Opinion | Stop politicising BSF jurisdiction issue, it’s important for national security

·5-min read

It is yet another case of politics trying to needlessly cloud a move towards establishing the much-needed uniformity in the mandate of the security forces in India's national security architecture. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)'s 11 October, 2021, notification has set the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF) at a uniform limit of 50 kilometres in almost all the states that share borders with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

This has been brought through adjustments to existing provisions which kept the BSF's operational area at 50 kilometres in states of Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya, but limited only to 15 kilometres in West Bengal, Punjab and Assam. Similarly, in Gujarat where the existing jurisdiction was 80 kilometres, will now be reduced to 50 kilometres.

The notification will enable the BSF to search, seize and arrest to prevent offences that fall under a variety of acts including the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Passport Act, 1967. The notification, however, does not give the BSF the power to investigate crimes. Suspects and accused persons will still have to be handed over to the local authorities.

By all means, the MHA's move brings a partial uniformity in defining the area of BSF's jurisdiction and avoids state to state differentials. The BSF's current powers to arrest, search and seize under the NDPS Act, Arms Act, Customs Act and certain other laws, however, has not been changed, meaning its powers under these will continue to be only up to 15 kilometres inside the border in Punjab, Assam and West Bengal, and will remain as far as 80 kilometres in Gujarat. However, even with these limitations, this enhanced depth in the operational area will add to the effectiveness of the force that has been tasked with a range of responsibilities and is yet constricted with operating within illogically set geographical limits. The BSF had been demanding such a move for the past several years.

Notwithstanding, like any other official move that invites criticism from the Opposition parties along political lines, this too has been criticised by the ruling dispensations in West Bengal and Punjab. Labelled as an affront on the federal structure of the Indian state, the enhanced jurisdiction of the BSF has also been interpreted as the Centre attempting to take over the role of the state police.

The Aam Aadmi Party, eyeing an electoral windfall in the Punjab state elections next year, has even said that "half of the state has been surrendered to the Central government" by the state government, ignoring the fact that the Punjab chief minister too has been critical of the MHA's decision. Most of these accusations are either misleading or have very little understanding of the emerging national security challenges and how the transnational criminal syndicates work.

Some analysts also have pointed at the negative human rights records of the BSF to oppose the MHA's decision. However, many of these incidents of human rights violations could also be linked to the constricted operational area within which the BSF has been forced to operate for past decades. In West Bengal, for instance, many cattle smuggling syndicates have exploited the 15-kilometre limitation on the BSF's operations to the hilt. The core areas where these criminal activities are organised, cattle to be illegally smuggled into Bangladesh are stored, and the ring leaders of these networks are based, are out of the purview of the BSF. This severely limits the BSF's operations at the 'points of impact', without being able to do much at the 'points of origin'.

Arrests of the easily replaceable low-level foot soldiers of these syndicates have little impact on the thriving trade. The local politician and criminal nexus further limit the extent to which the BSF can elicit cooperation from the state police forces. Where such a nexus does not exist, the state police' ability to operate independently is affected by a lack of resources, manpower, and specialised training. The same goes with human trafficking and fake currency networks.

In Punjab, seizures of huge quantities of narcotic substances in the recent past indicate the future of the trade with its roots in Afghanistan. Instability in that country, following the Taliban takeover, has emboldened the transnational syndicates that see a huge opportunity for themselves. The syndicates operate not on the international border manned by the BSF but deep within the state, keeping them out of the BSF's jurisdiction.

The ever-increasing incidents of arms drop using drones from across the border in Punjab and Kashmir constitute another challenge. It is, therefore, unclear why the BSF's power under the NDPS and Arms act was not extended. It certainly makes sense to have a uniform extension of the force's powers under all the Central Acts it is mandated to act upon.

The Opposition's criticism also does not consider the fact that even after the enhancement of its operational area, the BSF personnel will remain dependent on the state police for fulfilling much of their responsibilities. Devoid of power of investigation and the responsibility of charge-sheeting the arrested persons, the BSF's capacity to deliver will remain inherently linked to the capacity enhancement of the state police forces.

Effective fight against transnational organised crime will be based on a cooperative and not competitive regime between the Central and state forces. The MHA's notification, therefore, does not really strip the state police of their responsibilities but underlines the need to smoothen their working relationship with the Central forces. Extremism-affected states have been able to achieve this to a large extent.

A curious mindset in India expects the security forces to deliver on a range of diverse responsibilities, and yet opposes every move that enables them to do so. The MHA, nevertheless, could have involved the Opposition parties and other key stakeholders in a dialogue and consultation process before its decision. However, as is the case in today's politically polarised India, even the best of the Centre's intentions has the little scope of remaining free from politicking by the Opposition parties in the states.

The writer is director of Mantraya, a Goa-based think tank and author of 'National Security Decision-making in India'. He formerly served as a Deputy Director in the National Security Council Secretariat. The views expressed are personal.

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