Defence, home ministries in turf war over Myanmar border security

Defence, home ministries in turf war over Myanmar border security

New Delhi: Abid to realize operational control of the security apparatus along the border between India and Myanmar, which is vulnerable to illegal intrusions, has degenerated into an ugly face-off between the home and defence ministries.

At present the border is manned by the central paramilitary Assam Rifles.

The irreconcilable differences have forced the government to refer the matter to the cabinet committee on security (CCS), which is headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Defence minister A.K. Antony, home minister P. Chidambaram, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and external affairs minister S.M. Krishna are the other members of the country’s highest decision-making body on national security.

India shares a 1,643km border with Myanmar; it borders the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. Insurgent groups such as the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) operate out of Myanmar.

The home ministry is arguing that the Assam Rifles has failed to effectively deliver on the dual problem of keeping the border secure and fighting off inflitration attempts by insurgents. It has demanded that they be replaced with another central paramilitary, the Border Security Force (BSF), presently deployed at the borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The defence ministry, on the other hand, has opposed the idea and argued that dismantling or replacement of the Assam Rifles would rob the government of domain knowledge of the area that could be useful to hold off a Chinese military offensive.

The CCS, due to meet this week, will find it difficult to take a decision, especially given that there is a long history to the dispute. A group of ministers set up in 2001 had recommended that since the home ministry oversees border management, the defence ministry should hand over operational control of the Assam Rifles, a decision that was rejected by the defence ministry.

At present the Assam Rifles, which has a strength of 46 battalions, of which 31 are deployed for counter-insurgency operations and 15 for border-guarding duties, is operationally under the control of the defence ministry while its administrative control is with the home ministry. It is tasked with preventing the infiltration of arms and drug trafficking from the other side of the border.

“It is a turf war between the two arms of the government," said B.G. Verghese, a political analyst. “Since Assam Rifles is doing operational duties, it can be placed under the army. But if it is performing peace duties, home ministry can have control over it."

According to official documents, prepared ahead of the CCS meet and reviewed by Mint, the home ministry has raised serious questions on the effectiveness of the Assam Rifles.

“Assam Rifles has traditionally been a counter-insurgency (CI) force. The Assam Rifles is located not exactly at the border, but very much inside in the interiors to be also able to conduct CI operations. The attention of an essentially CI force to both guarding border and carrying out CI results in neither of the objectives being addressed effectively," the note said.

The home ministry, therefore, argues that freeing the Assam Rifles of border duty would allow it to focus on counter insurgency.

“Like Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the BSF performs the role of the first line of defence, on Myanmar border also during war, if any, BSF will perform the similar role. Therefore, any force deployed at this border need not be under the operational control of Army as suggested by the MoD (ministry of defence)," the home ministry said in its argument.

It further argued that though the defence ministry was supportive of raising 26 additional battalions (nearly 30,000 security personnel) in the Assam Rifles, the army, which is already facing a shortage of officers, will not be able to provide its officers to man the new battalions. The force is officered primarily by army officers on deputation.

The defence ministry supported the idea of raising additional battalions in the Assam Rifles but refused to hand over their operational control to the home ministry. Consequently, the home ministry decided to raise 41 battalions in the BSF for deployment along the Myanmar border.

The defence ministry’s remarks appended to the same note suggested that it viewed this debate from its perception of a potential threat from China.

“The Chinese interests in infrastructure development in Myanmar with the aim of enhancing its military capabilities, the haste to construct Stilwell Road and development of several air fields with specifications not corresponding to aircrafts held by Myanmar belie its intentions," the defence ministry said.

Given that Arunchal Pradesh and Nagaland are vulnerable to any Chinese miltiary intrusion, the defence ministry is pusing to keep the area under the operational control of the army. “Any replacement of this force will result in loss of vast domain knowledge and rich operational experience in the region, which the replacing force if at all will take years to build up."

“There is no harm in replacing Assam Rifles with BSF, provided that MHA (ministry of home affairs) deployed seasoned police officers in BSF at the border," said E. Ramohan, formera director general of the BSF.