The Hindu Profiles | On Border Security Force, Najib Mikati and Ajay Kumar Mishra

Border Security Force | In the line of defence, with growing powers

During the Kargil war in 1999, the Army and other intelligence agencies faced a peculiar problem. Their interception centres in the high-altitude region were unable to interpret the wireless communication of the Pakistani intruders. The Pakistanis spoke in Dardi, Balti, Pushto and Farsi as they occupied key heights along the Line of Control (LoC).

A small unit of the Border Security Force (BSF), posted at Channigund, was asked to interpret and analyse the conversations taped by the agencies on a cassette. BSF Inspector Habibullah, a local from Drass, assisted the Army in translating the wireless conversations in Dardi and Balti. According to a book, BSF: India’s First Line of Defence, edited by Anirudh Deshpande, associate professor, History, Delhi University, the BSF Inspector “also helped in motivating local youths for working as porters” as large number of population had fled the area in panic due to shelling from across the border.

Though the BSF played a key role in the Kargil war — it was the first to send five specific intelligence inputs about a Pakistani build-up, months before the war commenced in May 1999 — the achievements of the central armed police force (CAPF) that reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs, were lost in footnotes of government reports.

The BSF was raised on December 1, 1965 after the India-Pakistan war. Till then, the border with Pakistan was guarded by the armed battalions of State police who were ill-equipped to stop trans-border crimes and infiltration. The then Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, constituted a commission of secretaries and based on its report the BSF was raised. Its first director general (DG) was police officer K.F. Rustamji.

Former police officer P.V. Rajagopal, who authored an autobiographical narrative on the founding DG, quotes Rustamji : “After handing over charge as IGP Madhya Pradesh, I reached Delhi and wrote my joining report on 21 July 1965…I became the head of a one-man organization. I was the sole Borderman; nobody below me, nobody above me...”

Pivotal role

It was raised by drawing personnel from the State armed police, the armed forces and from 25 battalions (a battalion is 1,000 personnel approximately). The BSD has now expanded to around 200 battalions.

The BSF played a pivotal role in the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. The BSF and its counterpart — the Border Guards Bangladesh — are now commemorating 50 years of Bangladesh’s liberation (formerly East Pakistan ) through year-long events. The 56-year-old force, deployed along the Bangladesh (4,096.7 km) and Pakistan (3,323 km) borders, is currently at the centre of a political storm after the MHA enhanced its operational limits in Punjab, West Bengal and Assam.

The MHA, through a notification in the Gazette of India on October 11, enhanced the “arrest, search and seize” powers of BSF up to 50 km from the international boundary in the States of Punjab, West Bengal and Assam. In Gujarat, the limit was reduced from the existing 80 km to 50 km and in Rajasthan, the 50 km limit has remained unchanged.

Opposition parties have questioned the move, terming the order an attack on federalism. According to the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, policing is a State subject. However, according to the BSF Act, 1968, passed by Parliament and the rules framed in 1969, the BSF has been assigned three primary tasks while deployed along the borders — promote a sense of security among the people living in the border area; prevent trans-border crimes/unauthorised entry into or exit from the territory of India and prevent smuggling and any other illegal activity.

In border areas, the BSF can “arrest, search and seize” in cases pertaining to smuggling of narcotics, prohibited items, illegal entry of foreigners and offences punishable under any other Central Act and select provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).

The BSF does not have policing powers and after apprehending a suspect, it can only conduct “preliminary questioning” and the seized consignment or a suspect have to be handed over to the local police within 24 hours. Such powers under CrPC are already available to other central forces such as the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB). The ITBP (raised to protect the China border) and the SSB (for Bhutan and Nepal border) are also border guarding forces but can be deployed in the hinterland at the request of State governments.

In 2011, the Congress-led UPA government proposed legislation to grant similar powers to the BSF across the country, but the Bill was not passed. In 2012, Narendra Modi as Gujarat’s Chief Minister had written to the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, opposing the Centre’s proposed move.

Over the years, the BSF’s role expanded and it was also deployed in areas affected by Left-wing extremism (LWE), for law and order situation and on election duty. The October 11 notification replaces a 2014 notification under the BSF Act, 1968, which also empowered the BSF to conduct counter-insurgency operations in the States of Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.

Territorial limit

“The BSF does not have any investigating powers. Say, if a drone has been spotted near the Punjab border and has to be tracked beyond the 15 km limit, the present notification gives us a legal teeth to conduct the searches in nearby areas and not be constrained by territorial limit. We anyway alert all the agencies and the local police,” said a senior BSF official.

The recent order only enhances the BSF’s “territorial jurisdiction”, said the official, giving the force an opportunity to also conduct independent searches. “But the FIR and investigation has to be done by the local police and concerned agency only, we have no such powers. The 50-km limit is being implemented to enforce uniformity,” the official added.

Further explaining the order, the official said it would remove any confusion as the territorial limit was 15 km, 50 km and 80 km in different States. “In case of northeast States, except Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the BSF’s jurisdiction was already there in the whole of the other five States. Even the central Acts and CrPC, where the BSF is empowered to act, there are certain specified sections. There is no change in the sections and the Act, this notification has only increased the territorial jurisdiction,” the official added.

After the Kargil war, a committee on internal security headed by retired IAS officer N.N. Vohra recommended that all internal security duties should be dealt by one force, which led to the gradual withdrawal of the BSF from the Kashmir Valley. The BSF has a thin presence in the interiors of J&K now. Its primary responsibility is guarding the 192-km International Border in Jammu and few kilometres along the LoC that is protected by the Army.

The force’s rise has not come without instances of civilian killings and human rights violations. In 1993, BSF personnel opened fire at a procession at Bijbehara in South Kashmir, killing 43 people.

In 2011, Felani Khatun, a 15-year-old girl from Bangladesh, was shot dead by BSF soldiers while she was entering Bangladesh from Cooch Behar district of West Bengal. Photographs of the teenager’s body that remained hanging on the barbed wire fence for several hours before being brought down created a huge public outcry in Bangladesh. This led to a policy change and the BSF was asked to use non-lethal weapons along the densely populated Bangladesh border. BSF officials later complained that they often came under violent attack by cattle smugglers active along the West Bengal border and the non-lethal weapon policy was an impediment to their operational capabilities. That issue remains unsettled. But now, with enhanced territorial limits in States, the border agency is set expand its operations, especially at a time when the borders remain tumultuous.


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