Updated: October 17, 2021 7:36:27 am
The Ministry of Home Affairs recently issued a notification extending the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force from 15 km to a depth of 50 km along the international borders in three states — Punjab, Assam and West Bengal. This has led to a fresh round of controversy involving the Centre and states. The chief minister of Punjab has condemned what he called the Government of India’s “unilateral decision” to give additional powers to the BSF as a “direct attack on federalism”.
Let us first understand the facts to be able to assess the need and propriety of the government order. The last notification of the MHA (July 3, 2014), which defined the jurisdiction of the BSF, stated that the force could operate in the entire states of Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya without any restrictions whatsoever. In Gujarat, it had jurisdiction up to a depth of 80 km and in Rajasthan up to 50 km. In Punjab, Assam and West Bengal, the BSF jurisdiction was up to a depth of 15 km only. Under the latest notification issued on October 11, 2021, there is no change in the northeastern states and Rajasthan. In Gujarat, jurisdiction has been reduced from 80 km to 50 km. The controversial change is in Assam, West Bengal and Punjab, where the BSF jurisdiction has been extended from 15 km to 50 km. It is this part of the notification which has generated controversy, though the criticism has been made by leaders of Punjab and West Bengal, both governed by non-BJP parties.
Assam, West Bengal and Punjab have international borders. The threat perception from across the international borders has undergone a sea change in the context of recent developments in the Af-Pak region. Radical groups of different shades are feeling emboldened and are going to make a determined attempt to destabilise Punjab, where there have been several attempts to drop weapons from drones. The seizure of 3,000 kg of heroin that originated from Afghanistan on September 12 and the killing of five army personnel in Surankote (Jammu and Kashmir) on October 11 are straws in the wind. Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups, particularly the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, will almost certainly renew their onslaught in the border states. West Bengal has already undergone a huge demographic change, thanks to its leaders’ accommodative attitude towards illegal migrants. Assam faces multiple problems of ethnic insurgencies, smuggling, counterfeit currency, drug trafficking, etc.
Under normal circumstances, it should have been possible for the state police of border states to deal with these problems. However, the police across the country are in a state of atrophy and they need the assistance of central armed police forces even for maintaining normal law and order. As such, their effectiveness against the emerging trans-border threats is suspect.
It is in this context that the Government of India decided to extend the jurisdiction of the BSF in three states. Interestingly, the former chief minister of Punjab, Amarinder Singh, has endorsed the Centre’s decision in the wake of incidents of weapons and drugs being pushed into Punjab by Pak-backed syndicates. The Assam chief minister has also welcomed the extension of BSF jurisdiction.
The home ministry’s latest notification only seeks to reinforce the capabilities of the state police in securing the states under section 139 of the BSF Act, which empowers the members of the force to discharge certain powers and duties within local limits of the areas specified in the schedule. The jurisdiction of the state police has neither been curtailed nor its powers reduced in any manner. It is just that the BSF will also be exercising powers of search, seizure and arrest in respect of only the Passport Act 1967, Passport (Entry into India) Act 1920 and specified sections of the Criminal Procedure code — in other words against those entering India illegally. It is merely an “enabling provision aimed at strengthening and complementing the efforts of the state police”. The BSF would, in any case, be handing over the accused together with the seized contraband to the local police. The power to register FIR and investigate the case remains with the state police. To say that half of Punjab will now fall under the BSF jurisdiction is an extremely misleading statement intended to arouse passions and generate anti-Centre feelings.
The hypocrisy of the Opposition is further exposed by the fact that, in 2011, the UPA had brought a bill to vest the BSF with powers to search, seize and arrest in any part of the country where it was deployed. It had to be dropped in the face of concerted opposition to the proposed measure.
The Indian Constitution, no doubt, fulfils some conditions of a federation, but it leans towards a strong Centre. As stated by Sir Ivor Jennings, “India has a federation with a strong centralising tendency”. In federations where police and public order are the responsibility of states (as in India), according to Rajeev Dhawan, “the Union may devise emergency regimes in its Constitution through legislation to override the exclusive autonomy of the states in respect of law and order and policy”. National security is a paramount consideration. It is unfortunate that the BSF is being dragged into political controversy when it would actually be over-stretching itself to strengthen national security.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 16, 2021 under the title ‘Securing the states’. The writer was formerly Director-General, Border Security Force.
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