The Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) is the best para-military around, with very good operational ethos and habits. Recognizing its abilities, the Modi government has decided to put it in charge of the country’s border with Myanmar. In fact, the 15 new battalions that the Assam Rifles (AR) — India’s oldest paramilitary organization, is raising will now go to ITBP instead, even as it takes control of the border with Myanmar, and tries to shut off the flow of arms to rebel movements and insurgents active in the northeast. A Cabinet note formalizing this enlarged role of ITBP coupled with pullback of Assam Rifles from border policing has been prepared and will be put to the Cabinet for approval very soon.
This shock of Assam Rifles, officered by the army, no less, has hit Army HQrs, which has not come to terms with its officers and the AR’s established modus operandi being directly blamed for the continuance of tribal insurgencies in that region and is, understandably, resisting the move. Army’s loss of face aside, the failure of army led AR in the last few years has become so pronounced, a drastic solution is believed necessary. Of special concern was intelligence that army officers deputed to the AR were a mostly compromised lot. As much to blame were the Assam Rifles’ method of basing its units some 40-50 kms behind the actual border, which only helped the unhindered movement of insurgents, arms and ammo. This in turn kept the insurgencies oxygenated. There’s, moreover, enough evidence with the government to suggest that the flow of Chinese arms into the northeast was facilitated by China through the Kachin Army it controls in northern Myanmar.
The government examined ITBP’s performance not just on the Tibetan border, but also its sterling successes in one of the worst Naxal-infested areas, the Narayanpur District of Chhattisgarh. Some eight ITBP battalions are deployed there and has resulted in the Marxist guerilla fighters in that area being on the run, desperately avoiding fights. The reason for this, it is realized, was because of ITBP tactics. Firstly, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the main force in anti-Naxal ops, sticks to the roads in the hinterland and uses lorries for movement. Owing to their road-boundnes, Naxalites routinely mine these country roads, blow up truck transports carrying CRPF units, register mounting casualties, and hurt the morale and emphasize the ineffectiveness of government forces. Further, the ease with which the Naxal cadres operate and their aggression in tangling with CRPF only burnishes their reputation with the local tribal people, firms up their support among the latter, and reinforces Naxal control of the ‘Red Corridor’ running from the Andhra region all the way north to the Nepal border.
ITBP personnel, on the other hand, used to walking and preparing to fight in mountainous terrain — there being no roads or other infrastructure in the Himalayan uplands, have no problems in establishing their presence and wrenching back control from the Naxals in the areas its units are posted to. Deploying for 2-3 weeks at a time on long range patrols, ITBP jawans and officers live off the land, move rapidly and stealthily in the jungles, and hunt down and eliminate Naxal fighters. Unused to such tactics by these foot-mobile government forces, the Naxals run because they can’t match the ITBP firepower either. Thus, the areas assigned to ITBP soon become devoid of Naxals. A DG, Chhattisgarh, reportedly mused rather loudly that if he had sufficient ITBP units, his state would be rid of these home-grown ideological insurgents in double-quick time.
Further, AR’s inflexible strategy of staying back from the border is in sharp contrast to the ITBP’s of installing itself right on the border it monitors. This impressed the PMO as did the other attributes (some of which are discussed above). These aspects taken together convinced Prime Minister Modi that ITBP was the force to rely on to seal the Myanmar border, prevent the rebels from easily replenishing their arms & ammo stocks owing to its support base across the border, choke off the insurgencies, and compel the rebel groups to come to the negotiating table.
This is all very good, and ITBP deserves all the kudos. But it has nested problems the government should address. As its name suggests ITBP is meant for the Indo-Tibetan border, its skills and competences honed for the specific Himalayan milieu. Dissipating its role and mission by pitting it against Naxals, the northeastern insurgents, etc. is to end up blunting its core expertise, and diminishing its utility. India needs more specialist forces on Line of Actual Control (LAC), in the main, because the Chinese PLA believes there are no big wars, only small wars that become big. In other words, the country and government need to strengthen ITBP, make it a genuinely powerful force on China border to ensure that should small-time hostilities be initiated by PLA, they remain small. ITBP’s usefulness should, in fact, be enhanced by (1) recruiting Tibetans from the exile community in India, and (2) the officers in particular given Mandarin language training in order to make them proficient in handling small scale Chinese contingencies, generating intelligence, and having the capacity to gauge Chinese intentions, all on their own. In other words, ITBP should be assisted to become an even more consequential China border force.
If, however, the ITBP ethos and tactics are prized, then why not depute on short term basis the specialist ITBP officers to run Assam Rifles, and to lead counter-insurgency state police and CRPF units in the fight against Naxals? Their task will be to train AR, CRPF, et al to become more like ITBP in their fighting skills and methodologies, and to get the jawans from these latter units off their butt, off trucks, and on foot for long term deployment without much logistics support, in the jungles of Central India to finish off the Naxals once and for all, and to shut down the flows of everything, including armed rebels, from Myanmar. This is the best solution.
On its part though, ITBP morale is hurting because, for all its efficiency and effectiveness, it is controlled by Indian Police Service officers occupying top posts, rather than allowing the Force’s own encadred officer corps to fill these positions and run ITBP. This is cause for much heart-burning and discontent, and the Modi government will be well advised to pay heed. IPS officers, like their counterparts in the Indian Administrative Service to which most of the IPS recruits aspired, have become a generalist cadre with no specialist skills or domain expertise, and generally muck up things as IAS members do elsewhere in running very disparate agencies of government with only minimal understanding of what they should ideally be doing. If ITBP is a good force, it will become even better if their own officers are given the opportunity to run it. And because, ultimately, it is the quality of officers that distinguishes one paramil org from another, one thing you don’t want is a thoroughly disaffected ITBP officer corps.