Explained: Why Expanding The BSF’s Operational Jurisdiction Is Not Enough, It Needs More Powers To Tackle Cross-Border Crimes

Jaideep Mazumdar

Dec 15, 2021, 01:58 PM | Updated 01:58 PM IST

BSF personnel guarding India’s border with Bangladesh.
BSF personnel guarding India’s border with Bangladesh.
  • BSF officers ought to be empowered to hand over cases relating to serious crimes to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), drug cases to Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), fake currency rackets to the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), and other cases to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Customs, and other such central agencies.
  • Two months ago, the Union Government increased the operational jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF) from 15 to 50 kilometres along the country’s borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh in Punjab, Bengal and Assam.

    That move pitted Punjab and Bengal against the Centre, and while Punjab has moved the Supreme Court challenging the Centre’s decision, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee got a resolution passed by the state Assembly opposing the extension.

    The contention of the two states is that the extension of the border guards’ operational jurisdiction encroaches on the authority of the state and violates the federal spirit of the Constitution.

    The October 11 notification says the BSF’s new jurisdiction would now comprise “the whole of the area in the States of Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya and Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Ladakh and so much of the area within a belt of 50 kilometres in the States of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, West Bengal and Assam, running along the borders of India”.

    But it is important to note that the BSF’s enhanced jurisdiction in respect to searches, seizures and arrests are only in respect to the Passport Act of 1967, the Passport (Entry into India) Act of 1920, and specified sections of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

    Hence, the BSF can carry out searches, seizures and arrests under the Customs Act, the Central Excise and Salt Act, the Narcotics and Psychotropic (NDPS) Act, the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, 1947, only within its earlier operational jurisdiction of 15 kilometres.

    As far as Bengal is concerned, the BSF’s enhanced jurisdiction is intended to allow the force to tackle cattle smuggling and illegal infiltration of Bangladeshis through the porous border more effectively.

    But will it?

    Will the new notification make the BSF more effective in cracking down on smuggling of cattle from India to Bangladesh through the international border that they guard?

    Will it also help the BSF stop illegal infiltration of Bangladeshis into India through that border?

    The answer to these questions is an unequivocal ‘No’. That’s because while the BSF can search a house or a premise, seize cattle or contraband and arrest smugglers and human traffickers or infiltrators, it has no powers to investigate and prosecute offenders and criminals.

    The BSF, after arresting criminals or infiltrators, has to hand them over to the local police. In Bengal, the police and their political masters are often hand-in-glove with cattle smugglers, drug traffickers and human traffickers.

    Top BSF officers told Swarajya that soon after handing over these smugglers, traffickers and infiltrators to the local police, they are let off. “The local police often cite lack of evidence. Even when we provide evidence, the investigations are extremely shoddy and very weak chargesheets are prepared in order to ensure that the courts dismiss the cases against the criminals and the latter go scot free. So all our work goes waste and that’s why criminals operate so brazenly along the border with Bangladesh and cock a snook at us knowing fully well that ultimately, we are powerless to prevent the crimes they commit,” said a DIG-ranked BSF officer posted in the South Bengal Frontier.

    Also, since successive parties who have ruled over Bengal — and especially the Trinamool Congress now — have encouraged illegal migration of Bangladeshi Muslims, helped them settle in the border areas and used them as vote banks to stay on in power, the BSF’s efforts to eliminate the trafficking rackets has also come to naught repeatedly.

    “A highly-organised network of traffickers with close ties to the local police and politicians help infiltrators cross the border through the stretches that are riverine and porous or even by breaching the barbed wire border fencing. We have been successful in apprehending these traffickers and also the infiltrators many times and handed them over to the local police, but the criminals and infiltrators have always been let off by the police,” the officer added.

    The BSF has to hand over the cattle (meant to be smuggled out to Bangladesh) seized from smugglers to the customs department which, in turn, auctions the cattle.

    But the customs officials, who are also hand-in-glove with the smugglers, hold a sham bidding and the very same smugglers buy back the cattle at rock-bottom prices.

    “Our efforts at preventing cattle smuggling are thus always futile,” lamented the BSF officer.

    Some local cops and politicians receive kickbacks from these rackets that flourish along the border areas. This is why they have a vested interest in protecting these rackets and also shielding the Bangladeshi infiltrators who they use as vote banks.

    Given these, merely extending the BSF’s operational jurisdiction from 15 to 50 kilometres along the international border may enable the force to make more searches and arrests, but will not result in putting a stop to smuggling, trafficking and infiltration.

    “Yes, the extension of our operational jurisdiction will help us carry out raids, searches and arrest criminals engaged in transborder crimes. We have seen that taking advantage of our jurisdictional limit of 15 kilometres, smugglers, traffickers and criminals operate from beyond this range. Now it will be difficult for them to escape our dragnet because operating from beyond the 50-kilometre range within Indian territory will impose severe handicaps on them,” said the commanding officer of a BSF battalion in North Bengal’s Cooch Behar district.

    “Infiltrators, after entering India, are swiftly whisked off by their handlers or traffickers to ‘safe houses’ beyond our earlier 15-kilometre jurisdictional range. Even when we had specific information about infiltrators being sheltered at such safe houses beyond the 15-kilometre range of the international border, we could do nothing. Now it will be difficult for infiltrators to be housed in such safe houses,” the BSF battalion commandant told Swarajya.

    However, merely nabbing infiltrators, smugglers, traffickers and cattle will not serve any purpose and will not obliterate the crime gangs or trans-border crimes. For that to happen, the criminals and the infiltrators have to be prosecuted and sent to jail.

    But the police are reluctant to carry out proper investigations to prosecute the criminals and infiltrators. That is why the power to investigate and prosecute transborder crimes have to be taken away from the state police and vested in central agencies.

    The BSF, say a section of its senior ranks, can be equipped with a separate investigation and prosecuting wing. But others point out that would distract the BSF from its original mandate of acting as the first line of defence against external attacks.

    And if the BSF were to investigate and prosecute transborder crimes, it would require a lot of additional manpower and domain experts.

    The task of investigation and prosecution can also be entrusted to specific central agencies depending on the nature of the crimes. BSF officers ought to be empowered to hand over cases relating to serious crimes to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), drug cases to Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), fake currency rackets to the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), and other cases to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Customs, and other such central agencies.

    Continuing with the present arrangement of having the state police carry out sham investigations of transborder crimes defeats the BSF’s efforts in curbing such crimes. Because, whatever the BSF does — arresting criminals and infiltrators — the state police undoes.

    Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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