Explained: BSF powers and jurisdiction

The Border Security Force's jurisdiction has been extended in three states and reduced in Gujarat, all up to 50 km within the border. What powers does BSF enjoy? Why was the revision made, and why are Punjab and Bengal opposing it?

The government said it was exercising the powers under the Border Security Force Act of 1968. (File Photo)

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has extended the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF) up to 50 km inside the international borders in Punjab, West Bengal and Assam. The BSF’s powers — which include arrest, search and seizure — were limited to up to 15 km in these states. At the same time, the Ministry has reduced BSF’s area of operation in Gujarat from 80 km from the border, to 50 km.

The move, announced by a gazette notification on Monday, has been criticised by the Punjab and West Bengal governments, which have called it an attack on the federal structure and an attempt to curtail the rights of the state police.

What does the notification say?

It amends the schedule of an earlier notification of July 3, 2014 in terms of the BSF’s jurisdiction, which it outlines as: “the whole of the area comprised in the States of Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya and Union Territories of Jammu and 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”.

The government said it was exercising the powers under the Border Security Force Act of 1968.

In its 2014 notification, the MHA had outlined BSF’s jurisdiction as “the whole of the area comprised in the States of Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya and so much of the area comprised within a belt of eighty kilometres in the State of Gujarat, fifty kilometres in the State of Rajasthan and fifteen kilometres in the States of Punjab, West Bengal and Assam, running along the borders of India”.

The international borders in the three states where BSF’s jurisdiction has been enhanced. While the places marked here are within 50 km of the respective borders, this is not meant to represent the BSF’s jurisdiction. The BSF does not mark its jurisdiction on a map.

What kind of powers can the BSF exercise in this jurisdiction?

Its jurisdiction has been extended only in respect of the powers it enjoys under Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Passport Act, 1967. BSF currently has powers to arrest and search under these laws.

It also has powers to arrest, search and seize under the NDPS Act, Arms Act, Customs Act and certain other laws. Its jurisdiction under these laws has not been changed, meaning its powers under these will continue to be only up to 15 km inside the border in Punjab, Assam and West Bengal, and will remain as far as 80 km in Gujarat.

Why and when were these powers given to BSF?

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. BSF sources said even before 2014, they had a jurisdiction of 15 km inside the border in several states.

“At that time, border areas were sparsely populated and there were hardly any police stations for miles. To prevent trans-border crimes, it was felt necessary that BSF is given powers to arrest. While police stations have now come up near the border, they continue to be short-staffed,” a BSF officer said.

Why has the government extended the jurisdiction?

Sources said the objective of the move is to bring in uniformity and also to increase operational efficiency. “Earlier we had different jurisdictions in different states. This has been done to bring uniformity to our jurisdiction,” BSF IG (Operations) Solomon Yash Kumar Minz said.

Sources said BSF often gets information relating to crime scenes that may be out of their jurisdiction. “In West Bengal at times we get information that smugglers have gathered over 100 cows in a village and will take them to the border late in the night. If we act immediately, we can get all the cattle at one place. When they come to the border, they will be scattered and running,” an officer said.

MHA sources said the move was also necessitated due to increasing instances of drones dropping weapons and drugs in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. However, the kind of drones spotted so far do not have a range beyond 20 km.

There has been no official explanation for why BSF’s jurisdiction has not been increased under the Arms Act, Customs Act and NDPS Act, which cover most of the smuggling offences on the border and deal with far greater offences.

An officer, who served in West Bengal, said this may have happened as central agencies have jurisdiction in these matters. “If BSF catches drugs beyond its jurisdiction, it can always involve the Narcotics Control Bureau, or in case of arms, the National Investigation Agency. In other matters, there may be issues
with the local police,” the officer said.

Punjab districts under BSF jurisdiction

Will it impact police jurisdiction?

At a basic level, the states can argue that law and order is a state subject and enhancing BSF’s jurisdiction infringes upon powers of the state government.

In 2012, then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had opposed a central government move to expand BSF’s jurisdiction. He had written to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, accusing the Centre of weakening the country’s federal structure, and calling the move an attempt to “create a state within a state”.

About the new provisions, Minz said: “This is not an attack on the federal structure. Rather this is going to complement the efforts of the local police. It is an enabling provision. It’s not that the local police can’t act within the jurisdiction of the BSF. It’s just that sometimes we don’t have enough time and so BSF has been empowered to act till a greater distance and in turn strengthen the hands of the state police,” Minz said.

Asked if there could be issues with local police, Minz said, “We do everything in coordination with our sister agencies… We will inform the local police even now. The state police have better knowledge of the ground… There is no conflict with the state police here. In coming days, the state police will feel happy about these changes as they will find their state is more secure.”

Another officer pointed out that BSF cannot prosecute offenders in any case. “We can’t file chargesheets. We have to hand over every arrested individual and every seized item to the state police or Customs… There have been instances when people have been caught and the defence has argued it was outside the jurisdiction of BSF, and the accused have been let off,” the officer said.

He pointed out that in the Northeast, BSF’s jurisdiction runs throughout the states (other than Assam). “Does it mean state police are unable to function there?”

How will it be implemented?

Until now, state police and border forces have been working in tandem with minor, occasional differences. Now, with the issue taking political colour, implementation could be tricky if there are difficulties in coordination in future.

For example, be it the earlier 15 km or the enhanced 50 km, the BSF jurisdiction is not marked on a map. Sources said it is largely based on understanding between police and BSF. “If a problem arises, maybe we will devise a way to mark our jurisdiction. Currently it is a rough estimate as to which village or town is how many kilometres from the border,” a senior BSF officer said.

Another officer, who has served in Punjab, said local police often have poor understanding of the BSF jurisdiction. “Once, in Punjab, smugglers fired upon BSF over 150 m inside the Indian border when intercepted. In retaliatory fire, the smugglers were killed. The police began arguing why we had killed them when they were inside the border. It had to be explained that jurisdiction of BSF ran much deeper, and it was self-defence,” the officer said.

He said the BSF hasn’t even properly utilised its powers within 15 km. “No one goes even that far. No BSF officer wants to take up cudgels with the state police unnecessarily. After all if you can’t prosecute, you actually have no power,” he said.

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