Internal affairs, external threat

Terrorists, criminals take advantage of disturbed relations for their nefarious activities

Smruti Deshpande

India has a total land border of 15,106.70 km, comprising snow-capped mountains, deserts, hills and plains which it shares with six countries: China, Pakistan, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh. This includes the 3,488 km line of actual control with China (China insists that the length is only 2,000 km as it does not recognise the border in Ladakh) and the 776 km line of control with Pakistan.

The peculiarity of India’s land border is that most of it is man-made. Some of it is even not adequately demarcated, making it vague and open to divergent interpretation and resulting in clashes. So while India’s geographical location has benefitted the country immensely, allowing it to forge cultural and commercial ties with the rest of the world, it also poses a security challenge, making it imperative for the security forces to maintain a constant vigil on the border.

Besides the unclear demarcation of the border in some sectors, sometimes an internal development in a country or political turmoil in the neighbourhood has sparked tension along the border. For instance in 2020, after India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a road traversing through Lipulekh to Manas Khand, a gateway to Mansarovar, Nepal’s political leadership was up in arms as their country disputes India’s claims over Lipulekh. There were even widespread protests in Nepal, leading to border tension and a massive anti-India sentiment in the Himalayan nation. Relations between the two countries were at their lowest ebb and the tension has refused to die down even to this day.

A few months after the road inauguration and the resultant turmoil, the Nepal Police fired at three Indians when they crossed over to the other side from Uttar Pradesh’s Pilibhit, killing one of them. While this was not directly linked to the tension between the two countries, a gunshot being fired at the India-Nepal border was unheard of until then.

Border guarding and border management are therefore of paramount importance. While border guarding entails maintaining a constant vigil, border management requires striking a balance between the use of force while exercising control and taking measures to maintain a good relationship with border residents as well as security forces across the border. This makes border guarding a multifaceted task for the security forces.


Border Challenges

Every Indian border poses a unique challenge. While illegal immigration is the primary issue along the India-Nepal border, there have been instances of militants trying to enter India from Nepal taking advantage of the porous border. The India-Nepal border also facilitates the illegal exchange of contraband, leather jackets and other day to day goods. This challenge hit its peak during the alleged blockade of Nepal by India in 2015, when even petrol from India was being smuggled. Liquor smuggling is another facet, particularly along the border in Bihar because of that state’s prohibition policy.

Although the terrain along the 699 km Indo-Bhutan border that passes through Assam, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim is mountainous and difficult to breach, there have been instances of militant infiltration. This was a regular feature in the eighties and nineties when ULFA militants had turned Bhutan into a haven.

At the border with Bangladesh, cattle smuggling is the biggest issue. Experts believe that the criminal networks also smuggle in contraband and fake Indian currency notes, among other things.

The India-Pakistan border, known for its tensions, sees militant infiltration. Along this border, especially in Punjab, drug smuggling is rampant. At this border and in the Northeast there is periodic smuggling of arms and ammunition.


State Support

Sameer Patil, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, says militant infiltration and smuggling of contraband are common between India’s borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan. At the Pakistan border the situation is more acute because of the state support the militants and criminals enjoy.

While these challenges are prevalent at the Nepal and Bangladesh border as well, Patil feels it is in the interest of the governments of these countries to maintain good relations with India because of which the smugglers do not enjoy state support. On the contrary, Nepal and Bangladesh try to ensure that such incidents do not go out of hand. “In Pakistan the situation is the exact opposite. The state apparatus at the border has an interest in ensuring that relations with India do not remain stable,” says Patil.

India’s border with Myanmar garners the least attention but the smuggling of contraband and drugs is the worst kept secret there. Smuggling of arms and ammunition is almost non-existent now after China stopped aiding and abetting Northeast insurgents.

“On the India-Nepal border, it is difficult to see what exactly is being transported as the smugglers know how to find loopholes, which is why they have been continuing with their nefarious activities even after the security forces upped their technical and human vigil. The network of the smugglers is vast and spans across jurisdictions,” according to Patil.


Bribe and Enter

Speaking about the limited research on corruption among security forces, Patil says: “In trying to counter the smuggling on the India-Pakistan border, the Border Security Force is at a serious disadvantage because of insufficient trained manpower, inadequate funding and insufficient electricity supply to keep its hi-tech equipment running.”

In addition, elements in the security forces are involved in drug smuggling. Data from the ministry of home affairs shows that in 2014-2016, 68 personnel of the Punjab Police, the state jail and home guards departments, BSF, Railway Protection Force and the Chandigarh Police were arrested for drug smuggling. In 2020, an army jawan and three others were arrested in a cross-border arms and drugs smuggling case in which a BSF personnel and his accomplices were arrested by the police in Jalandhar. Those involved in the racket had links to Pakistani drug smugglers and have received Rs 39 lakh as drug proceeds from them.

But the challenge is not limited to smuggling. There have been instances when militants have bribed security forces personnel to enter Indian territory. A former intelligence official narrated an incident about his agency keeping track of a militant who was trying to cross into India from Bangladesh. Efforts by the security personnel were in place to stop him from entering India. While still at the Bangladesh border, the militant went off the radar and the agency lost track of him as his mobile phone with a Bangladeshi number had been switched off. But after nearly 15 days, the agency again managed to track the militant, who was by then using an Indian number on the Indian side. The intelligence agencies eavesdropping on the militant heard him telling his associates that he had been in India for the past 15 days. After he was nabbed, the militant revealed he had paid a BSF personnel to enter India.


Current Situation

Each border is unique, but the nature of the challenges intersects. Given this, the MHA in its annual report in 2020-2021 gave a list of measures that it has been employing to tackle these challenges.

India-Bangladesh Border: Each border outpost (BOP) is provided with the necessary infrastructure for accommodation, logistical support and combat functions. At present, 1,069 BOPs are held by the BSF along the India-Bangladesh Border (IBB). The government approved a proposal for the construction of 422 composite BOPs at an estimated cost of Rs 2,584.85 crore in 2020. Out of these, 326 are to be constructed along the IBB.

In order to curb infiltration, smuggling and other anti-national activities, the government has started the construction of fencing along the border. In the report, the MHA stated that the non-physical barrier will comprise technological solutions. Sanction has also been given to replace the old fence with a new one. There have been some problems in the construction of fencing in certain stretches because of riverine/low lying areas, habitation within 150 yards of the border, pending land acquisition cases and protests by the border population, which have delayed the completion of the project.

Border roads have been constructed for better communication and operational mobility in the border areas. So far, 3,733.90 km of roads have been constructed out of the sanctioned length of 4,223.04 km. Floodlighting the border is another measure that the MHA has sanctioned.

The minister of state for home affairs Nityanand Rai had announced in the Lok Sabha in August 2021 that about 76 per cent of the Indo-Bangla border was fenced. “Some illegal migrants are still able to enter in a clandestine and surreptitious manner, mainly due to difficult riverine terrain in parts of the international border with Bangladesh which is not amenable to physical fencing,” the minister said. As per the ministry’s figures, nearly 3,141 km of the India-Bangladesh border has been fenced out of the total 4,096.70 km.

Of the 2,216.70 km India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal, 1,638 km has been fenced followed by 210 km out of 263 km in Assam, 326 km out of 443 km in Meghalaya, 155 km out of 318 km in Mizoram, and 812 km out of 856 km in Tripura.

A report in The New Indian Express stated that gadgets worth Rs 86 crore remained unused, creating a void along the Bangladesh border in Assam in the riverine stretch. The report stated: “A DIG from the BSF’s Eastern Frontier shot off letters last year to his superiors in Delhi as well as the Central Information Commissioner, bringing to their notice that sub-standard equipment was also procured.”

For the BSF deployed along the Bangladesh and Pakistan borders, there are several challenges. A BSF spokesperson told the FORCE that apart from cattle smuggling, habitation up to the zero-line; villages located ahead of the IBB fence, ethnic affinity of the population on both sides of the border, riverine areas and fence gaps, jungle and hilly terrain in the Northeast, and unemployment in the border areas have hampered foolproof guarding of the borders. He said the judicious compliance of India Bangladesh border agreements would enhance the already good relations between the two countries and make the borders safe and secure.

The spokesperson said the latest trends in border guarding and management include “vulnerability mapping of the entire border for effective domination, countering the drone threat, which is emerging as a great challenge as they are used for smuggling arms, ammunition and drugs, the use of technologies as force multipliers, and coordination with various organisations/sister agencies for the sharing of intelligence.”

Vulnerability mapping has helped the BSF strengthen the weak patches on the border through the deployment of additional special surveillance equipment and vehicles. Effective domination of the borders is maintained through round-the-clock patrolling and nakas, the construction of observation posts, erection of border fencing with flood lights, and the use of watercraft/ boats and floating BOPs in the riverine area.

India-Pakistan Border: This border is characterised by the infiltration attempts of terrorists and the smuggling of arms, ammunition and contraband. A total of 720 BOPs have been sanctioned along the Indo-Pakistan border, out of which 662 BOPs have been completed. The ongoing work in 28 BOPs is likely to be completed in 2022. Additional sites are being identified for the remaining 30 BOPs.

In order to curb attempts of infiltration and cross-border crimes, the government has cleared the installation of floodlights in 2,078.80 km. Out of this, 2,043.76 km has been completed and the remaining 35.04 km work is in progress, which is likely to be completed by September 2023. The government has also sanctioned 2,091.04 km of fencing, out of which 2,064.66 km has been completed and work is in progress in the remaining 26.38 km, which is likely to be completed by October 2022.

The Comprehensive Integrated Border Management System is an integration of manpower, sensors, networks, intelligence and command control solutions to improve situational awareness at different levels of hierarchy to facilitate prompt and quick response to emerging situations. “Two pilot projects in stretches of 5 km each have been implemented in Jammu along the border and one project of 61 km in Dhubri, Assam, is in the final stage of completion,” the MHA’s annual report states.

With the ceasefire in place for more than a year now, the BSF spokesperson said the “farmers are allowed to go beyond the fences for cultivation as per the records of their land holding.” He added that the situation on the Indo-Pak border has been by and large peaceful. Outlining the challenges at this border, he said in Jammu and Kashmir it was cross border firing, sniping, BAT action, shelling and infiltration attempts by terrorists. In the Jammu region and Punjab the BSF has to deal with armed infiltration using water channels/ gaps, tunnelling, smuggling of arms, ammunition and narcotics, the emerging threat of UAVs/ drones, hindrance to observation because of Sarkanda/ foliage/ crops, and the cultivation of crops up to the zero line. In Gujarat, manning the sensitive Sir Creek and the Rann areas is a challenge because of the difficult terrain and vulnerable patches.

India-Nepal Border: The government has approved the construction/ upgradation of 1,299.80 km of roads along the border in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.


Border Development

The MHA’s annual report states that the aim of the Border Area Development Plan is to meet special 29 developmental needs and to improve the well-being of the people living in remote and inaccessible areas situated near the international borders and to provide essential infrastructure through the convergence of the central/state/UT/BADP/local schemes. The programme covers 449 border blocks in 117 border districts of 16 states and two UTs.

In Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and J&K, the centre’s share of the BADP funding is 90 per cent with the states pooling in the remaining 10 per cent. In Bihar, Gujarat, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, the ratio is 60:40. In the case of Ladakh, the Centre’s share is 100 per cent. Funds under the BADP are provided to the states/ UTs for execution of projects relating to infrastructure, livelihood, education, health, agriculture and allied sectors. In 2020-21, the fund available for the BADP was Rs 64.32 crore, including Rs 35 lakh for administrative expenditure.

It is clear that guarding the border poses huge challenges. India’s international borders may seem stable, but multiple threats remain. The government’s task is cut out as it must ensure that diplomatic and political issues do not spill over to the borders, adding to the already complex task of keeping the borders safe. Citing the Nepal blockade in 2015, a former paramilitary officer said the security forces were under strain because of the restiveness among the border population. He said India’s political leadership should have tackled the K P Sharma Oli government more sensitively. Terrorists and criminal elements always take advantage of poor relations between countries to carry out their nefarious activities.


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