Since 2004, under the ‘One Border One Force’ principle, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, functioning under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), has been responsible for guarding the China-India border. The Army is responsible for defending the unsettled border where salami-slicing by China has been the norm despite the various border agreements since 1993. Consequently, the command and control of the ITBP has been a contentious issue between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the MHA.
On 15 August, The Economic Times quoting “official sources” carried a report that the Narendra Modi government is examining a proposal to give a lead role to the ITBP along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to avoid future conflicts between the Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) once the disengagement process is completed. According to the report, it has also planned to set up a formal communication channel between China’s Border Defence Regiment and the ITBP, which, until now, has been handled by the Army.
What does “a lead or more active role” imply? Is the ITBP going to be restructured to become the first line of defence and logically function under the Northern and Eastern Theatre Commands? Or is there a likelihood of a diplomatic breakthrough towards a demarcated border to be guarded by the ITBP like the Border Security Force/Sashastra Seema Bal/Assam Rifles on settled borders?
Unsettled China-India border
Settled borders have to be managed/guarded to regulate bonafide inter-State travel and commerce, and prevent illegal movement/immigration and smuggling. Across the world, police/paramilitary are responsible for border management. Unsettled borders, with or without formal demarcation, apart from all these functions, have also to be defended, as the adversary is perpetually looking for territorial gains and tactical advantage. Thus, at unsettled borders, a guarding force has to be enmeshed with the armed forces and act as the first line of defence. It can be argued that the strength of the armed forces could be increased to perform both functions on unsettled borders. Cost, necessity of a large number of troops, higher risk of escalation, and terrain configuration of control lines rule out this option.
At present, with respect to the unsettled India-China border, the armed forces and the ITBP function independently in virtual silos under the MoD and the MHA. There is a marked resistance to the lateral flow of information and coordination. All functional aspects, including logistics, are duplicated. So much so, that even during the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ladakh, the ITBP has not been placed under the command of the Army. Despite the build-up of nearly four divisions of the Army, the 35 Border Outposts (BOPs) in Eastern Ladakh remained in their original border management posture in a stand-alone mode.
The ITBP is a 60-year-old professional force that is well-adapted for functioning in high-altitude areas. However, its structure, organisation, and equipment are not up to the mark for it to effectively function as the first line of defence. Lack of cooperation and coordination only compounds the problem. The ITBP must be reorganised on the lines of modern infantry battalions and placed under the command of the Army for all purposes. Border management on the China-India border is not a core issue. It can be looked after by the MoD/Army.
Presently, the ITBP has 63 battalions manning 180 BOPs. Forty-seven additional BOPs are being established. It has been the experience at our unsettled borders, both along the LAC and the LoC that the adversaries preemptively occupy unheld areas. This is what happened in Kargil and Eastern Ladakh. Similar actions on a smaller scale are periodically reported from Arunachal Pradesh. Consequently, the 3,488-kilometre-long India-China border needs to be dotted with BOPs. In my view, the strength of the ITBP would have to be doubled. It must be taken off all other duties like counter-insurgency operations in Chattisgarh, VIP security, and security of vulnerable points.
Also read: Don’t give ITBP lead role at LAC, it will weaken local command. MHA-MoD turf war is hurting
Guarding of settled borders
Along the demarcated borders with friendly countries, the armed forces have little role to play, and border guarding/management forces must operate under the MHA. However, when the probability of conflict is as high as with Pakistan, there is a need for the border guarding force to become a cohesive part of national security under the armed forces during active hostilities.
A major diplomatic breakthrough with China can, at best, lead to the delineation/demarcation of the LAC. It does not imply any settlement of the boundary dispute. The probability of varying degrees of conflict will remain high as has been the experience so far. From the security point of view, the India-China border will remain unsettled.
What govt needs to understand
We have a million-strong Central Armed Police Forces. Out of these, half a million personnel from the BSF, ITBP, SSB and the Assam Rifles, organised in 374 battalions, are deployed in the border guarding/management roles. The Coast Guard performs a similar function at our sea coast.
Our large border guarding force is a national security asset. In conflict/war, it must operate in a seamless and cohesive manner with the armed forces. It must be organised, equipped, and trained to carry out its dual role. Along unsettled borders, it must function under the armed forces, and along settled borders, it must come under their command in war. Its operational employment in war is a factor of equipment, training, and ethos and can vary from conventional operations to guerrilla warfare.
Deployment of border guarding forces under the command of the Army in conflict/war is already codified in the Union War Book, but the synergy is not up to the desired standards due to their structure, organisation, equipment, and ambiguous command/control. There is an urgent need for holistic reforms. It would be a pity if this valuable asset is not optimally utilised for national security.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)