With more jobs and less numbers, the ITBP is walking a tightrope
Two unique features of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force (ITBP) set it apart form the other paramilitary forces, First with strength of 30,000 personnel. It is the smallest guarding force responsible for the longest disputed India-China border. Unlike the 745km line of Control with Pakistan, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China is 4,056km long and is neither delimited nor demarcated, implying that it is not mutually agreed on ground or maps. And second, all ITBP posts on the border are at heights ranging form 10,000 feet to 21,000 feet. For this reason, ITBP personnel are good mountaineers and excel in skiing, which is much more than adventure for them. In the absence of air evacuation of casualties, ITBP personnel are trained to employ skiing skills in emergencies.
High altitude posts have their downside as well, for example in the least disputed Middle Sector that runs though the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal, whose maps have been exchanged between India and China, the ITBP has three battalions, namely 5,11 and 19 guarding the 554km LAC which has 12 mountain passes, each one of which has been traditionally used for trade and social inter-relationship. “Unlike army personnel who do a maximum of three-month stint in Siachen before being rotated to lower altitudes, it is normal for ITBP men to spend up to sex months in high altitude area posts. For this reason, the winter stocking for posts is done for a period of six months,” says R.C. Baijwan, commandant, 19th Battalion at Joshimath. This has placed an added burden on the force to seek tasks in the plain areas to provide relief for men from continuous high altitude stints. “I will do my tasks in the high altitude areas. But I also want postings in the plains as will.” Says the director general, ITBP, Kanwal Jit Singh.
Following the Group of Ministers (GoM) recommendations announced in February 2001, there was ample hope within the ITBP, while accepting the recommendations of the Task Force on Border Management that was set up after the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan, the government through the GoM report announced the acceptance of the principle of ‘One-Border-One-Force’.
This meant that the entire border with China would now be the responsibility of the ITBP as against the present dispositions where the Assam Rifles were attending to Sikkim and the Eastern sector. While the Assam Rifles have been replaced by the ITBP, a key recommendation of the Task Force was ignored: the Special Service Bureau (SSB) with an effective strength of 30,000 personnel was to be disbanded and merged with the ITBP, instead the SSB has been renamed as Sashastra Seema Bal (armed border force) and given the responsibilities of the borders with Bhutan and Nepal. For the new tasks, the SSB will raise new battalions. This has resulted in a dual problem for the ITBP, on the one hand, there will be no increase in the ITBP numbers, and on the other, the ITBP has many more high altitude posts to guard in Arunachal Pradesh “Earlier the highest ITBP post was at 20,000 feet in the Western sector in Ladakh, now we have a higher post in Arunachal Pradesh,” says Singh. While the ITBP has maintained a stoic and even a fatalistic attitude on the issue that has operational and morale implications, an exposition of the difficulties facing the force is needed.
To begin with, the ITBP has been forced to make virtue out of necessity. It runs National Disaster Management centres, one each in Noida and Chandigarh, it is the nodal agency for training United Nations Civil Police officers, it imparts specialised training in commando and judo-karate to all paramilitary forces, and even certain police forces and Special Forces (Garud ) of the Indian Air Force, it guards select VVIPs, provides road opening parties for the Jawahar tunnel between Jammu and the Valley in J&K and gives security to Indian mission in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. In addition to these low altitude postings, the force can rotate its troops amongst its four specialised battalions dealing in telecom, transport, area weapons and services supplies, and the five sector headquarters (equivalent to the army’s brigade headquarters) located in towns and cities. With so many low-altitude tasks, it is indeed ironic that this small force is compelled to seek more jobs in the plains. It is axiomatic that all these multifarious tasking would have an effect on the primary role of the ITBP which is done by its mere 25 service battalions, each of which is over-stretched on the ground. While it does not seem to bother it too much, the big question is whether the ITBP does policing or border guarding?
The unambiguous answer should be border guarding for a variety of reasons. One, the border is unsettled and undefined. Two, the Chinese have drastically improved their border management in terms of infrastructure up to their perception of the LAC. Three, since 2000, the PLA has been indulging in aggressive patrolling, a euphemism for nibbling of Indian territory especially in the Western sector. Four, unlike the ITBP, Chinese Border Defence Regiments (BDR) are better equipped and trained, and are under the operational command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Five, since 1989, China has created People’s Armed Police which are a lightly armed paramilitary force meant for the dual tasks of dealing with ‘splittists’ activities in Tibet and a limited guarding role on the border, both under the PLA. Sixth the PLA has laid special emphasis on Rapid Reaction Forces culled for regular forces and BDR. And lastly, the PLA has capability to air transport a division (12,000) worth of troops, to air drop a brigade (3,500) at a time, and to move a battalion (1,200) of regular troops by helicopters (FORCE, volume 1 No. 12 August 2004) anywhere in Tibet.
Mindful of the Chinese developments, the Task Force on Border Management had recommended a guarding role for the ITBP. It was argued that until both India and China agree on the LAC, the ITBP should be placed under the operational control of the army. Once the LAC was mutually agreed, the ITBP units on the border could revert to control by the home ministry.
Experience, especially in the aftermath of the 1999 Kargil war, had shown that it was both necessary to patrol all areas up to Indian perception of the LAC, and to ensure that army’s rapid reaction force is available in real time to thwart any Chinese BDR designs. It was found that during times of little activity, it was found that during times of little activity, it was fine for the ITBP to have mere coordination with the army, but considering the increased Chinese activities, it was difficult to distinguish between peacetime and wartime. It was also recommended that weapons and equipment of the ITBP and its training be upgraded to the level of the army’s infantry battalion, and the name of the ITBP force be changed to Indo-Tibetan Border Force.
The ITBP, however, has a point to make: if bulk of the ITBP which is deployed on the border is to be controlled and trained by the army, then why not have the army instead on the border? The ITBP has a different charter of duties than the army, which is a mix of policing and guarding duties. The ITBP sends out short (four to six days) and ling (10 to 14 days) range patrols regularly, and in the Middle Sector which is the most tranquil one, it does four joint patrols with the army in a year. “This, plus regular interaction with the army ensures that we understand each other’s roles and requirements. “says an ITBP officer. Even as the ongoing tussle between the army and the paramilitary force is unavoidable, the ITBP can certainly do with a lot more assets to fulfil its roles and missions. It needs more manpower to cater for adequate rest and relief, which at present it balances with additional tasks in low altitude areas. IT also needs a dedicated air wings as many of its posts In the Western and Eastern sectors are maintained by air According to the DG, the proposal for an air wing, which basically means medium lift and surveillance helicopters awaits clearance from the home ministry.
While the border with China remains cold, the relations may hot up