BSF to intercept drones inside the border?

Extending the jurisdiction of BSF to almost half of Punjab and virtually one-third of West Bengal has the potential to blow up in a Centre-State row

Photo Courtesy: Getty
Photo Courtesy: Getty

S N M Abdi

The controversy over extension of the Border Security Force’s jurisdiction from 15 km to 50 km in Punjab, Assam and West Bengal by the Narendra Modi government reminds me of a true juicy story which speaks volumes about the character of the BSF.

In the early 1990s, during Jyoti Basu’s chief ministership, there was a spate of robberies in the Karimpur region of Nadia district bordering Bangladesh. The local police failed to catch a single robber as they came from Bangladesh and returned to their hideouts across the border with the loot. Basu told Arun Prosad Mukherjee, the then Director General of Police, to find out how Bangladeshi criminals were committing crimes on Indian soil and going scot-free.

Mukherjee despatched Rajat Majumdar, then posted as Special Superintendent in the CID, to crack the case. Majumdar found out that the entry and exit of Bangladeshi robbers were facilitated by the BSF. The jawans and officers deployed to guard the India-Bangladesh frontier were the robbers’ guardian angels. And the paramilitary was not motivated by notions of India-Bangladesh friendship but by hard cash paid by criminals for their connivance.

To nail the nexus, Majumdar visited the State Bank of India branch in Karimpur and examined the accounts of BSF personnel. He unearthed hefty remittances to ‘Sitara Devis’, ‘Rakesh Singhs’ and ‘Krishna Gopalans’ in various states the para-military men hailed from. The remittances were not commensurate with their salaries; they were, without a doubt, recipients of the proceeds of crime on a regular basis.

When Mukherjee met Basu to submit Majumdar’s detailed report, he took Majumdar along. Majumdar recalled the twinkle in Basu’s eye as he turned the pages. Basu and Mukherjee are no more but Majumdar, physically fit and mentally alert at 73, is alive to tell the tale. Basu forwarded the report to the Union Home Ministry but the BSF’s notoriety as ‘Border Smuggling Force’ persists.

The amendment of the BSF Act extending its jurisdiction in Opposition-ruled states like West Bengal and Punjab is nothing but a political move to needle and pressure them. Not content with misusing the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED) and National Investigation Agency (NIA), the ModiAmit Shah duo has unleashed yet another central police organisation (CPO) to harass Opposition governments.

The BJP has never desisted from using the BSF as a political tool. As Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, who happens to be a former BJP president, had publicly ordered the BSF to stop the smuggling of cows from India to Bangladesh at any cost, even if it meant neglecting other responsibilities in its charter. Cows figure high in the Hindutva agenda and Singh had no qualms about using the BSF to further it. The BSF resented his instructions as cow smuggling is a very lucrative business– far more profitable than trafficking or contraband.

The BSF has a big presence in West Bengal as it guards the border with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.

Mamata Banerjee has demanded rollback of the 50-km jurisdiction with immediate effect. To get mass backing, she announced that the Modi government has empowered the BSF to “torture” more people than before. In any case, paramilitary forces are known for their high-handedness and using third degre methods against ordinary people with great impunity.

BSF has search, seizure and arrest powers like the police. But it is well known that it costs more to free somebody from BSF than police custody! The BSF is such a dreaded force that people invariably shell out more to grease BSF palms.

Banerjee has also marshalled hard facts in her letters to Modi and Shah. Her contention is that after miserably failing to capture power in West Bengal through elections, the BJP government wants to control and administer 37 percent of the state’s territory through the BSF by extending its jurisdiction to 50 km from the border. With the expansion, the BSF will have overlapping executive powers across 32,400sq km out of the state’s 88,752sq km, or nearly 100 police stations out of 630.

“Most of the areas falling under the newly delineated jurisdiction of the BSF are densely populated. Extending the powers of the BSF in those areas is fraught with dangers arising from the exercise of powers by a force unfamiliar with the local populace, language, geography and society”, the CM wrote urging restraint and caution in the heavily politicised state.

S.I.S. Ahmed, an outstanding officer by any yardstick, headed the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). But before leading the CRPF and CISF, the West Bengal cadre IPS officer was Additional DirectorGeneral BSF (East). Ahmed says that the BSF initially had jurisdiction only over 8 km which was later increased to 15 km.

“The latest amendment”, Ahmed said, “will be counter-productive as neither topography nor demography has been taken into account.” According to him, the BSF is a border guarding force and should remain so.

“The India-Bangladesh border is very complex as it is heavily populated right up to the borderline. To expect the BSF to be in charge of 50 km from the border is irrational. 15 km is more than enough to discharge its duty. In those 15 km, BSF has a dominant role though the police have jurisdiction right up to the border. Overlapping of powers across 50 km will give rise to unnecessary friction. It will inevitably lead to an unhealthy situation,” he said.

“As the crow flies, the BSF’s jurisdiction will now extend to district headquarters and sub-divisional towns like Balurghat and Bongaon respectively. How can there be two agencies working in the same area? If implemented in Tripura, virtually the whole state will be under BSF control. It’s absurd.”

It seems that Banerjee is soft-pedalling the BSF issue as she is known to shrewdly pick and choose volatile matters for maximum effect. She will shift gears when the time is ripe for escalation.

The BSF issue has the potential to snowball into a National Citizenship Amendment Act-type confrontation or the showdown over the National Register of Citizen (NRC). The ball is in Mamata Banerjee’s court.

(Views are personal)

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