Why the Indian Frontier Administrative Service could be a potent force against China

Delhi Jul 06, 2020, 05.30 PM(IST) Written By: Rachit Seth

India China border Photograph:( Reuters )

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National security is closely linked with strategic development.

India can deal with Chinese expansionism with the Himalayan region only by expeditious infrastructure development at its frontier areas. India has been able to establish political governance at the grassroots level through Hill Development Councils, Panchayats and a host of ‘packages’ in these areas. But, there is a sense of deep neglect on the implementation front, especially in context of physical infrastructure needs. A revival of the esteemed Indian Frontier Administrative Service (IFAS) – an experiment done in the 1950-60’s will bridge the governance gap in these remote far-flung areas.

The best public policy interventions work on pilot and feedback loops. In this case, we have had a pilot in the IFAS and some key learnings from it. A renewed, reoriented and restructured IFAS dedicated to the Himalayan frontier states in India is the need of the hour. The first step of a good foreign policy measure is to start domestically. And this is what this piece elucidates.

The Indian Frontier Administrative Service (IFAS), a separate cadre created in 1954 to administer the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA i.e., present-day Arunachal Pradesh and at that time, a part of Assam) was the military-governance mechanism mooted by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. It emphasised more on the socio-economic development of the various tribes in the protected region but did not focus on strategic border development. Some historical accounts attribute this deficiency in the said policy to Verrier Elwin, an anthropologist who was appointed as the advisor to the government of Assam. But this may not be entirely true.

 A cursory review of the list of IFAS cadre suggests that most members were either distinguished army officers or belonged to the Indian Foreign Service, the Indian Administrative Service, and the Indian Police Service, rotating between these postings.

NEFA was placed in a special category administered by the Ministry of External Affairs (and post 1965, by Ministry of Home Affairs) through an ‘IFAS’ Secretariat at Shillong, consisting of advisors for finance, tribal and legal affairs. The IFAS cadre mainly functioned as Political Officers (and thereafter as Deputy Commissioners) in charge of a frontier district vested with the powers of a District Magistrate and were the ultimate authority in their district to examine and implement development schemes. All top bureaucratic posts in other North Eastern States like Manipur were also filled by IFAS officers. An interesting Parliamentary answer between Manipur’s stalwart politician, Rishang Keishing and the then Deputy External Affairs Minister alludes to local tribals being preferred in filling the IFAS posts.

One of the most illustrious officers of IFAS was Major Ralengnao (Bob) Khathing. Under whose leadership, two platoons of Assam Rifles took possession of Tawang in February 1951, establishing Indian administrative control in the Bum La area along McMahon Line. This heroic act was enacted without shedding blood, even as China forced Tibet to sign a Seventeen Point Agreement in May 1951 and officially annexe it.

In 1968, the special cadre of IFAS was merged within the Indian Administrative Service. In the present context, the Indian Government can draw many lessons from the IFAS experiment, especially when China has officially transgressed the LAC as many as 2264 times since 2015 and India-China faced a 73-day standoff on Doklam in 2017.

First, for the NEFA tribals, IFAS had a simple policy laid down by Nehru. He avoided the two extremes - “one was to treat them as anthropological specimens for study and the other was to allow them to be engulfed by the masses of Indian humanity”. The could act as a Magna Carta for the newly restructured IFAS too. Since 2019, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh are now both Union Territories. They are crucial frontier border areas with Pakistan and China, it is imperative that IFAS should be resurrected and expanded for their administration and infrastructural development.

Second, Chief Ministers of Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram have made calls for a revival of the IFAS, but their plea is more to provide a state-specific cadre than a larger administrative force implementing developmental programmes in the Himalayan region. A set of highly specialised officers, superior in merit and in strategic thinking, would entail that the development of Himalayan frontier regions remain at par with the rest of the country.

Third, presently the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), albeit mainly an infrastructure special purpose vehicle, backed by the army, is used for building strategic roads in the frontier areas. It is not a secret that towns, hamlets and villages in border areas are neglected and often complain of virtually no administration. The political mechanism of Hill Development Councils which was fructified in Leh & Ladakh (and later replicated in North-Eastern states) have become bastions of local political empowerment, but lack robust administrative capacity. They are often marred with leakages and want of strategic planning. Massive packages have been announced, in the name of development by all governments, but they hardly reach the last border village.

Fourth, given that the present government is widening the scope of lateral entries in civil services provides enough ground for ‘specialized’ inclusion in the civil services.

Many would argue that replacing the existing IAS driven cadre stationed in these districts with a rehashed version of the same – The IFAS, would hardly solve any purpose. They are wrong. Looking at the merit, superiority and the military background which the erstwhile IFAS cadre possessed, and their accounts of solid administrative delivery in the difficult terrains, punctures that argument.

National security is closely linked with strategic development, and it is a hope that policymakers realise that.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)