Paramilitary Forces and Internal Security

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PARAMILITARY FORCES AND INTERNAL SECURITY India has undergone one of the fastest expansions of paramilitary internal security forces in the world. Though estimates vary, India's paramilitary strength is widely believed to be over 1 million, representing some 50 percent of the country's total armed forces, making India's the second-largest (after China) paramilitary force in the world.

The growth of India's paramilitary forces has been as diverse as it has been dramatic. The most remarkable rise has been that of the central paramilitary forces, light-infantry troops for service in border security, riot control, counterinsurgency, and close protection. The national government maintains six such forces, comprising half a million troops. Most of the remaining forces are organized by the states, in armed police units used for riot control and public order. The states have also raised special operations groups and special task forces to pursue specific criminal or rebel targets. In rebellious states, militias called village defense committees have been raised from among loyal elements. The national government's Intelligence Bureau is also actively involved in countering political unrest. The large paramilitary growth was meant to relieve the Indian army, but 30 to 40 percent of the regular army continues to be engaged in maintaining internal security, and the army has been forced to assign regular troops to counterinsurgency operations.


Under British rule, internal security had been maintained by Britain's colonial army. Though sparingly used in the twentieth century, the British Indian army's system of city garrisons supported its constabulary role, even when both world wars demanded overseas expeditionary duties. The British also had a practice of maintaining paramilitaries, such as the Cachar Levy (later Assam Rifles) and Punjab Irregular Frontier Force, but these were never quite separate from the army. Free India inherited paramilitary provincial constabularies in its largest states and a mounted infantry battalion, the Crown's Representative Police Force, later renamed the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).

The first spurt of post-independence growth of paramilitary forces occurred in the 1960s in response to external, rather than internal, threats. The threat from China led to the founding of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) in 1962. The force was intended for surveillance and special operations along the northern border and inside Chinese territory. The ITBP was recruited from acclimatized Himalayan communities and Tibetan refugees and received significant but short-lived U.S. assistance. The force was placed under the Ministry of Home Affairs, rather than the Indian army, to facilitate coordination with the Intelligence Bureau. India's largest paramilitary, the Border Security Force (BSF), was similarly raised after the 1965 war with Pakistan, which had begun with Pakistani border incursions in Kashmir.

The BSF and the ITBP were subsequently engaged in internal security, mostly focusing on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism in the border states. In Jammu and Kashmir, the BSF served as the leading paramilitary agency until 2003. The ITBP mostly provided close protection to political leaders and government officials targeted by rebels. The ITBP's select recruitment procedures made it less susceptible to infiltration and a natural choice for this duty.

The CRPF, which was established for internal security, expanded riot and crowd control and counterinsurgency capabilities. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the CRPF became a more mobile force, reconstituting its riot control squads into Rapid Action Force. In Punjab, the CRPF served effectively at the height of the Sikh rebellion. After the successful end of that insurgency in Punjab, the CRPF reverted to riot and crowd control, while continuing limited counterinsurgency in the Northeastern region. In 2004 the Indian government proposed to replace the BSF units in Jammu and Kashmir with new CRPF units, but held back the changeover following murderous suicide attacks on CRPF camps in the state that raised doubts about the force's capacity to fight effectively. This has led to some rethinking about the utility of paramilitary growth that has accompanied increased political efforts to resolve the dispute in Jammu and Kashmir.

In 2002 the central paramilitary forces consisted of over half a million troops. The BSF stood at 191,000, divided about evenly between border management and counterinsurgency. The force had gone from its initial 37 battalions to 56 in 1980 and 157 in 2002. The CRPF, the second largest, was 167,000, up from 15,000 in 1965. The ITBP went from a few battalions of special forces to 52,000 in 2002. The paramilitaries grew six times faster than the regular military between 1965 and 2002. Their budgets also increased dramatically: the BSF went from 3.5 billion Indian rupees in 1987–1988 to 11.8 billion in 1996–1997; the CRPF budget grew from 1.9 billion rupees in 1985–1986 to 12.5 billion rupees in 1997–1998.

Despite the fast growth, the central paramilitary forces have been overstretched. A CRPF unit, for example, was ordered to move thirty-three times in 1987. In the riot-prone city of Moradabad, in Uttar Pradesh, a single deployment of the force lasted four years, from 1980 to 1984. Between 1981 and 1992, the number of CRPF companies employed in the state of Uttar Pradesh alone rose from 50 to 208 (approximately 12 battalions, or 12,000 troops, to 50 battalions, or 50,000 troops). In the early 1990s as much as 45 percent of the CRPF was deployed in Punjab alone. Though the CRPF was the worst hit, other paramilitary forces were also extended beyond their limits.

A second tier of internal security forces, the provincial constabularies, passed into the hands of the state governments following independence. The bulk of the state forces for the most part became unreliable and were practically abandoned. Uttar Pradesh's Provincial Armed Constabulary and Bihar's Armed Police, for example, committed some truly horrific human rights offenses. The security reorganization in the states, therefore, concentrated on using task forces for the most grievous threats. The first widely publicized special task force was established in the early 1980s by the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka against the infamous ivory poacher, Veerappan, who ruled the jungles between the two states and was finally killed in 2004. In the late 1980s in Punjab, CRPF officers and troops seconded the state police and formed the core of special teams (described as India's death squads) that targeted Sikh militants. In Jammu and Kashmir, the special operations group, comprising select provincial constabulary and central paramilitary troops, has fought effectively against the insurgents. Special teams have also been used by states such as Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat to fight organized crime. The choice of special teams reflects an effort to concentrate resources on small, uncompromising teams operating with some impunity.

The third tier of internal security forces constitute the village defense committee (VDC). The VDC is a militia constituting state-supporting elements armed, trained, and paid for by the government. They provide intelligence to central and state forces, and in some cases hold off insurgent attacks while calling in reinforcements. VDCs are usually organized in sections of six to ten men, but there are larger and more organized militias as well. The Ikhwan-e-Muslimoon in southern Kashmir, for example, comprised former rebels who worked with government forces against the rebels. In Manipur the government has similarly used ethnic Kuki groups to fight the Naga insurgency. The special police officer (SPO) innovation emerged most publicly from the suppression of the armed peasant and student rebellion in West Bengal in 1969–1970. The SPO was usually an undercover agent, often a former rebel, who gathered intelligence and helped apprehend other rebels. In Punjab some 10,000 men were organized in VDCs and as SPOs.


Despite the preponderance of central paramilitary forces, law and order is a state subject under the Constitution of India. The states must request help from the central government before military or paramilitary troops may be used. In most cases, the use of force occurs under the authority of the state government working through local administration officers, usually the district revenue collector, who doubles as a magistrate. The combination of executive and judicial authority is a colonial legacy that has enabled the internal use of force in free India as well. The Constitution also allows the national government to dismiss state governments that fail to preserve law and order and to impose emergency central rule. While these powers have been misused for partisan politics, the most serious interventions occurred as a result of rebellion.

The actual deployment and behavior of India's armed forces is governed by specific laws. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act passed in 1958 to aid in the pacification of rebels in Nagaland and Mizoram, has been extended to other areas as required, and allows military personnel to enter and search, make arrests, and use lethal force. Other laws mimic these provisions for the central paramilitary forces. A series of "disturbed areas" laws further allow the national government to deploy security forces without the direct supervision of a magistrate, as is otherwise required for "aid to the civil" operations.

In 2002 the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government pushed through Parliament the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which gave the police and security agencies broad authority to suspend civil liberties and due process. The new Congress government in 2004 allowed the law to lapse and has been trying to push through a more lenient version as replacement. The previous two decades were marked by controversy over the Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act of 1987, which gave similar powers to security agencies. A news report in April 1992 found that 13,225 persons had been detained under the law in the previous seven years, but only 78 were convicted, despite easy rules of evidence. As many as 65,000 persons, including opposition politicians, lawyers, and journalists, had been detained under the law in 1993. Not surprisingly, the number of complaints filed with the National Human Rights Commission have also increased rapidly, from 496 in 1993–1994, when it was founded, to 6,947 in 1994–1995 and 20,514 in 1996–1997.

Command and Control

The Internal Security Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) controls the central paramilitary forces. The forces receive their own budgets and are commanded by a powerful officer corps that safeguards their institutional interests. Only the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force in the Northeastern region, serves under the command of the Indian army. The separation of command between the military and the paramilitary, going up through the Ministries of Defence and Home Affairs, is an important feature of post-independence institution building in India. By most accounts, the divided command arrangement has hurt the government's ability to fight internal security threats, but it continues to thrive, presumably, as an instrument of civil supremacy over the armed forces. Only during wartime can the military assert command over India's paramilitary forces.

The Indian army raised its own counterinsurgency force, the Rashtriya Rifles (National Rifles), by reconstituting two army corps (about 75,000 troops) for service in the rebellious state of Jammu and Kashmir. In 1993 a former Indian army chief appointed as governor to the state created a united headquarters to coordinate the various forces, but the arrangement did not quite work until the Kargil war in 1999, when the paramilitary forces were expressly placed under army command as part of wartime regulations.

Political leaders have supported paramilitary separation from the military in the hope of being able to better control the use of force, since the army's structure and institutional norms shut out state politicians from internal security campaigns. Army officers report directly to the national government through their own chain of command, and generally view state government officials as meddlesome and counterproductive to their military goals. Paramilitary forces, on the other hand, are more amenable to political control because they are part of the policing structure over which states enjoy constitutional authority. A system of common officership between paramilitary and police forces consolidates civil political control over paramilitary forces. Key command positions in the paramilitary forces are occupied by members of the Indian Police Service (IPS), an elite civil service. IPS officers also occupy positions in the Home Ministry's Internal Security Division.

Causes and Consequences

The rise of paramilitary forces in India is the result of worsening internal security propelled by several governance failures since the mid-1970s. Punjab, the Northeast states, and Jammu and Kashmir have been torn by rebellion because of the inability of the national and state governments to accommodate the political and economic aspirations of important social groups in those states. Political violence also increased in the "mainland" states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and even in the political and commercial capitals of New Delhi and Mumbai, as a result of new aspirants claiming political power and the ruling elite seeking ways to prevent it. A gathering Hindu movement since the 1980s further added the possibility of Hindu-Muslim rioting. Disaffected groups have had increasing access to assault rifles and plastic explosives. Between 1990 and 1998, Indian security forces in Kashmir alone recovered around 18,000 AK series rifles, 7,000 pistols and revolvers, and 500 rocket launchers. In Punjab, an estimated 10,000 AK series rifles were captured between 1988 and 1994.

The Indian Institute of Public Administration lists 210 major incidents of communal violence—mostly caste and religious rioting—in the period 1951–1985; of these, 58 occurred in 1951–1970, and 152 in 1971–1985. The trend has since intensified. India's Ministry of Home Affairs reports that in Jammu and Kashmir in 1988–2000 there were 45,500 incidents of political violence, including 16,800 attacks on security forces, 13,000 incidents of explosion and arson, and 10,000 attacks on civilians by rebels. As many as 8,300 civilians and 2,200 security personnel (most of them paramilitary) died, and 11,479 rebels were killed. Militancy in Punjab in 1983–1992 caused about 12,000 deaths, including 1,400 police, 300 paramilitary, and 50 army troops. During more than a decade of deployment in Punjab, the CRPF alone killed 2,551 rebels and captured 12,977.

This massive use of force by the government has eroded the quality of Indian democracy. The long periods of quasi-martial law in the Northeast states and in Kashmir have led some observers to suggest that significant numbers of Indians actually live under authoritarian rule, belying the country's pride in being the world's largest democracy. What is most worrisome is the majoritarian sanction for the growing use of force in the country, the logic of which has already led to increased civil violence, most notably in Gujarat and in Mumbai. The general willingness to allow the state to use force as a primary instrument of policy means that when leaders feel politically and materially constrained, they will use majority anger to fill the coercion gap. The police and paramilitary forces in these circumstances stand back to allow majority groups to commit violence, further politicizing their ranks and spirit. The fast growth of the paramilitary forces has already led to training and control problems that affect their performance. Though India's political institutions continue to show an ability to accommodate new interests, changes in the character of the coercive apparatus, combined with a greater willingness to use force, constitute a significant departure from the past, when the majority of Indians believed that politics was the best mechanism for conflict resolution in their deeply divided country.

Sunil Dasgupta

See alsoEthnic Conflict ; Insurgency and Terrorism ; Jammu and Kashmir


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