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Extending BSF’s powers won’t resolve policing problems, security threats

Radha Kumar writes: Strengthening police capabilities, improving coordination between security agencies and cooperation with state law enforcement are needed to address these issues

Written by Radha Kumar |
Updated: October 22, 2021 6:53:49 am
What is unclear is how the BSF’s extended jurisdiction helps counter these threats.

The Union home ministry’s October 11 order to extend the jurisdiction of the Border Security Forces (BSF) has, understandably, caused furore. The decision appears to have been taken without consulting the states whose police forces are directly affected by it, and is seen by the opposition parties as yet another step to undermine India’s federal structure.

Given how many times the Union administration has weakened states’ powers since 2019, using both its majority in Parliament and the central agencies under the control of the home ministry, the accusation is well-founded. But it also distracts from the critical security questions that the decision raises. Will the extension of the BSF’s powers improve our security? Is the BSF better qualified to “search, seize and arrest” in civilian areas than state police forces? Even if it’s better qualified, is enhancing the BSF’s powers the best way to remedy the shortfalls in policing? Will the impact lower the morale of local police forces and add to the civilian security vacuum that is spreading across the country?

Few of these questions have been seriously tackled by apologists for the home ministry’s order. We are told that the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan has revived serious threats of cross-border infiltration from Pakistan, while China, our other tense neighbour, has been increasingly aggressive over the past year. We are also told, in the same breath, that really very little has changed: The BSF’s powers have not altered, only its jurisdiction has changed from 15 to 50 kilometres and that is for the purposes of uniformity. Both arguments cannot possibly be true, since each negates the other.

That India is facing heightened security threats is undeniable. What is unclear is how the BSF’s extended jurisdiction helps counter these threats. In the security context, arguments about uniformity are patently absurd. What uniformity is there between coastal smuggling in Gujarat, cross-border infiltration in Jammu and Kashmir, smuggling and drone drops in Punjab, or illegal migration to Assam? Proscribing each one requires different capabilities, as our own experience in tackling such threats indicates.

The recent drug seizures in Gujarat’s Adani port were successfully conducted by the customs department and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence — not by the BSF, despite their jurisdiction depth of 80 kilometres in the state. Moreover, if the BSF has been unable to tackle cross-border smuggling in Assam within 15 kilometres, what makes them believe it will be able to do so within 50 kilometres? Similarly, the BSF has had only limited success in downing drones when sighted, in both Jammu and Punjab. Rather than extend territorial jurisdiction, why not explore technologies that might improve the BSF’s intercept and destroy capabilities?

When it comes to cross-border infiltration, intelligence is the key. It is no-one’s argument, surely, that the BSF is better at intelligence-gathering on cross-border militancy than the intelligence agencies or the Army? In fact, every one of India’s central and state security forces, including the BSF, has had intelligence successes and failures; sadly, they have also had to face inaction on actionable intelligence — as in Pulwama.

Illegal migration is an entirely different issue from the former two. As successive central and state administrations have found, curbing illegal migration requires coordinated action between India and its neighbours, first at the political and then at the security level. The Modi administration’s migration policies — the Citizenship Amendment Act, deporting Myanmar refugees even when they were locally welcomed, cancelling Afghan visas — have raised our neighbours’ hackles, making cooperation more difficult and impacting negatively on border security. To think that the BSF can plug what is a government-to-government policy gap is surely taking imagination to the realm of fantasy.

The underlying issue when it comes to tackling both smuggling and infiltration threats is coordination between our security agencies. According to former director-general, BSF, Prakash Singh (‘Securing the states’, IE, October 16), state police forces have atrophied to the point that the BSF has to step in. If this grim assessment is correct, then surely the solution lies in putting police reforms on an emergency footing, not in extending the BSF’s jurisdiction. The latter step not only raises the risk of civilian resentment, even clashes, given that the BSF is not trained to operate in residential and/or market areas, it will also undermine the state police forces’ morale even further.

Over the past two years, we have seen an increasing number of home ministry agencies overriding state ministries and agencies, including police forces. The Narcotics Control Bureau’s (NCB) raids in Mumbai is a recent example. Before that there was the unedifying spectacle of central and state police forces being pitted against one another in the Bengal elections, and before that the even more unedifying spectacle of the Bihar police pitted against the Mumbai police, again with the tacit support of the NCB.

That we have a grave policing problem across India is undeniable. State police forces have increasingly become arms of ruling politicians instead of upholders of constitutional law. But the answer is not to write them off; it is to insulate them from political misuse while holding them accountable for rule of law lapses. Unfortunately, it appears that the law courts are doing more on these twin issues than the Union home ministry.

Moreover, to strengthen police capabilities it is vital that other security forces cooperate with local police forces, not bypass them. The BSF has had a relatively good record of local police cooperation thus far; the home ministry’s recent decision runs the risk of pitting the two against each other. Inevitably, this will create more security gaps.

Finally, Singh is candid in saying that the BSF is likely to be overstretched by its new tasks. Once again, that could weaken rather than strengthen the BSF’s security capabilities. Isn’t that what happened to the CRPF over a decade ago?

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 21, 2021 under the title ‘One security, wrong answer’. Kumar is a writer and policy analyst

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