The Centre’s move to amend the Border Security Force Act by extending the operational jurisdiction of the paramilitary outfit from 15 kilometres to 50 kilometres inside our international borders has sparked a major row. Bengal and poll-bound Punjab have vehemently opposed the move and have described the proposal as an infringement on the principle of federalism, enshrined in the country’s Constitution. Assam, the third state affected by this measure has so far been silent on the issue. Various political parties in Punjab have criticized the Centre for imposing its own writ, particularly when law and order is a state subject. The implication of implementing this new Act would mean that the BSF would have an overriding say in half of the state thus depriving and minimizing the role of the Punjab police.
The Centre’s plea is that it had become vital to police along the boundaries shared with different countries in order to counter the renewed threat of drones carrying counterfeit currency, illegal arms and narcotics. However, the counter argument is that even during the peak of militancy from 1980 to 1995 in Punjab, the state police had effectively brought the situation under control. The BSF has a jurisdiction up to 80 kilometres in Gujarat but that has not prevented drugs and narcotics from coming into the country. The huge smuggling of contraband from the ports indicates that there has been an all-round failure. Bengal shares a very long porous border with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan and it is obvious that the Centre wishes to fortify the presence of security forces there to put a check on smuggling. In the past, both in Bengal and Assam as also some of the northeastern states, paramilitary organisations and even the Army have been found to be involved in illegal activities. It is being asked that the BSF’s enlarged role would not be sufficient to reduce infiltration and may lead to unnecessary confrontation with the local police.
The real threat which is likely to emerge is from borders with Pakistan. The case of Punjab is different from that of Gujarat and Rajasthan, where for instance the villages were up to 15 to 20 kilometres inside our borders. However, in Punjab there are innumerable villages which are next to the International Boundary. In fact, there are places near Amritsar, from where one can see aircraft landing and taking off in Lahore.
The BSF is an elite force but perhaps does not have the manpower to patrol up to 50 kilometres. Its greatest shortcoming is going to be its unfamiliarity with the terrain and region. This would mean that intelligence gathering and pinpointed information may not be available unless, the state police shares it or the Centre through its intelligence agencies passes on accurate tip-offs.
Politics has already taken a front seat and former Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh has supported this proposal. However, both the ruling Congress government and the Shriomani Akali Dal have lashed out at the BJP and the Centre for making attempts to undermine the authority through this measure which is visibly unconstitutional and unwarranted.
Several Congress leaders have been also critical of the Captain, describing him as a “leader in transition”, given his proclamation that he was shortly going to form his own party. Ever since his resignation last month, Amarinder has been extremely bitter and critical of the Congress while speaking in the political idiom of the BJP by highlighting threats to national security. It is being pointed out that in 2016, the Captain had criticized the BSF’s role and had he been in power, he would never have permitted what is being seen as the infringement of the established Centre-State relations. Even during his visit to New Delhi when he had met Home Minister Amit Shah and NSA Ajit Doval, he had cautioned them about threats from across the border and wanted some of the leaders to be put under scrutiny to ascertain their role in anti-national activities. If the Centre did not act then it was because the NSA is conscious of the various ramifications of any action which could lead to instability in the border state, particularly after the takeover of a Taliban government in Afghanistan and a renewed threat from Pakistani sponsored militant groups.
Incidentally, Doval during his stint with the Intelligence Bureau, had designed and executed one of the most difficult exercises of flushing out terrorists from the Golden Temple complex in May 1988, where he worked very closely with three of the most celebrated police officers, Julio Ribeiro, Ved Marwah and K.P.S. Gill to make “Operation Black Thunder-2” successful. It is also possible that if the Centre insists on implementing this extended jurisdiction of the BSF in Punjab on the eve of the Assembly polls, it may lead to unwarranted confrontation. Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi has already stated that while the national borders were sacrosanct, the Punjab police was equipped to deal with any situation within the state. In the past, the BSF has also been led by the late Ashwani Kumar, one of the most distinguished police officers from Punjab who had many memorable achievements. The BSF has its own role and importance, but it should not be used to undermine the authority of either an elected government or the state police. This is a matter which could needlessly escalate unless it is sorted out mutually by the Centre and the affected states. Between us.