod from the Centre. The question also is, if they cannot be absorbed, can they be disbanded? 10,050 young men, trained and armed lethally, thrown out of their jobs in one go can spell big trouble indeed.
There is perhaps a way out. There is another much older precedent of such a militia. In 1835 the British also raised a militia called the Cachar Levy in Assam, which ultimately would become the Assam Rifles. These men were paid less than the military but better armed than the police, as L.W. Shakespear wrote. The logic was, after the comprehensive defeat of Burma in 1826, and the British saw no likelihood of a military threat on Assam anymore, and began to feel maintaining a military was not cost effective in a place where they initially saw little or no revenue potential. So they started withdrawing their regular military to be deployed in more hostile frontiers. But by the mid 1830s, the Bruce Brothers pioneered tea industry began growing rapidly in Assam suddenly making the British feel the need for some security cover again. It was at this point that the Cachar Levy, and so also the Jorhat Militia which ultimately merged with the former, were raised. The solution we envisage for the VDF from this reading of the history of the Cachar Levy is, this levy served as a nursery for Gurkha Rifles recruits. The best militia men from the levy would be absorbed into various Gurkha Rifles battalions. This was a big incentive for the militia men, as well as a convenient strategy for the British administration to have a ready supply of trained recruits for its military. Indeed, during the First World War, the Cachar Levy, then known as the Assam Military Police, supplied so many recruits to the Gurkha Rifles fighting the war in Europe that the levy became acutely short of experienced troopers. This was one of the reasons given by historian Edward A. Gait, for the inordinately long time the British took in suppressing the Kuki Rebellion, which coincided with this war. The VDF too can be given such an incentive as was given by the British to the then AMP. The best cadres of the VDF can similarly be given preferences to be absorbed into the police forces. The caveat is, the AMP was under a colonial administration so the legal allowances the British had may not be available in a democratic legal environment. But this option is something definitely worth exploring.
Leader Writer: Pradip Phanjoubam