The circumstances under which the Border Security Force was raised— after the war with China in 1962, the Kutch skirmishes with Pakistan in April 1965 and the full-fledged Indo-Pak war later in August the same year—led to adoption of militaristic approach to border guarding. The personnel are trained to bring about effective fire. “Ek goli ek dushman” is the mantra.
Secondary role of BSF to assist the armed forces in war efforts is another reason for the militaristic orientation of training and weapons authorisation to the force. The 1971 India-Pakistan war broke out while the BSF was still in its infancy. Moreover, the troops were compelled to use lethal force against drug smugglers and terrorists from 1970 onwards.
India-Bangladesh Border: One of the Most Dangerous Borders in the World
Comparative analysis of firing incidents along western and eastern borders reveals that the number of such incidents—excluding the incidents of trans-border/LoC firing—is much higher on the eastern borders. This is due to drastically different nature of trans-border crimes there. While the frequency of drug smuggling or attempts to assist terrorists crossing over to India on the western borders are sporadic, the crimes on the eastern border viz. cattle smuggling, other petty smuggling, and crossing over of illegal entrants are everyday routine.
The fatalities, too, are larger along the eastern border. Most firing incidents and therefore casualties occur at night when the criminals of both countries in close coordination take advantage of darkness and thin BSF deployment to smuggle cattle across the border.
A small detachment of four or five BSF personnel deployed to dominate the area are faced with thousands of cattle being pushed across the border by hundreds of cattle smugglers armed with sharp edged weapons like “Bhala” “Gandasa” etc. Heavily outnumbered BSF patrols are, thus, compelled to resort to firing resulting in casualties to the criminals of both India and Bangladesh. It is therefore no surprise that the India-Bangladesh border is listed as the fifth most dangerous border in the world.
Many of the casualties being Bangladeshi nationals, the BSF has been given a moniker of “trigger happy force” by Bangladesh press. Each death or injury to a Bangladeshi causes a virtual storm in the corridors of power in Bangladesh and has adverse impact on the cordial relations between the two countries as also the border guarding forces.
India and Bangladesh Must Increase Cooperation
Bangladesh is a friendly neighbour and the situation along the borders cannot be allowed to remain perpetually volatile. It is, therefore, extremely important to bring down the levels of violence along the borders. Several initiatives have been taken by both the border guarding forces to minimise casualties besides several unilateral actions by BSF.
At the bilateral level, the Director General of BSF, India and Director General of Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) signed an agreement in July 2011 called the “Coordinated Border Management Plan” (CBMP) for proper management of International Border. Various activities under CBMP include “Simultaneous Coordinated Patrols” (SCPs), sharing of intelligence, identification of vulnerable areas, and increased frequency of meetings to coordinate activities at all levels.
These actions enhance coordination between the forces at operational level and help understanding of the capabilities and constraints of both forces. Sharing of intelligence and periodic review of sensitive areas help the forces take preventive measures before a crime can take place. These measures have reduced incidents of firing and thus casualties along the border.
BSF's Less Lethal Strategy to Combat Crime
The BSF, on its own, has also taken some important measures to address the issue by implementing “Non-Lethal or rather Less-Lethal Strategy” since the early last decade while confronting criminals and cattle smugglers.
The first step towards implementing this strategy was to introduce “Pump Action Guns” (PAGs) and encouraging troops to use these guns instead of normal infantry weapons. These guns have proved quite effective in reducing casualties.
The troops are briefed to fire them from a distance and aim at the lower body of the criminals. This reduces fatal injury to criminals but at the same time the splinters hitting their lower limbs make them immobile for few days. Such injuries also force the criminals to seek medical attention which if properly pursued by the intelligence branch of BSF can even lead to identifying these criminals.
Besides the PAGs the troops at borders have been issued with “Stun Grenades”, and “Chilli Grenades” which immobilise the criminals and help troops to apprehend them.
However even the use of PAGs have caused fatal injuries on some occasions, sometimes inevitable because of darkness and very aggressive action by criminals. The authorities will do well to take the operational contingencies in view while reviewing such incidents before initiating any action against border patrols to prevent loss of morale amongst troops.
Blanket Ban On Use of Lethal Force Does Not Help
While encouraging use of less lethal weapons is a welcome step, imposing a blanket ban on use of lethal force is utopian. It is in this context that an order directing the patrols not to confront the cattle smugglers was impractical and fraught with dangerous implications. First and foremost, such order has potential to give rise to corrupt practices: the troops may connive with the cattle smugglers and give them a passage in return for consideration.
Therefore, the messaging has to be right. The troops—instead of being told not to resort to firing—totally should be told that they have the option of opening fire in private defence after real-time assessment of situation by commander on spot.
Additionally, orders to troops to avoid cattle smugglers militate against the mandated tasks of BSF of preventing trans-border crimes and smuggling. This also goes against the grain of the most important role of BSF which is to inculcate a sense of security amongst border population.
BSF Troops Need To Be Reoriented Towards Less Lethal Strategy
The gradual transformation to less lethal strategy must be accompanied with corresponding changes in the training philosophy. The training inputs must include comprehension of the practical aspects of Use of minimum force and Right to private defence which are presently confined to cursory theoretical references.
The troops have to reorient themselves from mentality of “ek goli ek dushman” to use of minimum force especially when they are periodically rotated from the western frontiers to eastern frontiers.
It is beyond doubt that ensuring peace and tranquility along borders and maintaining good relations with a friendly Bangladesh are extremely important. This can be ensured by reducing casualties on border. The strategy to achieve this aim must be balanced so that own troops do not suffer casualties and at the same time violence along borders is minimised.
(Sanjiv Krishan Sood (Retd) has served as the Additional Director General of the BSF and was also with the SPG. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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