Lt Col M Ranjit Singh (Retd)
The current joke in circulation in Manipur about Assam Rifles is that “Close your eyes and throw a pebble, it will invariably land in one corner of an Assam Rifles Battalion location”. People are just expressing their opinion in a lighter way about the presence of large numbers of Assam Rifles Battalions in Manipur these days. It was not so during the early 1960s. The only Assam Rifles Battalion in Manipur then was 4 Assam Rifles.
One can never forget the sight of a smart Gurkha Sentry attired in their iconic heavily starched OG short pant and` Gurkha Hat standing in front of Kangla Western Gate. The regular bugle sounds during their Retreat and Reveille and also the wailing of Siren at noon emanating from Kangla are few things I still remember about 4 Assam Rifles. Durga Puja celebrated with grandeur by them was also a big hit among all Manipuris and was probably the best place in those days to experience and soak up the party atmosphere. The only time I ever went inside Kangla during my schooldays was sometimes in 1960 or 1961 on the day of ‘Bor Din’ or ‘Christmas’. A big Mela was organized on that day at the football ground of 4 Assam Rifles and public were allowed to come and enjoy. I came to know later that Mela had nothing to do with Christmas. It was just a part of celebration of Raising Day of the Battalion which falls on December 23rd of every year.
Incidentally the Battalion will be celebrating their 119th Raising Day shortly somewhere in Manipur.
My article is about the brief history of 4 Assam Rifles starting from its raising days to about 1950s. In view of their long stay at Manipur, 4 Assam Rifles shared with Manipuris many up and down of life. What is Assam Rifles ? Assam Rifles is a Para-Military force known earlier as Assam Frontier Police and Assam Military Police.
The origin and purpose of this force was to assist regular troops in the maintenance of outposts on the frontiers of Assam. In ‘History of Assam Rifles’ written by Col LW Shakespear, it is mentioned that the first unit of Assam Rifles was definitely raised by one Mr Grange, in civil charge of Nowgong, as Cachar Levy with 750 all ranks in 1835. Not much is known about Mr. Grange. But recently I came across few documents at National Archives in Delhi regarding the raising of Cachar Levy. These documents shows that Mr. Edmund Grange raised Cachar Levy with 200 all ranks. One Subedar Dhana Ram Barman and one Jemadar Byasa Ram were taken from Sylhet Light Infantry (later 1/8 Gurkha Rifles) for the Levy. All ranks included 26 Manipuris, 56 Shans, few Nagas and rest being Cacharis. The details of my new findings, I hope to bring up in due course in a separate article.
Now back to 4 Assam Rifles. The Government of India in October 1912 sanctioned the raising of a new Frontier Military Police Battalion in Assam (at Dibrugarh) for guarding the newly extended North East Frontier in consequence of the Abor expedition and also due to likely withdrawal of regular Native Army detachments located at Kohima. The then existing Military Police Force in Assam were Lakhimpur, Naga Hills and the Lushai Hills battalions, and Garo Hills and Silchar detachments. The strength of the battalions and of the companies forming the battalions were varied. A proposal was forwarded by the Assam Government in July 1913 for re-organisation of the Military Police by forming four Battalions including the newly sanctioned Battalion of uniform strength, each consisting of eight companies. The proposal includes the merger of Silchar Detachments with Lushai Battalion and Garo Hills Detachments forming the nucleus of the New Frontier Battalion.
The class composition of the New Battalion was 50 per cent Gurkhas, 25 per cent Dogras (only Jat and Bramhin) and 25 per cent Jharuas. The armament sought for the Military Police was .303 Lee Enfield rifles. But Army turned it down on the plea that arms of the likely tribal adversaries to face the Force would be of primitive type. The main reason for not sanctioning was that it would seriously add to the number of Indian soldiers so armed with .303 rifles. Assam Rifles later was equipped with .303 rifle in 1917 just before Kuki Expedition. 4 Assam Rifles initially called the “New Battalion” but afterwards styled as “Darrang Battalion” was raised at Dibrugarh by Major C. Bliss in August 1913. It is worthwhile to mention that the cinema hall inside Kangla Fort till 1988 was called Bliss Cinema Hall in memory of the first Commandant. On reversion of Major Bliss to Army on August 1, 1914, Captain EL Croslegh of 23rd Sikh Pioneers became Commandant. As per the rules in vogue then, the criteria for an officer to become a Commandant of Military Police Battalion was that he should have done a full four years period as Assistant Commandant. Since Croslegh had done only two years in a Military Police battalion, a special sanction was given by the Govt. of India to permit him to become Commandant. The battalion on completion of its raising was to move to Darrang but was sent to Manipur in March 1915 to relieve 123rd Outrams Rifles (4 Raj Rif). Subsequently Manipur became the permanent location of 4 Assam Rifles. Initially the standard of discipline in the battalion was not good. Two Subedars and three Jemadars were compulsorily retired from service for a serious case of insubordination in 1914. In 1915, Subedar Major was shot dead by Naik Jitman Lama. Naik Lama was hanged inside Imphal Jail on October 25, 1915.
This incident was recorded at Cheitharol Kumbaba (Royal Chronicles of Manipur). The battalion took active part during World War 1 by sending drafts as reinforcements to Gurkha Regiments in various theatres of the Great War. A total of 5 JCOs and 649 all ranks of the battalion fought along with various Gurkha Regiments. A Subedar, 2 Jemadars and 20 rifles also went to France serving with Manipur Labour Corps. Later the title “Darrang” was dropped from its name and the battalion formally became the Fourth Assam Rifles in September 1917. The battalion took active part in the Kuki Expedition. The effective strength of the battalion in the initial stage of the expedition had considerably reduced as best soldiers had all gone to war leaving those somewhat too old or too young and still being trained. On conclusion of the Expedition, the battalion occupied 13 Platoon posts mostly in the Kuki dominated areas of Manipur.
Some of the posts was commanded by NCOs, unthinkable in the Army. The Kukis were enrolled into 4 Assam Rifles after the Expedition and ultimately made up two platoons of the Battalion. Interestingly, the Meiteis were not enrolled in the battalion till as late as 1940s. The Governor of Assam took up a special case in 1942 to allow Meiteis to join Assam Rifles. Immediately after the Kuki Expedition, three Sub Divisions were formed in Manipur at Ukhrul, Tamenglong and Churachandpur. 4 Assam Rifles established permanent outposts in these Sub Divisions. The battalion during 1930 and 1931 took active parts in the operations against Jadonang and Rani Gaindilu. In 1939 during Second Nupi Lan (Women’s War), Mr TA Sharpe, President, Manipur State Durbar was rescued from agitating women by a platoon of 4 Assam Rifles. Colonel GFX Bullfield was then the Commandant of the battalion and Lieutenant JCF Stone was the officer in charge of the platoon. Bullfield was a good polo player and could speak Manipuri fluently, especially Manipuri expletives. Second World War started in 1939 but Manipur remained untouched by the War during the first two years. But after the fall of Burma in the beginning of 1942, Manipur felt the war approaching without stealth and all too rapidly. 4 Assam Rifles being the only active force located in Manipur, they were deployed for multiple roles. The battalion sent the first frontier patrol for reconnaissance of the jungle and hill approaches from the Chindwin and Chin Hills into Manipur State in January 1942. As a part of Passive Air Defence against Japanese air attacks, every available man of 4 Assam Rifles was put to digging trenches and building shelters for his own protection as well as for other inhabitants of the Cantonments. They dug many slit trenches at Khwairamband Bazar also.
In the meantime, the battalion established many reception centers to receive the stream of refugees from Burma. The main centers were at Tamu, Sita and Koirengei. In April 1942, Japanese reconnaissance planes began to fly over Imphal nearly every day. On the hilltop of Lokpaching at Nambol, a section of 4 Assam Rifles waited and watched, with orders that as soon as they saw or heard an aircraft----the Manipuris never done in their lives---they were to heliograph a message to Headquarters at Kangla, whereupon the siren warning would be sounded. The sirens whined, but never a bomb dropped. After some time, people started ignoring the siren warning. Gimson, the Political Agent recalls that when the siren sounded mid-morning on May 10th , 1942, he said to his assistant, ‘I must remember to tell Col JG Hurrell, Commandant 4 Assam Rifles to stop these silly signals.’ Again the siren wailed at 9.30 am. ‘Damn! ‘exclaimed Gimson on his verandah, ‘I forgot to tell Hurrell’. At the same time bombs crashed at many places of Imphal including 4 Assam Rifles location at Kangla. Around 70 civilians were killed and another 80 wounded. Casualties of 4 Assam Rifles were light but Subedar Major and Battalion Panditji were wounded. The only direct hit recorded was on the Canteen with all its stock of rum! The second bombing of Imphal came on 16th May. The material damage of 4 Assam Rifles was again light but, again, the building to which the Canteen stores had been shifted received the only direct hit, destroying among other things whatever was left of the rum. The battalion vacated Kangla and for six months they were located at Lamphelpat and Thangmeiband areas. The battalion was later on mostly used in V Force, an organization to undertake guerilla operations with the assistance of hill people against the Japanese.
The role of V Force was later changed to that of gathering information. Manipur did not join India on August 15, 1947. The agreement on the merger of Manipur to India was signed by Maharaja of Manipur at Shillong on September 21, 1949 and formally merged to India on October 15, 1949 along with Tripura and Benares. Lt Col Yusuf Ali, Commandant of 4 Assam Rifles received Maharaja of Manipur on his return to Manipur by flight on September 25, 1949 at Koirengei Airport. Col Yusuf Ali was a close friend of Captain PB Singh, brother of Maharaja and also Chief Minister of Manipur.
Therefore the integrity of 4 Assam Rifles was doubtful in the eyes of Governor of Assam. So to neutralise 4 Assam Rifles, the Assam Government sent 1 Assam Regiment under Col Ram Singh from Shillong to Imphal to oversee the merger happened without any disturbance. The merger function was held at Imphal Pologround in the midst of heavy rain on October 15, 1949. Nothing untoward happened on that day and subsequent days also. Col Ram Singh with his Regiment left Imphal after few days of the function without informing the Chief Commissioner, Major General Rawal Amar Singh. General Singh was not from the Indian Army but from a State Force. 4 Assam Rifles was good not only on soldiering but in sports activities also. They won Sir Churachand Memorial Football Tournament in the opening year in 1950 and subsequently in 1952, 1954, 1957 and 1959 beating some of the top teams of Manipur. Of course Manipur was not a power house of sports then.
I was posted to 4 Assam Rifles in 1985 and served with the battalion till 1988 when the Battalion moved out of Kangla for the first time since 1915. Needless to say, it was the best tenure I had during my Army service. I conclude my article with a clarification on the myth of Slim’s Cottage inside Kangla. When I joined the battalion, the so called Slim’s cottage was the official residence of the Commandant. Later when M Sector was raised at Imphal, it became the official residence of GOC, M Sector. Nobody mentioned it as Slim’s Cottage then. Field Marshall Sir William Slim during during Second World War was Army Commander 14 Army based initially at Ranchi and subsequently at Barrackpore. Imphal was the Headquarters of 4 Corps during Battle of Imphal. Administration Report of Manipur 1943-44 mentioned the name of FM Slim as one of the distinguished member of the armed forces who visited Manipur during the period. What I am trying to emphasise is that it is wrong to name it Slim’s Cottage. It should remain as “Residence of Commandant, 4 Assam Rifles”. The writer can be reached at [email protected]