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As a controversy hits BSF, the roots and evolution of India’s border force

Hindustan Times takes a look at the Border Security Force (BSF)’s role, its history and impact of new notification
PREMIUM
After deliberations between several secretaries, state governments and security forces, the BSF came into existence on December 1, 1965 (PTI)
Updated on Oct 22, 2021 04:28 PM IST
ByNeeraj Chauhan

New Delhi: An apparently unilateral decision taken by the Centre last week to extend the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF) up to 50 km inside international borders in states such Assam, West Bengal and Punjab has created a political storm.

Through a gazette notification on Monday, the ministry of home affairs (MHA) amended an earlier notification issued in July 2014, standardising the jurisdictional area under BSF to 50 km in the border states of Punjab, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Gujarat and Assam when it comes to making “arrest, search and seizure” under Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Passport Act, 1967.

West Bengal and Punjab are governed by Trinamool Congress and the Congress respectively, both of which are staunch rivals of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

HT takes a look at BSF’s role, its history and impact of new notification:

What does the new notification say?

Exercising the powers under the BSF Act of 1968, the new notification issued on October 11 states that the jurisdiction of BSF extends to “the whole of the area comprised in the States of Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya and Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh and so much of the area comprised within a belt of fifty kilometres in the States of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, West Bengal and Assam, running along the borders of India”.

RELATED STORIES

What are non-BJP parties saying?

Ruling parties in Punjab and West Bengal, have called it an attack on the federalism and a move to interfere in the work of state police. Some parties are planning to take up the issue in the parliament. When the Congress tried to give similar powers to the BSF in 2012, the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi had opposed the move and had written to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accusing the Centre of weakening counter’s federal structure.

What is BSF saying?

According to the BSF, the decision brings uniformity and helps it in fulfilling its role of being the “first-responder” at the difficult borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as curb trans-border crimes which are affecting the economy and national security of the country. In fact, many officers argued that the BSF rarely went inside even 15 kms inside the states’ territory, that too only when it was “really unavoidable”, as no officer wants to have sour relations with the state police in-charge of the area as they have to ultimately work together.

Also, officers say the border guarding force doesn’t have powers to “investigate” or “file chargesheets”. Any person arrested by it or articles seized have to be handed over to the local police within 24 hours.

BSF Inspector General, Solomon Minz, said, “We always work in close coordination with state police. We have monthly meetings with state police and we have a system of border security grid to further strengthen border security and better coordination”.

How was BSF formed?

Following repeated incursions of the Pakistan forces in 1965 along the Rann (Gujarat), the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri felt the need for restructuring border policing and raising a centralised force for border security. After deliberations between several secretaries, state governments and security forces, the BSF came into existence on December 1, 1965 and KF Rustamji became its founding director general. It started with only 25 battalions (one battalion usually has over 1,000 personnel), drawn from states’ armed police. Today it has over 190 battalions.

During peace time, its role is to secure India’s borders from infiltration, smuggling of weapons, drugs and fake currency etc on India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh borders and promote a sense of security among the people living in the border areas.

During wars, its role shifts to holding ground in less threatened sectors so long as the main attack does not develop in a particular sector and it is felt that the local situation is within the capability of the BSF to deal with; protection of vital installations particularly air-fields against enemy commando/para troopers or raids; providing extension to the flanks of main defence line by the holding of strong points in conjunction with other units; limited aggressive action against paramilitary or irregular forces of the enemy within the overall plan of the Armed Forces; performing special tasks connected with intelligence including raids; acting as guides in an area of responsibility where routes are known; maintaining law and order in enemy territory administered under the control of the Army; guarding of prisoners of war cages and assistance in control of refugees.

What was its role in 1971 liberation of Bangladesh?

According to BSF – India’s First Line of Defence, a book on 50 years history of the force, written by Anirudh Deshpande, Associate Professor, Department of History at Delhi University, within three days of Pakistan army launching a genocidal campaign against the Awami League and East Pakistan people on the night of March 25, 1971, BSF received information about it through its contacts there.

The book says that on March 30, one of the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) officers who was in contact with the Awami League leaders sent a note for the first time asking for assistance and pleaded for every possible help. On 27 March, 1971, the Sub Divisional Officers of Meharpur and Jhenaidah came to the BSF Border Out Post (BOP) at Chengrakhali in the Mednipur district and delivered the following message to the Indians. “Two senior members of the government 31 of independent Bangladesh would like to meet the (then) Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. They will cross the border only if received with state protocol.”

As war broke out, BSF units trained Mukti Bahini, helped the guerrilla parties and guided them to their objectives, provided fire support for their raids and even went inside enemy territory to extricate them. BSF personnel, working along with the Bengali freedom fighters, penetrated deep into enemy territory, disrupted communications by blowing up important bridges and railway tracks. These forces raided police-stations and ambushed the Pak troops and inflicted considerable casualties on the enemies, according to the history book.

What has been BSF’s role in Kashmir?

Not many people know that it was BSF which had predicted the problem of insurgency in Kashmir in 1969 itself, 20 years before the mass rebellion of 1989. On March 1, 1969, the founder director general of BSF K F Rustamji, the then chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir P K Dave, the then Inspector General North-west frontier of BSF R C Gopal and other senior officers held a meeting in Jammu to discuss a future civil uprising in Kashmir.

Gopal pointed out during the meeting the BSF has to be ready for political unrest in the state created by “local causes”, infiltration on a small scale with sabotage and also “massive infiltration and internal upsurge”. The BSF was de-inducted from Kashmir after the Kargil war.

Did BSF play a role in Kargil?

While taking advantage of the fact that the army usually left high peaks during winters, the Pakistan army intruded in Maskoh valley, Tiger Hill, Drass, Tololing, Kaksar, Batalik and Turtuk areas in Kargil sector.

BSF managed to make sure there was not a single case of intrusion in its area of responsibility as no BSF post, however difficult, inhospitable and untenable, was vacated during winters. According to BSF’s history book, in December 1998, BSF reported that fighter aircrafts were frequently landing at Skardu and carrying out night-flying practice. This was discussed with the army and the air force. Both indicated that such activity in this sector was normal.

Immediately after detection of intrusion in the first week of May 1999, BSF at Chennigund activated their resources and found accurate inputs on the nature and extent of intrusion. When army and other premier intelligence agencies found it difficult to interpret the enemy’s wireless communication in Drass and Batalik area, as the intruders were speaking in Dardi, Balti, Pusto, Farsi and Arabic languages, the BSF set up an interpretation/ translation cell where polyglot resource persons were called from Srinagar and employed, the book adds.

When BSF developed rockets:

During its formative years in 1960s and 1970s itself, BSF worked on self-sufficiency. In its Tekanpur facility in Gwalior, which is also now force’s academy, the BSF started its own rocket programme with experiments carried out on missiles with a range of 200, 300 and 400 yards.

“Later, under the guidance of eminent scientists like Vikram Sarabhai and A P J Abdul Kalam, who later became the President of India, the BSF rocket team developed rockets with a range of twenty kilometers,” the book reveals. It says that these rockets were used at the instance of the BSF for the first time in the Bangladesh conflict and later more research enabled the BSF to throw “a rocket ninety kilometers from the base” in Pokhran.

Officials in BSF told HT that BSF now provides non-lethal weapons and ammunitions apart from innovating technological solutions for border security. It also has a dedicated air-wing since 1969 for air carriage of BSF personnel to and from border areas, transportation of arms, ammunition, sensitive communications equipment and other logistic supplies as well as stocking of essential stores in far flung and remote areas. It is also mainly used for VVIP travel across the country and evacuation of casualties/ injured Jawans from insurgency hit areas. Presently it consists of Embraer-135 BJ, 02 AVRO (HS-748) aircrafts in fixed wing and 06 ALH (Dhruv), one Cheetah, and six Mi-17-IV and eight Mi-17 V5 helicopters in rotary wing.

When BSF stopped a crowd of 5 000 protesting Delhi Police officers’ union members from marching to home minister’s residence:

According to the history book written by Deshpande, on April 13, 1967, the leaders of Delhi Police union raised the banner of revolt to protest against the termination of services of some indisciplined police personnel. As soon as the matter was brought to the notice to BSF, Rustamji passed an order for the BSF units located in Delhi to get ready for the task and he himself, along with some officers and escort, left for the control room of the Delhi Police.

On his way to Rashtrapati Bhawan, he received an input that 5,000 policemen were raising slogans and that the central reserve police men, who had been deployed inside the North Avenue security lines, had joined the demonstrations. By 4 pm, when the procession of the protesting Delhi Police employees was advancing towards the house of the home minister, one BSF company took positions there.

“They (the protestors) tried to break open the rear gate but when they saw the BSF getting ready to fire, (they) retreated, but continued with slogan shouting and provocative speech outside the residence of the home minister,” the book says.

It adds that the situation was getting serious so reinforcements were called and Ashwini Kumar (then Inspector General of BSF western frontier) arrived there with four battalions.

Yashwanrao Chavan, the then home minister, was not able to come out of his residence for 36 hours. As BSF had decided to use force on Delhi Police personnel and arrest them all, the cops raised their hands and surrendered.

New Delhi: An apparently unilateral decision taken by the Centre last week to extend the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF) up to 50 km inside international borders in states such Assam, West Bengal and Punjab has created a political storm.

Through a gazette notification on Monday, the ministry of home affairs (MHA) amended an earlier notification issued in July 2014, standardising the jurisdictional area under BSF to 50 km in the border states of Punjab, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Gujarat and Assam when it comes to making “arrest, search and seizure” under Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Passport Act, 1967.

West Bengal and Punjab are governed by Trinamool Congress and the Congress respectively, both of which are staunch rivals of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

RELATED STORIES

HT takes a look at BSF’s role, its history and impact of new notification:

What does the new notification say?

Exercising the powers under the BSF Act of 1968, the new notification issued on October 11 states that the jurisdiction of BSF extends to “the whole of the area comprised in the States of Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya and Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh and so much of the area comprised within a belt of fifty kilometres in the States of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, West Bengal and Assam, running along the borders of India”.

What are non-BJP parties saying?

Ruling parties in Punjab and West Bengal, have called it an attack on the federalism and a move to interfere in the work of state police. Some parties are planning to take up the issue in the parliament. When the Congress tried to give similar powers to the BSF in 2012, the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi had opposed the move and had written to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accusing the Centre of weakening counter’s federal structure.

What is BSF saying?

According to the BSF, the decision brings uniformity and helps it in fulfilling its role of being the “first-responder” at the difficult borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as curb trans-border crimes which are affecting the economy and national security of the country. In fact, many officers argued that the BSF rarely went inside even 15 kms inside the states’ territory, that too only when it was “really unavoidable”, as no officer wants to have sour relations with the state police in-charge of the area as they have to ultimately work together.

Also, officers say the border guarding force doesn’t have powers to “investigate” or “file chargesheets”. Any person arrested by it or articles seized have to be handed over to the local police within 24 hours.

BSF Inspector General, Solomon Minz, said, “We always work in close coordination with state police. We have monthly meetings with state police and we have a system of border security grid to further strengthen border security and better coordination”.

How was BSF formed?

Following repeated incursions of the Pakistan forces in 1965 along the Rann (Gujarat), the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri felt the need for restructuring border policing and raising a centralised force for border security. After deliberations between several secretaries, state governments and security forces, the BSF came into existence on December 1, 1965 and KF Rustamji became its founding director general. It started with only 25 battalions (one battalion usually has over 1,000 personnel), drawn from states’ armed police. Today it has over 190 battalions.

During peace time, its role is to secure India’s borders from infiltration, smuggling of weapons, drugs and fake currency etc on India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh borders and promote a sense of security among the people living in the border areas.

During wars, its role shifts to holding ground in less threatened sectors so long as the main attack does not develop in a particular sector and it is felt that the local situation is within the capability of the BSF to deal with; protection of vital installations particularly air-fields against enemy commando/para troopers or raids; providing extension to the flanks of main defence line by the holding of strong points in conjunction with other units; limited aggressive action against paramilitary or irregular forces of the enemy within the overall plan of the Armed Forces; performing special tasks connected with intelligence including raids; acting as guides in an area of responsibility where routes are known; maintaining law and order in enemy territory administered under the control of the Army; guarding of prisoners of war cages and assistance in control of refugees.

What was its role in 1971 liberation of Bangladesh?

According to BSF – India’s First Line of Defence, a book on 50 years history of the force, written by Anirudh Deshpande, Associate Professor, Department of History at Delhi University, within three days of Pakistan army launching a genocidal campaign against the Awami League and East Pakistan people on the night of March 25, 1971, BSF received information about it through its contacts there.

The book says that on March 30, one of the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) officers who was in contact with the Awami League leaders sent a note for the first time asking for assistance and pleaded for every possible help. On 27 March, 1971, the Sub Divisional Officers of Meharpur and Jhenaidah came to the BSF Border Out Post (BOP) at Chengrakhali in the Mednipur district and delivered the following message to the Indians. “Two senior members of the government 31 of independent Bangladesh would like to meet the (then) Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. They will cross the border only if received with state protocol.”

As war broke out, BSF units trained Mukti Bahini, helped the guerrilla parties and guided them to their objectives, provided fire support for their raids and even went inside enemy territory to extricate them. BSF personnel, working along with the Bengali freedom fighters, penetrated deep into enemy territory, disrupted communications by blowing up important bridges and railway tracks. These forces raided police-stations and ambushed the Pak troops and inflicted considerable casualties on the enemies, according to the history book.

What has been BSF’s role in Kashmir?

Not many people know that it was BSF which had predicted the problem of insurgency in Kashmir in 1969 itself, 20 years before the mass rebellion of 1989. On March 1, 1969, the founder director general of BSF K F Rustamji, the then chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir P K Dave, the then Inspector General North-west frontier of BSF R C Gopal and other senior officers held a meeting in Jammu to discuss a future civil uprising in Kashmir.

Gopal pointed out during the meeting the BSF has to be ready for political unrest in the state created by “local causes”, infiltration on a small scale with sabotage and also “massive infiltration and internal upsurge”. The BSF was de-inducted from Kashmir after the Kargil war.

Did BSF play a role in Kargil?

While taking advantage of the fact that the army usually left high peaks during winters, the Pakistan army intruded in Maskoh valley, Tiger Hill, Drass, Tololing, Kaksar, Batalik and Turtuk areas in Kargil sector.

BSF managed to make sure there was not a single case of intrusion in its area of responsibility as no BSF post, however difficult, inhospitable and untenable, was vacated during winters. According to BSF’s history book, in December 1998, BSF reported that fighter aircrafts were frequently landing at Skardu and carrying out night-flying practice. This was discussed with the army and the air force. Both indicated that such activity in this sector was normal.

Immediately after detection of intrusion in the first week of May 1999, BSF at Chennigund activated their resources and found accurate inputs on the nature and extent of intrusion. When army and other premier intelligence agencies found it difficult to interpret the enemy’s wireless communication in Drass and Batalik area, as the intruders were speaking in Dardi, Balti, Pusto, Farsi and Arabic languages, the BSF set up an interpretation/ translation cell where polyglot resource persons were called from Srinagar and employed, the book adds.

When BSF developed rockets:

During its formative years in 1960s and 1970s itself, BSF worked on self-sufficiency. In its Tekanpur facility in Gwalior, which is also now force’s academy, the BSF started its own rocket programme with experiments carried out on missiles with a range of 200, 300 and 400 yards.

“Later, under the guidance of eminent scientists like Vikram Sarabhai and A P J Abdul Kalam, who later became the President of India, the BSF rocket team developed rockets with a range of twenty kilometers,” the book reveals. It says that these rockets were used at the instance of the BSF for the first time in the Bangladesh conflict and later more research enabled the BSF to throw “a rocket ninety kilometers from the base” in Pokhran.

Officials in BSF told HT that BSF now provides non-lethal weapons and ammunitions apart from innovating technological solutions for border security. It also has a dedicated air-wing since 1969 for air carriage of BSF personnel to and from border areas, transportation of arms, ammunition, sensitive communications equipment and other logistic supplies as well as stocking of essential stores in far flung and remote areas. It is also mainly used for VVIP travel across the country and evacuation of casualties/ injured Jawans from insurgency hit areas. Presently it consists of Embraer-135 BJ, 02 AVRO (HS-748) aircrafts in fixed wing and 06 ALH (Dhruv), one Cheetah, and six Mi-17-IV and eight Mi-17 V5 helicopters in rotary wing.

When BSF stopped a crowd of 5 000 protesting Delhi Police officers’ union members from marching to home minister’s residence:

According to the history book written by Deshpande, on April 13, 1967, the leaders of Delhi Police union raised the banner of revolt to protest against the termination of services of some indisciplined police personnel. As soon as the matter was brought to the notice to BSF, Rustamji passed an order for the BSF units located in Delhi to get ready for the task and he himself, along with some officers and escort, left for the control room of the Delhi Police.

On his way to Rashtrapati Bhawan, he received an input that 5,000 policemen were raising slogans and that the central reserve police men, who had been deployed inside the North Avenue security lines, had joined the demonstrations. By 4 pm, when the procession of the protesting Delhi Police employees was advancing towards the house of the home minister, one BSF company took positions there.

“They (the protestors) tried to break open the rear gate but when they saw the BSF getting ready to fire, (they) retreated, but continued with slogan shouting and provocative speech outside the residence of the home minister,” the book says.

It adds that the situation was getting serious so reinforcements were called and Ashwini Kumar (then Inspector General of BSF western frontier) arrived there with four battalions.

Yashwanrao Chavan, the then home minister, was not able to come out of his residence for 36 hours. As BSF had decided to use force on Delhi Police personnel and arrest them all, the cops raised their hands and surrendered.

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