What makes West Bengal worry about new BSF notification?

Twitter: BSF

The Ministry of Home Affairs on 11 October 2021 announced that the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF) would be extended up to a 50 km stretch from the International Border in Punjab, West Bengal and Assam.

By virtue of this new order, BSF can now conduct search, seizure and arrest up to 50 km which was previously 15 km in the above-mentioned states. On the other hand, the limitation in Gujarat is reduced from 80 to 50 km.

The decision has been taken to “improve operational efficiency” and “crackdown on smuggling rackets’’— officials told The Indian Express. 

West Bengal and Punjab have slammed this notification saying that it threatens the authority of the state and automatically puts our federal setup at risk.

For Bengal, 10 out of 23 districts of the state share a border with Bangladesh, thus enabling one-third of West Bengal to fall under the new jurisdiction.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has issued a letter to the Prime Minister demanding the withdrawal of the order, stating “The State Police is well equipped and is better placed than the BSF to promptly respond to any situation in the areas affected by the Notification.”

“In the garb of extending BSF jurisdiction, people are to be tortured,” she claimed.

What makes it controversial?

This resolution taken unilaterally by the Union modifies the 2014 notification on BSF jurisdiction, that states, “the 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 State of Punjab, West Bengal and Assam, running along the borders of India”.

The new notification justifies the paranoia among non-BJP ruled states considering the arbitrary inference of the central government using national agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation(CBI) or Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), National Investigation Agency (NIA) etc, to overrule the power of the states. 

Narendra Modi as the Chief Minister of Gujarat back in 2012 against the then Central Government’s move to expand the BSF area of operation, claiming that it was an “attempt to create a state within a state”. 

Having the largest border with Bangladesh, it is inevitable that West Bengal would be prominently affected by this new BSF notification.

“Pretty much everything that was under state authority, will come under BSF. Orders like these compromise the system of checks and balance in our federal set-up,” Dr Mohammad Reyaz, a political observer says to Maktoob.

Border Security Forces on 14 October welcomed this decision by releasing an official statement claiming that this move will bring uniformity in their operation.

Political move

Most of North Bengal coming within the new expansion is consequential for BJP. Following its noticeable performance in the region, there have been several demands for a separate state of North Bengal. 

BJP has been eyeing this region to be its new political hotbed as it is evident in the June cabinet reshuffle where two MPs — John Barla and Nisith Pramanik — from the Northern part of the state were upgraded as ministers out of the four MPs of the state.

Following this, in September the party-appointed Sukanta Majumdar an MP from Balurghat, a city in Dakshin Dinajpur as the party president for West Bengal, replacing Dilip Ghosh. 

The right-wing bloc says the step has been taken in the backdrop of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and increasing Chinese aggression.

The gazette notification states that the expansion of the jurisdiction of BSF is only with the powers it enjoys under the Criminal Procedural Code (CrPC), Passport (Entry into India) Act 1920 and the Passport Act, 1967. This means that BSF’s power to search, seize and arrest under Arms Act, Customs Act and NDPS Act has remained unchanged.

The notification allows security personnel to search, seize and arrest under the Criminal Procedural Code (CrPC), Passport (Entry into India) Act 1920 and the Passport Act, 1967 which leaves the power of investigation into the hands of the local police, for which the accused has to be handed over to them.

“BSF should carry out their operations in coordination with the local police, otherwise they will just come and arrest anyone,” Dr Reyaz added. 

Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi has announced that they plan on writing to the Centre to pull back the new BSF expansion. Assam governed by BJP welcomed the move.

Cases of human rights abuse

Recently, the Sitalkuchi firing incident by CrPF, killing 4 Muslims during the fourth phase of West Bengal polls in April had created discontent about Indian military forces in the border districts.

BSF has similar track records with crimes ranging from illegal arrest to custodial torture. Locals describe BSF officers to be “unsympathetic, aggressive and violent” according to Human Rights Watch report in 2010. 

The rights body back in February of this year once again urged the Indian Government to probe into the alleged cases of human rights violation by BSF.  In a press release, Human Rights Watch South Asian Director Meenakshi Ganguly has stated that border forces have failed to “exercise restraint” despite orders from the Government.

“The Indian government must abide by United Nations basic principles on the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials,” HRW states in its report. However, atrocities and abuse have continued to take place in borderland areas, according to Indian and Bangladeshi NGOs.

According to Odhikar, a Bangladeshi organization, 336 Bangladeshis were killed by BSF in the last 10 years.

Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), an Indian NGO, says a total of 105 killings, but actual numbers can be much more.

Speaking to Maktoob, Kirity Roy, head of MASUM and a civil rights activist said, “The populace residing in the border area is mainly Muslim OBC, Hindu Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe, who have been tortured in the last 10 years by the hand of BSF”.

“Full jurisdiction over districts such as Malda and Murshidabad that predominantly has Muslim demography, put them under threat,” Reyaz told Maktoob. “There also have been allegations against BSF officers in West Bengal getting bribed for cattle smuggling and arbitrarily firing at people trying to cross the border.”

The new notification threatens to supplant local police, which is bound to result in a surge of cases of abuse.

BSF has allayed apprehensions about probable conflicts with West Bengal police and said the concern stemmed from a “shallow understanding” of laws.

“Apprehensions of interference are uncalled for. Powers given to the BSF are very limited,” Additional Director General of the force, Y B Khurania said.

“Even now when we conduct raids, we inform the state police and are also accompanied by them,” he told PTI.

Medha Ghosh is a journalist based in West Bengal.