The 270,000-strong Border Security Force or BSF is the world’s largest border guarding force, and the only one with its own air wing of 24 aircraft, 100-plus water vessels and motorised boats to protect the riverine boundaries, artillery section, horses, camels, and canine squads. Last year, its mandate and jurisdiction of powers of search, seizure and arrest with respect to the Passport Act and specified sections of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) was rationalised to include ‘the whole of the area comprised in the States of Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya, the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh and so much of the area comprised within a belt of fifty kilometres in the States of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, West Bengal and Assam, running along the borders of India’.
This led to a major controversy with opposition-ruled states such as Punjab and West Bengal accusing the Narendra Modi government of curtailing the state’s role in law and order, a subject under the ambit of the states as per the division of powers under the Constitution. The government of Punjab filed an original suit in the Supreme Court under Article 131. The affidavit stated: ‘for a geographically compact state like Punjab, over eighty percent areas of the border districts and all major towns and cities, including most district headquarters of Punjab would be covered under BSF’s jurisdiction’. The Punjab government pleaded that this could lead to ‘jurisdictional, functional and legal confusion, including chaos and conflict in trial of offences between law enforcement agencies’. Incidentally, a similar move to extend the authority of the BSF across the country by the UPA government in 2011 was opposed by Modi who was then the chief minister of Gujarat.
Meanwhile, the Lok Sabha was informed in December 2021 that the ‘extension in territorial jurisdiction of BSF in some states was aimed at empowering BSF to discharge its border guarding duties more effectively in the wake of use of technology like Dynamic Remotely Operated Navigation Equipment (Drones), Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAVs), etc generally having long range, by anti-national forces for surveillance as well as for smuggling of arms, narcotics and fake Indian currency notes (FICN), besides curbing the menace of cattle smuggling’.
Powers of BSF
Let us understand the background and the rationale of the BSF. After the Pakistani aggression in the Rann of Kutch in 1965, it was felt that the extant arrangement of state armed police forces guarding international borders was clearly inadequate. Writing under the pseudonym of ‘Military Correspondent’, then-Army chief Gen. J.N. Chaudhuri said in The Statesman, “Should the responsibility lie with the Police in the initial stages and if so at what stage should the Army take over? What equipment should these border forces have, how should they be organized and under whose control should they act? How should liaison be maintained between the Armed Forces proper and a border force? Should the border be a State or Central responsibility and how should the financial burden be shared? Police arrangements as constituted along the border at present seem confused and nobody seems to be quite sure.”
Such thoughts in the highest echelons convinced Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri of the need to establish a single armed force to reduce the multiplicity of paramilitary forces in border areas. The key bureaucrats and generals involved in the creation of a single central force, tasked with the protection of India’s long problematic borders included then Home Secretary LP Singh, vice-chief Lt Gen. Kumaramangalam and IP officer K Rustomji. BSF was created by amalgamating 25 existing battalions from the state armed police forces of the border states and officers from Emergency Commissioned Officers (ECOs), a position instituted in the aftermath of the 1962 war.
In 1969, the BSF first got powers to arrest and search under the CrPC with respect to certain laws such as the Foreigners Act, the Passport Act, forex laws and Customs Act. Incidentally, it also has powers to arrest, search and seize under the NDPS Act, Arms Act and Customs Act, but its authority under these laws has not been changed with the current amendments, meaning that its powers will continue to be only up to 15 km inside the border in Punjab, Assam, and West Bengal, and as far as 80 km in Gujarat. The probable explanation is that offences under these laws can be taken up by the NIA, ED, and the Narcotics Bureau.
Beyond the mandate
Many BSF veterans feel that the new mandate will dilute the core competence of the force. According to them, ‘border guarding is the forte of the BSF – it is not trained to carry out police functions.’ So, exercise of extended powers may end up diluting the abilities of the BSF as a first-class border guarding force and convert it into a third-class police force. It has also been argued that collection of intelligence in an area as large as 50 km from the border in the densely populated states of Punjab, Assam and West Bengal is better coordinated by the state and central intelligence agencies and acted upon by the local police instead of the BSF, which will find its resources stretched thin. Last, but not least, the BSF does not have the power to file a charge sheet and undertake the prosecution function that can be done by a law enforcement agency only.
What is required, perhaps, is better coordination between all the agencies involved – the police, customs, narcotics bureau, enforcement directorate and of course the BSF, as well as the district administrations. These coordination meetings and the follow-ups have to be done on a professional basis, and it is unfortunate that political parties dub the agencies as being ‘central’ or ‘state.’ We must not forget that both draw their mandate from the Constitution of India, and the officers who helm these agencies are recruited and trained together as professionals. It is also imperative that political parties recognise that guarding our borders cannot be the subject of political grandstanding.
Sanjeev Chopra is a historian 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 ‘State of the State‘ series that analyses policy, civil services, and governance in India.