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India’s Border Security Force DG: Much-Awaited Leadership for a Headless Force

The appointed DG, Nitin Agarwal brings with him the experience of having served in two other border guarding forces.

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After leaving the Border Security Force (BSF) – the largest border protection force in the world, with a manpower of almost 2.75 lakhs, and an area of responsibility of over 6500 km – headless for five months and 11 days, the government has finally found an officer to lead this force. Shri Nitin Agarwal, an IPS officer of the 1989 batch belonging to Kerala cadre has been appointed Director General (DG) of the BSF on 11 June 2023.

The DG Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), which is another very large force with a strength of almost 3.5 Lakhs, was holding additional charge of BSF since the previous incumbent demitted office on superannuation on 31 December 2022.

For a change, Agarwal brings with him the experience of having served in two other border guarding forces namely, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) at the level of Inspector General. Even though the operational environment of both these forces differs widely from that of the BSF, this experience may lead to additional value.

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Why the Delay in Appointment of a Director General?

However, it is intriguing that for Agarwal, despite him having been empaneled as the Director General or equivalent as early as July 22, the government chose to delay this appointment for so long. Another noteworthy fact is that Agarwal is one of those rare officers who failed to get promoted as the Additional DG along with his batch in 2019, and only regained his seniority upon final approval for the post in 2021, as per a strange provision of the All India Service Rules.

It is to the credit of DG CRPF Sujoy Lal Thaosen who managed two large forces in spite of the heavy burden it must have entailed. Donning two hats by the same person is even more problematic, because the mandate of both these forces, and hence, the operational philosophy and ethos are entirely different from each other.

The mandate of the BSF to guard far-flung borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh has nothing in common with the mandate of CRPF, which is the designated Internal Security Force of the country. Earlier in 2020, the BSF again remained headless for over five months.

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Rules of Appointment: A Potential Hinderance 

Entirely irrational rules for the appointment of DG of the Central Para Military Forces (CPMF) preclude the cadre officers of these forces from even being considered for the appointment for policy level leadership role of Director General and Special Director General in the forces where they have attained a lifetime of experience and expertise. The rules also deprive cadre officers of supervisory posts like Additional Director General, Inspector General, and Deputy Inspector General.

Since the rules dictate that only IPS officers can hold the post of Director General of CPMF, it is a sad reflection on the capabilities of IPS officers as also the lack of priority accorded to Border Security that an important organisation like BSF had remained headless for so long whereas several empaneled IPS officers were available.

This is notwithstanding the fact that the IPS officers end up marking their generally short tenure at the helm with semantics, as being unaware of the ethos and operational philosophy of these forces, they are incapable of value addition.

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Why Border Control is Imperative 

Border management, especially along the India–Bangladesh and India-Pakistan border, is a specialised function that requires a full-time commitment. Pakistan is actively trying to revive the Khalistani movement in Punjab and sending weapons, drugs, and logistics through tunnels dug along the western borders and through Drones. We have not been able to identify and induct technology to counter these latest threats.

On the other hand, on the Eastern Borders with Bangladesh, the problem of cattle smuggling – even though it has been reduced, and concomitant violence threatens to vitiate relations with Bangladesh. The smuggling of Gold and Fake Indian currency notes (FICN) from these borders has also witnessed an increasing trend in recent times. A large contingent of BSF has also been withdrawn from borders and deployed in Manipur to maintain law and order and tackle the widespread violence in the state since 3 May 2023. In fact, BSF suffered one causality on 5 June.

The resultant dilution of security on the border due to commitment in Manipur, and the recently concluded elections in Karnataka as well as upcoming elections in five states, will pose serious operational and logistical challenges – for which a full-time Director General is essential.

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Major Challenges Faced by the Forces 

Besides the operational challenges, there are the ones on the personnel management front.

Generally, these challenges emanate from the inability of IPS leaders to comprehend the complexities of such large organisations. Operating in remote, far-flung, and inhospitable terrains leads to severe stress. Because of this, the troops and officers yearn for better working conditions and expect their leaders to address their genuine concerns.

However, a sense of abandonment starts overtaking them because instead of addressing these concerns, the IPS officers create further impediments, even going to the extent of interpreting court orders to the detriment of members of the force.

No wonder there is a very high incidence of litigation including contempt cases in the forces. There is also a very high level of attrition as brought out in the 242nd report of the department related to the parliamentary standing committee on home affairs, demand for grants (2023-24) presented in Rajya Sabha on 17 March 2023.

The report noted that 654 CPMF personnel have committed suicide during five years between 2018 and 2022, the highest being in CRPF followed by BSF. The committee also noted that as many as 50,155 CPMF persons had either resigned or sought voluntary retirement during the same period. The main reason for such a high level of attrition is extreme stagnation in all ranks, difficult working conditions and almost nonexistent family life even though the official reasons given may state differently. This is despite inherent job security and the high compensation package as compared to private employment or business.

Other than this, the BSF troops are always exposed to the threat of violence, leading to many deaths. This is due to hostile action by trans-border criminals and counterpart forces. All these issues require focused and full-time supervision and attention which is possible only for a full-time incumbent.

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The Essentiality of Specialised Leadership 

As brought out above, the CPMF of the size of BSF and CRPF, needs specialised leadership. The system of dual charge in vogue currently is not conducive to the proper management of the wide-ranging challenges to which these forces are exposed. Besides the challenges discussed above, the raging Maoist insurgency in central India continues to engage large contingents of BSF and CRPF. Frequent incidents involving attacks by Maoists on security forces need dedicated supervision.

Both the CRPF and BSF have a very important role to play in the security matrix of India - both internal and external. With ever-rising challenges, it is beyond the capability of a single person to manage both these forces simultaneously, as they are beset with a plethora of internal challenges relating to operations, logistics, and human resource management.

The decision to appoint Shri Agarwal as the Director General of the BSF, albeit much delayed, is a step in the right direction. It is also important that the heads of these forces are appointed in a timely manner in the future to avoid uncertainty. Several Parliamentary Committee reports, as well as studies by different IIMs, have recommended that the officers of the cadres of CPMF should also be considered for the appointment as DGs of these forces.

Such a step will not only provide continuity of leadership but will also enable the utilisation of the wide experience of these officers in these domains and enhance the functioning and efficiency of these forces.

(Sanjiv Krishan Sood (Retd) has served as the Additional Director General of the BSF and was also with the SPG. He tweets @sood_2. 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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