The Assam Rifles is the oldest paramilitary force of India. The unit can trace its lineage back to a paramilitary police force that was formed under the British in 1835 called Cachar Levy. Since then the Assam Rifles have undergone a number of name changes—the Assam Frontier Police (1883), the Assam Military Police (1891) and Eastern Bengal and Assam Military Police (1913), before finally becoming the Assam Rifles in 1917. Over the course of its history, the Assam Rifles and its predecessor units have served in a number of roles, conflicts and theatres including World War I where they served in Europe and the Middle East, and World War II where they served mainly in Burma. In the post World War II period the Assam Rifles has expanded greatly as has its role. There are currently 46 battalionsof Assam Rifles with a sanctioned strength of 66,411 personnel. It is under the control of the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and they perform many roles including the provision of internal security under the control of the army through the conduct of counter insurgency and border security operations, provision of aid to the civil power in times of emergency, and the provision of communications, medical assistance and education in remote areas. In times of war they can also be used as a combat force to secure rear areas if needed. Since 2002 it has been guarding the Indo–Myanmar barrier as per the government policy "one border one force".
The present day Assam Rifles can trace its origins back to a paramilitary force known as Cachar Levy which was established by the British in 1835 in the Assam region. The Assam Rifles boast of being the oldest paramilitary force. With approximately seven hundred and fifty men, this force was formed as a police unit to protect settlements against tribal raids and other assaults as British rule slowly moved towards the north east parts of India.
Despite problems with equipment and training, the contribution of this force in opening the region to administration and commerce was nevertheless quite significant and over time they have become known as the "right arm of the civil and [the] left arm of the military" in the region. In 1870 these existing elements were merged into three Assam Military Police battalions which were spread out in the Lushai Hills (later 1st battalion), Lakhimpur (2nd battalion) and Naga Hills (3rd battalion). A fourth battalion was later formed Imphal in 1915. The first non-British DG of Assam Rifles was Col. Sidhiman Rai, MC.
Since then the name of the force has undergone a number of changes, as have the roles that it has been required to perform. The current director general of Assam Rifles is Lt Gen H J S Sachdev.
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.
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.
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 present Director General of the Assam Rifles is Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh AVSM, SM, of the Bihar Regiment.
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.
The Wikileaks diplomatic cables have disclosed that Indian government employees agree to acts of human rights violations on part of the Assam Rifles in the Indian north-eastern state of Manipur. The violations have been carried out under the cover of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 Governor S.S. Sidhu admitted to the American Consul General in Kolkata, Henry Jardine, that the Assam Rifles in particular are perpetrators of violations in Manipur.
Members of the Assam Rifles have received the following military decorations since Indian independence:
N.B. Prior to Indian independence members of the Assam Rifles were eligible for British decorations. During World War I and World War II members of the Assam Rifles received many such awards for their actions, although these have not been included here. There have also been numerous civil awards to members of the Assam Rifles. These can be found at the source listed above.