The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), vide its notification dated 11 October 2021, has amended the powers of Border Security Force (BSF) to carry out search, seizure, and arrest in Gujarat, Punjab, West Bengal, and Assam.
In the case of Gujarat, the latest amendment reduces the limit to 50 km from 80 km within which these powers can be exercised inside the Indian territory from the international border, while the limit has been increased in the case of Punjab, West Bengal, and Assam from 15 km to 50 km inside the Indian territory from the international border. The limit remains unchanged in the case of north-eastern states.
This amendment has come nearly seven years after the earlier amendment of 3 July 2014, issued by the same National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.
The notification has fuelled charges of high-handedness by the central government and is being dubbed as another assault on the federal structure of the Constitution. This article, however, aims to focus only on the feasibility of effective implementation of these provisions, the implications of the move on the security of borders, and the impact on the efficiency of the BSF due to these changes.
The Provision of Police Powers to BSF
The earliest notification in this regard was issued in 1969 and thereafter amended slightly in 1973. The delegation of police powers to the BSF personnel was considered essential when issuing the original notification in 1969, because of prevailing circumstances.
The powers enabled the BSF personnel to chase and apprehend those transborder criminals who may have managed to evade the BSF ambushes.
The limit of border belt in which these powers could be exercised were laid down keeping in view the population density, crime pattern and presence as well as effectiveness of police personnel in remote border areas.
Hence, a limit of 80 km and 50 km was considered essential for Gujarat and Rajasthan, because there were hardly any inhabitants in those areas, and the BSF could pursue and apprehend criminals with ease.
The decision was also based on the fact that there hardly was any police presence in those remote areas, and the only law enforcing agency within the vicinity was the BSF.
Another reason for the delegation of these powers to the BSF was to assist the police in case they were required to operate in close vicinity of the border.
The situation in Punjab, West Bengal, and Assam, on the other hand, was entirely different. The population density, police presence, and effectiveness in areas close to the borders was much higher, and therefore police powers of the BSF were rightly restricted to 15 km belt.
What's the Situation Now?
Things in the last 50 years have undergone a lot of change, and the population density has increased by at least two to threefold.
Increasing the police powers of the BSF in these three states to 50 km is therefore likely to create confusion unless the operations are conducted in close coordination with the police, which, more often than not, may not be feasible because of the requirements of swiftness and secrecy.
The reason of “bringing in uniformity in powers exercised by the BSF in different states”, cited for increasing the powers in Punjab, West Bengal, and Assam, therefore, is not in consonance with the ground reality which dictated that the width of the belt for exercise of these powers should in fact have been reduced.
What Will Be the Fallout?
It is pertinent to note that the BSF troops deployed on the border at Border Outposts (BOPs) will have to be withdrawn to carry out operations in the interiors. This will leave the border vulnerable to infiltration and other border crimes.
One might argue that this issue was applicable earlier also and will not have any consequences due to increase in the width of the belt. However, the BSF has rarely, if ever, exercised the powers available because of lack of wherewithal in terms of resources, knowledge of terrain in the depth area, and knowledge of police procedures.
In fact, there have been few instances in the past of the BSF troops being lynched on eastern borders while carrying out intelligence-based operations in the depth area.
Another aspect is that Punjab and West Bengal not being covered by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), the BSF cannot exercise these powers independently.
The police will have to be involved when conducting such operations. Many a time this may not be feasible, especially in the case of hot pursuit. In any case, the BSF has to follow the laid-down procedure for detention of suspects and will have to hand them over to the police within 24 hours.
The BSF intelligence resources are focused outward, that is, they are deployed to collect information about transborder criminals. The BSF also collects information about criminals and their associates in close vicinity of the border.
However, collection of intelligence about area as large as 50 km from the border in three densely populated states will require more resources, both in terms of personnel and technology. Conversely, the BSF will have to depend on the intelligence provided by other intelligence agencies operating there.
Many have argued that these powers were necessary in view of the changing threats, such as the use of tunnels and drones by the adversary. However, the delegation of police powers to the BSF in the depth areas does not help counter these threats. The introduction of technology enabling tunnel detection and interception of drones at the borders will be more effective.
How Will the Move Affect BSF's Efficacy?
Finally, the BSF has its core competence in border guarding, for which its troops are trained, and for which it has evolved drills and operating procedures. Carrying out police functions is neither its forte nor are they trained for this purpose.
Focus on exercise of these delegated police powers is thus likely to adversely affect its core competence. It would be prudent not to dilute the abilities of the BSF as a first-class border guarding force and convert it into a third-class police force.
An interesting aside is that no analyst has commented on the contradiction that such powers have not been delegated to the Shashastra Seema Bal (SSB), which is deployed along India-Nepal border in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. These open borders are vulnerable to several threats. The SSB also is deployed on the India-Bhutan border in Assam and Bengal.
In my view, the extended powers delegated to the BSF have practical difficulties in implementation.
(Sanjiv Krishan Sood (Retd) has served as the Additional Director General of the BSF.)
(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.)