Even as the whole country demands the resignation of Ajay Mishra, the key instigator and orchestrator of the Lakhimpur massacre of farmers who has recently been inducted in the Modi cabinet as one of Amit Shah’s deputies, as a Minister of State for Home Affairs, the MHA has quietly issued another draconian order. A notification issued by the MHA has increased the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force in the eastern and western border states of Assam, West Bengal and Punjab from the existing limit of 15 km to 50 km. In the case of Gujarat, the jurisdiction has been brought down from 80 to 50 km. The notification authorises BSF to conduct search, arrest and seizure operations within this expanded jurisdiction without any permission of the state government or local administration.
The Border Security Force was founded in the wake of the India-Pakistan war of 1965 as a dedicated force to protect India’s western and eastern international border. In the last five decades the force has grown massively with increasing deployment in maintenance of internal security and in what the state calls counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaigns. Like other paramilitary forces, the BSF too has often been accused of major human rights violations in the process. In recent years the role of the BSF has also been a matter of periodic dispute in India’s bilateral relations with Bangladesh. But what has been less documented and discussed is the harassment suffered by the people living in border areas.
People living in border areas are usually too vulnerable and afraid to lodge complaints and with the MHA’s backing the BSF in border areas enjoys near-total impunity, almost akin to the dreaded ‘special powers’ granted to the Armed Forces under the notorious AFSPA. With the latest notification, the BSF jurisdiction will grow more than threefold in Punjab and West Bengal. Given the BJP’s virulent anti-immigrant propaganda and violent campaigns and communalisation of the issue of citizenship and visa with neighbouring countries, it is not difficult to understand that the enhanced jurisdiction and power of BSF will also be used to intensify this anti-immigrant campaign and create a permanently polarised environment in the border areas.
The new notification about changes in the BSF jurisdiction is being sought to be justified in the name of operational efficiency and curbing of crimes. Incidentally Gujarat, the state where the jurisdiction has been reduced from 80 to 50 km, witnesses mega commercial smuggling. As much as 3000 kg of heroin was seized from Adani’s Mundra port in Gujarat’s Kutch only in September. The enhanced jurisdiction of the BSF only means enhanced central control and intrusion into the state turf of law and through the backdoor. Incidentally, during the UPA era Narendra Modi as Gujarat CM had vociferously opposed the idea of giving more powers to the BSF by calling it an attack on federalism. In April 2012 in a strongly worded letter to Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi had called it the creation of a state within state, snatching of state’s powers by the Centre.
Today, the central agencies are all being systematically weaponised by the Modi government against opposition-ruled state governments to bypass and undermine the powers of the states. From the CBI and ED to now BSF, central agencies and central forces are constantly overriding the authority and administration of state governments to execute the political agenda of the Modi government. The over-centralising drive of the Modi government is also making a mockery of the constitutionally stipulated federal division of legislative powers and subjects between the union government and state governments – the farm laws being the most conspicuous example of the union government usurping the powers of the states. From new education policy and NEET to GST and farm laws, every major move of the Modi government has eroded the powers of the states. And then there has been the most shocking example of Jammu and Kashmir, where a state was overnight stripped of not just its constitutional identity and powers but also its very statehood to be reduced to centrally administered Union Territories. Delhi and Lakshadweep have also been subjected to such aggressive central invasion in recent past. The BSF should focus on patrolling and protecting the international border. The enhanced jurisdiction and powers of the BSF will only weaken the proclaimed central responsibility of the BSF and weaken India’s already deteriorating human rights situation and federal framework. The weaponisation of BSF as a tool of the Modi government must stop.