Sudhi Ranjan Sen.
Top generals of the Indian Army appear to have failed Assam – the state which Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh represents in Parliament.
On July 19 the first reports of communal violence in lower Assam emerged. A day later, four former Bodo Liberation Tigers men were murdered.
From there on, the ethnic clashes between the indigenous Bodos and Bengali Muslims raged out of control. Entire villages were set on fire, thousands were left homeless everyday. But the Indian Army – which remains the most secular institution of the country – seems to have squandered time waiting for clearances.
The government of Assam requested the Indian Army for help on July 23. The first request was made by the local administration of Kokrajhar for help. However, it was only two days later that the first Army columns rolled out.
The Indian armed forces are legally required to assist the government in emergencies.
State governments seek the help of the Indian armed forces in three broad categories – to help restore law and order, to maintain essential services during strikes or crisis, and to provide assistance during natural disasters like earthquakes or floods. In all these cases, the armed forces do not need prior permission and clearances from the Ministry of Defence if a state government asks for help.
Yet, the Army consulted the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on whether it should carry out flag marches – a critical exercise where soldiers march through a town to convey the Army is present and vigilant to counter any major danger to residents.
As the riots worsened the Tejpur-based 4-corps and Army formations under it in Chirang, Gaolapara, Kokrajhar districts – the epicentre of the violence – were documenting and reporting the escalating emergency to senior officers.
What is perhaps more sad is that unlike Central Para-military forces who had to be rushed to different states by road and air, the Army is already deployed in Assam. All that it had to do was change the deployment from a counter-insurgency posture to law and order mode.
Sources tell NDTV that the Army initially conveyed to the Ministries of Defence and Home Affairs that it shouldn’t be involved in managing the crisis since the developing situation was “communal” in nature. It was only after much back and forth, a second request from the Assam government on July 24 and then an official letter from the Chief Secretary of Assam that got the Army to finally move.
Sources told NDTV that the Army is reluctant to intervene in a communal conflict since some of its units rebelled after the Golden Temple was stormed in 1984. Also, NDTV was told by a senior Army source that “if each and every request of the civilian government is accepted, there won’t be end to any Army deployments.” As a convention, therefore, the Indian Army acts only when the request is made by certain level of officer – preferable by the Chief Secretary of state – and is cleared by the Ministry of Defence.