Darjeeling: The amendment of the BSF Act increasing the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF) from 15 to 50 km from the international borders of Bangladesh and Pakistan, has invited flak from different quarters. Dubbing it as a politically motivated move by the BJP-led Union Government, many feel that it is an attempt to dilute the federal polity and exercise a tighter grip on the opposition-ruled states.
The BJP declared that the move is to counter illegal infiltration that has triggered demographic change along with preventing trans-border crime. The BSF, too, has reiterated the same, adding that the change in demography in some border districts has led to a change in voting pattern.
Punjab and West Bengal have moved resolutions in their state assemblies urging the Union Government to immediately roll back the new law that has been implemented unilaterally, without consulting state governments. West Bengal Chief Minister has met Prime Minister Modi and requested a rollback.
Apart from the state governments, political and non-government organisations are also against the decision. A Public Interest Litigation has been filed in the Calcutta High Court against the amendment.
The ongoing winter session of Parliament is all set to witness uproars over this issue, with the Trinamool Congress and the Indian National Congress protesting the new notification increasing BSF’s area of jurisdiction.
The amendment was necessary to strengthen the internal security of the country as well as provide uniformity in the area under the jurisdiction of the border force throughout the states, claims the BJP-led union government. The new legislation would assist the police forces and improve operational effectiveness, the BSF claimed.
In Punjab, West Bengal and Assam, the BSF jurisdiction has been increased from the earlier 15 km to 50 km; in Gujarat, it has been decreased from 80 km to 50 km. Rajasthan remains unchanged at 50 km under the new notification.
Amendment to the BSF Act
Section 139 (1) of the BSF Act defines the power, duties and jurisdiction of the border force along with bestowing the Union government with the power to define the BSF’s jurisdictional limitation.
On October 11, 2021, following the amendment to the Act, the Centre issued a fresh notification. It stated that the BSF’s jurisdiction now comprises: “Whole of the area 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 within a belt of fifty kilometres in the States of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, West Bengal and Assam, running along the borders of India.”
With this amendment, the BSF can search, seize and arrest within a larger area of 50 km from the international border.
Incidentally, the earlier notification, dated 3 July 2014, had defined BSF’s jurisdiction as “whole of the area comprised in the States of Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya and so much of the area comprised within a belt of eighty kilometres in the State of Gujarat, fifty kilometres in the State of Rajasthan and fifteen kilometres in the States of Punjab, West Bengal and Assam, running along the borders of India.”
Nearly one-third of West Bengal to come under BSF Jurisdiction
West Bengal is unique, geopolitically. It is surrounded by four international borders, including Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR under China). It shares a 2216.7-km border with Bangladesh. The entire state boundary on the eastern side runs along the border with Bangladesh. With this amendment, nearly one-third of the State will be under the BSF’s jurisdiction: from Kurseong in the Himalayas to the Sunderban along the Bay of Bengal.
Ten out of the 23 districts of West Bengal share a border with Bangladesh. Of these, major portions of Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur, Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas will come under the jurisdiction of the BSF. Siliguri, located in the Darjeeling district famous as the “Chicken’s neck,” will also come under the BSF’s jurisdiction.
Punjab and Bengal raise the voice of dissent
On November 12, the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution against the Centre’s BSF notification. The resolution was adopted unanimously by the state assembly, “rejecting” the Union home ministry’s October 11 order. Two members of the BJP were absent, along with former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who had quit the Congress in October.
Captain Singh has backed the extension of the jurisdiction of the border guarding force.
This was a special two-day session of the Punjab Assembly called after an all-party meeting resolved to oppose and reject the Centre’s notification. All other parties, including the opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), supported the official resolution on the concluding day of the two-day special session.
The resolution demanding the recall of the new BSF directive was moved by Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, who holds the home portfolio. Randhawa further stated that the state government would challenge the notification in the Punjab and Haryana high court.
Close on the heels of Punjab, West Bengal, too, moved a resolution in the Assembly opposing the Center’s unilateral edict. A copy of this has been sent to the union government.
“The decision was taken unilaterally without consulting the state governments. This is clearly an attempt to dilute the federal structure and carries some hidden agenda. The explanations offered by the Union Government regarding this sudden move are sketchy,” alleged Sukhendu Shekhar Roy, TMC Rajya Sabha chief whip and national spokesperson.
On November 16, the West Bengal Assembly passed a resolution against the Centre’s notification. It was tabled by Partha Chatterjee, Minister, Parliamentary Affairs. 112 Trinamool Congress (TMC) members voted in support, and 63 BJP members opposed it. Amidst the pandemonium, the resolution was passed.
“A resolution passed under Rule 169 of the assembly has no locus standi,” claimed Suvendu Adhikari, the opposition leader. He retorted that the BSF’s jurisdiction should instead be increased to at least 80km in Bengal, claiming that the state has turned into a hub for terrorist outfits, including the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).
BJP participated in a heated discussion, claiming that the Centre’s intention was meant to beef up security in areas close to the borders and that TMC has been indulging in anti-nation activities with tacit support to infiltrators from Bangladesh.
Later, Partha Chatterjee stated, “It is nothing but an attempt to establish central rule in Bengal through the back door. The Supreme Court had earlier ruled in one of its verdicts that a state’s consent is mandatory for extending the BSF’s jurisdiction, but no such consent was sought from West Bengal. It is a unilateral decision.”
Public Interest Litigation in Calcutta High Court
On November 25, a public interest litigation (PIL) was moved before the Calcutta High Court, challenging the Union government’s power under Section 139, Clause I, of the BSF Act to decide the jurisdiction of the BSF.
Sabyasachi Chatterjee, the petitioner’s counsel, stated that the PIL brings to the fore that the power of the central government under Section 139, Clause I of the BSF Act, is against the country’s federal structure.
A division bench comprising Chief Justice Prakash Shrivastava and Justice R. Bharadwaj directed the petitioner to serve notice to the BSF on this. The matter will come up for hearing on December 14.
Commenting on a broader spectrum, in case the State Government seeks legal recourse, Anmol Prasad, a legal expert, opined “The Apex court usually looks into Constitutionality. As it is to do with the Federal structure, the court will carefully weigh the rationale behind such an action and then only interfere in policy decisions of the Executive.”
Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee wants rollback: Here’s why
On November 24, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi, demanding a rollback of the BSF notification. Before this, the Government of West Bengal had sent a letter to the union government with this demand.
“Federal structure of India is very important. One should try to strengthen it and not dilute it by using might. Do not disturb the federal structure. I have asked the Prime Minister for a rollback of the new BSF notification,” was Banerjee’s strong message.
Talking to media persons after the meeting, Banerjee stated, “I respect all government agencies, but this will create law and order confrontations. Law and order is a state subject. BSF fires at will. Recently, they shot and killed a poor villager. However, there is no action taken against the troopers,” she added.
The Left Front and Congress are also opposing the extension of jurisdiction. “We strongly oppose this new notification. It is a direct attack on the rights of the states, an attack on federalism. We urge the Government to immediately roll back this notification,” stated Sitaram Yechury, General Secretary, CPIM, talking to EastMojo.
The Indian National Congress has also echoed similar sentiments. “The expansion of BSF area of jurisdiction up to 50 km from the international border in some states amounts to brazen infringement upon the territory of the states. Home Minister of India, you should not indulge in any kind of “Cherkhani” else will face the consequences,” Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Leader of Congress party in Lok Sabha, had tweeted.
The TMC has threatened to protest in Parliament. “If the letter is sent to the Union Government along with the meeting with the Prime Minister then we will raise the issue in Parliament. We will vehemently protest throughout the winter session” stated Sudip Bandopadhyay, the leader of TMC in the Lok Sabha.
The issue in Parliament
On November 30, answering to questions raised in Parliament by TMC MP Sajda Ahmed on whether the Union Government would consider a rollback of the October 11th notification, a written reply from Nityananda Rai, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs stated that the increase in the jurisdiction would result in better and more effective control on trans-border crimes “in conjunction and cooperation with the state police.” He further labelled Punjab and West Bengal’s apprehension that extending BSF’s territory would result in encroaching upon the powers of the state as “ill-founded.”
The Ministry of Home Affairs in response to Lok Janshakti Party MP Chirag Paswan on December 7 claimed that the highest number of cross-border infiltration to India has been reported along the Indo-Bangladesh border.
In a written reply, Nishith Pramanik, Minister of State for Home Affairs claimed that there were 128 infiltrations reported along the Pakistan border; 1787 along the Bangladesh border; 25 along the Nepal border and 133 along the Myanmar border; Nil infiltration along the China and Bhutan border. Incidentally, India shares open borders with Nepal and Bhutan.
In a press conference by Pankaj Kumar Singh, Director General of BSF on November 30, stated that the probable reason for the increase in BSF’s jurisdiction could be the change in demographic pattern in border states like West Bengal and Assam over time. He further claimed that with the change in demography the voting pattern has also changed in some border districts.
“Over a period of time, whether it is Assam or West Bengal, the demographic balance has been upset to a great degree. It has changed and there have been agitations in certain states and there have been many revolts because of these reasons. Even the voter pattern has changed in certain districts, neighbouring borders. The BSF has done a survey in some border villages and found that there is a definite demographic change So, the government probably thought that the BSF can help and support the state police in catching infiltrators if the jurisdiction was increased from 15 km to 50 km,” added the DG.
The DG stated that the BSF would in no way interfere with the functioning of the state police or the powers would in no way overlap. “The BSF will not function as a parallel police force as the power to register FIRs along with investigating a case rests with the police” stated Singh. Rather the BSF’s powers exercised under the Passport Entry into India Act, Passport Act, NDPS Act, Arms Act along with CrPC will further enable the BSF to help the State police thereby curbing trans-border crimes including smuggling of arms, ammunition and narcotics.
The DG stated that the problem of smuggling weapons to Punjab using drones can be effectively tackled by the BSF. In 2021 up to October, 67 drone sightings were reported in Punjab and Jammu. Two drones were shot down by the BSF.
“The BSF’s job is to guard borders and not to conduct demographic surveys. What is their locus standi to comment on change in voting patterns and demography?” questioned Sougata Roy, MP, TMC. The whole matter trickled down to vote politics, said other TMC leaders.
Udayan Guha, TMC Legislator of Dinhata, in a social media post, questioned: “The BSF are going into villages far from the borders and gathering information on the number of voters; Hindu percentage of voters; Muslim percentage of voters. What is the relation of this information with national security? Is the BSF preparing for 2024 elections?” He named the villages as Durachapri; Kharija Rakhalmari in the Dinhata Assembly constituency in Cooch Behar.
Interestingly, the border districts comprise 21 out of West Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats. In the last West Bengal Assembly elections and by-elections held this year, TMC bagged 217 seats while BJP got 77 seats.
However, during the elections, the TMC, time and again, raised allegations. It even lodged complaints against Central forces, especially the BSF, in border regions. They alleged that the BSF, leaving the borders, had entered the border villages, thereby threatening people to vote for the BJP.
Bengal Muslim population rising, says BJP
“At the time of independence of India, the Muslim population in West Bengal was around 18%. This has risen to 30% now. The influx of Bangladeshis is so high in the border districts that they are all set to make a demographic change as they did in border districts of Assam, including Dhubri and Goalpara. If this is allowed to continue, they could divide the country again,” alleged Sayantan Basu, General Secretary, BJP, West Bengal State Committee talking to EastMojo.
He further stated that as Bangladesh is an Islamic country, the BSF should differentiate between infiltrators and refugees. “Muslims crossing over are infiltrators. However, owing to the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019,) others, mainly Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs are refugees” added Basu.
The West Bengal BJP General Secretary stated that the Siliguri corridor is known as the “Chicken’s Neck,” – the thin strip of land connecting North-Eastern states with the Indian mainland is of immense strategic importance. “For the sake of national security, it is better that the Siliguri Corridor comes under the purview of the BSF,” declared Basu.
Basu claimed that the TMC-led state government in West Bengal is “raising an unnecessary hue and cry” as they have vested interests and indulge in vote bank politics.
Civil society rubbishes BJP claims
Many human rights associations have questioned the sudden need for this change. “What are the circumstances or reasons that compelled the Government to make this change? If the BSF does its duty well at the border, what is the need for it to come inside 50km for search operations? Though they do not have the powers to register FIRs, they harass people residing in the borders. More people will come under the purview of harassment with this new order. This move is nothing but the Centre trying to tighten its grip on the state using Central agencies. We vehemently oppose this,” stated Abhiranjan Bhaduri, Vice President of Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR,) talking to EastMojo.
Recently, the APDR had demanded an independent inquiry regarding the death of an Indian citizen–Prakash Barman–in Sitai, Cooch Behar allegedly shot down by the BSF along with two unidentified persons (the dead bodies remain unclaimed) on November 12. While the BSF labelled the two as Bangladeshi cattle smugglers, they had washed their hands from the Barman incident that occurred on the same night in the same area.
MASUM, an NGO working in the areas of West Bengal bordering Bangladesh since the late 1990s has lodged a total of 240 cases accusing the BSF of extra-judicial torture, 60 cases of extrajudicial execution and eight cases of forced disappearance in the last five years. Of these, in 33 cases, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has ordered compensation to the victims or the next of kin of the victims.
Kiriti Roy, who heads the NGO, talking to EastMojo, talking about alleged infiltration, stated “There is a myth being circulated of thousands of Bangladeshis entering India. There is a reverse trend now with their economy stronger than hours. There are many illegal immigrants of Indian origin languishing in Bangladesh jails, even after their jail term has ended. They are known as “Jankhalashis.” One can find Bangladeshi Jankhalashis in Indian prisons too.
However, during the 1970s and 1980s, Bangladeshis used to come to India in large numbers to escape religious persecution, added Roy. “One thing I fail to understand. Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, three are friendly nations. Then why so much hue and cry about Bangladesh alone- Just because they are Muslims?” questioned Roy.
He also alleged heavy corruption in the ranks and file of the security agencies, both under the Centre and State, along with nexus with corrupt politicians that has resulted in a rise in the number of cases related to cross border crimes.
Roy complained of BSF highhandedness and atrocities in the border areas. “There is a systematic link between the Border Force and the police. Police do not investigate the atrocities of the BSF. This I have noticed during the TMC regime, Left Front and the Congress. Nothing has changed,” claimed Roy.
He has been writing to the NHRC regarding the violations. He expressed fear that torture, false cases, arbitrary detention and illegal arrests would increase with the increase in the jurisdiction.
“We have several cases where BSF did not inform local police after the firing incident. They apprehend some people during smuggling time and did not hand over to the police but brutally tortured him to death and dumped the body in the river or across the border. If the BSF gets the power to search, seize or arrest any suspect then surely they will violate the procedure of arrest, search, seizure, an attachment which relates to a memo of arrest, seizure list, search memo etc prescribed in the Code of Criminal Procedure. When BSF daily violates the Constitutional provision of the country in the name of security, then how will the people of the bordering areas within a 50-kilometre radius safely enjoy their Constitutional and human rights?” Roy wrote in the letter to the NHRC.
For now, it looks like this issue will continue to be a point of contention between the Centre and the state. On December 7, addressing an administrative meeting in Raigunj in North Bengal, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee directed police officers of the border districts, not to allow BSF personnel to enter villages without prior permission.
Drawing a parallel with the Nagaland incident where 14 civilians were shot down by the army, Banerjee stated, “The BSF is allowed for 15 km, that too, with the permission of the police. However, they are entering villages as per their wish. You have all seen what happened in Nagaland. Henceforth you have to be very careful. I don’t want any confrontations.”
Reiterating that law and order is a state subject, Banerjee directed that in case of the border guards entering villages, the Block Development Officers and Police officers should remind them that this is “not your jurisdiction.”
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