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6 borders, 1 LoC, 4 forces—Challenges of guarding India in face of suicides, fratricides

BSF, ITBP, SSB, and Assam Rifles have been given the mandate of guarding Indian borders. These forces lose more jawans every year than the Indian army does during peacetime.

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India’s land borders with six countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Myanmar, Nepal, and Bhutan as well as the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir – pose a major security challenge to the nation. India also has the world’s longest flood-lit border fencing with Pakistan and Bangladesh to prevent cross-border smuggling and infiltration, but other borders have boundary pillars and mutually accepted geographical features, though occasional flash points do occur. 

Guarding the border comes at a great human cost because working in remote and difficult border posts leads to tremendous psychological stress, which is reflected in the high incidence of suicides and fratricidal killings. The forces, which are at the forefront of defending our borders, also lose many more jawans every year than the Indian army does during peacetime. In fact, this is what led the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to announce a uniform policy of Rs 35 lakh as compensation to the next of kin of the jawans of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF). 

Four of our CAPFs have been given the mandate of guarding our borders. These include the Border Security Force (BSF), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the Assam Rifles (AR), and the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB). In this column, we will look at the evolution, deployment and organisation of these four forces, which have many features in common, but each has a unique historical background. 

After the Kargil War, it was decided that each of the four forces will have a specific border to defend. Thus, the BSF has the responsibility for the 287 km LoC in J&K, the 6,387 km border with Pakistan and the 4,096 km border with Bangladesh. The ITBP takes care of the 3,448 km border with China. The Assam Rifles of the 1,631 km border with Myanmar. And the SSB of the 699 km border with Bhutan and the 1,770 km border with Nepal. 

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India’s oldest force

The oldest of these, the Assam Rifles, was raised as the ‘Cachar Levy’ as early as 1835 to guard the tea gardens and British establishments in the alluvial plains of Assam. It got its current nomenclature in 1917. During the Second World War, the Assam Rifles acquitted itself with distinction in arresting the advance of the Japanese forces in this theatre. At the end of the war, Assam Rifles battalions were placed under the Assam Police. 

However, immediately after Independence, the Assam Rifles was placed under the command of the Ministry of External Affairs as part of the North-East Frontier Agency to combat the threat posed by the insurgency in the Northeastern states. It was also engaged in a combat role in 1959 when the Chinese annexed Tibet. During the premiership of Lal Bahadur Shastri, it was placed under the administrative control of the MHA while the operational control remained with the Army.

Unlike the IndiaPakistan and the India-Bangladesh border, where a border fence clearly demarcates the territory between the two countries, the task of Assam Rifles is perhaps more complex because of the rugged and underdeveloped terrain along the Myanmar border. Moreover, as people on this border share a common culture, language and ethnicity and free movement up to 16 km on either side, the task is quite onerous. With a sanctioned strength of 66,412 personnel organised into 46 battalions, the Assam Rifles remains the sentinel of India on this frontier which is gaining increasing prominence on account of the central government’s Look East Policy. 

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1962 and ITBP, SSB

In the immediate aftermath of the Chinese aggression in 1962, four battalions of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police were raised under the  Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) Act of  1949 for reorganising the frontier intelligence and security set-up along the Indo-Tibetan border as a ‘guerrilla-cum-fighting force’. Over time, it has evolved into a conventional border-guarding force and in  1992, Parliament enacted the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force (ITBPF) Act. From 2004, the entire stretch of the India-China border was assigned to the ITBP by replacing the Assam Rifles in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh for border guarding duties. With sixty battalions, the force has a sanctioned strength of 89,433 personnel. It also promotes a sense of security among the people living in the border areas besides preventing trans-border crimes, smuggling and unauthorised entry into or from the territory of India.

The Special Service Bureau, now known as the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), was also conceived after the conflict with China with the objective of achieving ‘total security preparedness’ in the remote border areas, and performing a ‘stay-behind’ role in case the adversary advanced into Indian territory. In the early days, the SSB offered development interventions in these areas as the presence of state governments was rather thin. 

However, now that schools, hospitals, Krishi Vikas Kendras, and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres have been established even in the remotest districts, this role has been taken over by the state governments, and the SSB has morphed itself into a border-guarding force. From March 2004, the SSB was mandated to guard the IndiaBhutan and IndiaNepal borders. It is also the Lead Intelligence Agency (LIA) for the two borders. Currently, it has a sanctioned strength of 97,014 personnel spread over 73 battalions.

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World’s largest border force

Last but not least is the BSF: the world’s largest borderguarding force with its independent air, water, camel and equestrian wings. It was established on 1 December 1965 in the aftermath of the India-Pakistan war, which exposed the inadequacy of the state police force to cope with armed aggression. The BSF was raised with 25 battalions in 1965, but now has over 2.5 lakh personnel spread over 186 battalions (including three disaster management battalions). 

For the last several decades, the BSF has been deployed all over the country and abroad to maintain law and order, internal security duties, counter-insurgency operations, anti-Naxal operations, election duties and disaster relief. The role and duties performed by the BSF can be broadly listed into peacetime roles, wartime roles, and additional responsibilities. Under the peacetime role, the BSF is to promote a sense of security among the people living in the border areas and to prevent trans-border crimes, unauthorised entry into or exit from the territory of India, and smuggling or any other illegal activity on the border. It has the exclusive responsibility for the Pakistan and Bangladesh borders as well as the maintenance of the world’s longest border fence. 

Postscript: The author’s father and father-in-law were both BSF officers, and he has, in the course of his service span and election-related duties had the privilege of interacting with the officers and men of all these four forces, and salutes their courage, commitment, valour and dedication. He would like to dedicate this to a young assistant Commandant of BSF Vickram Lal, who lost his life twenty-five years ago in an operation in Jammu and Kashmir in the defence of our country. 

Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Till recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.

This article is part of the ‘State of the State‘ series that analyses policy, civil services, and governance in India.

(Edited by Prashant)

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