After the Nagrota encounter, retired Army officers have strongly advanced the case for placing the border guarding forces under its command

by Sanjiv Krishnan Sood
(Retired additional director general of Border Security Force)

The encounter of four suspected Jaish-e-Mohammad militants by Jammu and Kashmir Police at Nagrota on 19 November and subsequent discovery of a tunnel — supposedly used by these militants to cross over to India from Pakistan — in Samba area has once again started the debate around command and control of the border-guarding forces or the BGFs. A similar debate had erupted in May this year after the Chinese intrusion in Galwan Valley. Many retired Army officers have taken to social media to strongly advance the case for placing the BGFs under the command of the Army.

Laxity on part of the Border Security Force (BSF) is being alleged as the reason for the tunnel construction and militant intrusion. It is nobody’s case that the responsibility for such lapses should not be fixed. However, a few questions beg answers.

Intelligence Lapse?

First, the circumstances of the encounter indicate that the police had access to minute-to-minute information about the moves of the militants. It can, therefore, be concluded that the agencies knew about the existence of the tunnel and the militants using it to cross over. If that is the case, then why was the information not shared with the BSF? Had that been done, the militants could have been intercepted at the very first stage itself without the risk of them being lost in the vast countryside.

Second, keeping in view the sensitivity of the International Border (IB) in Jammu, the vigil has been increased with the deployment of the Army in the second tier — if militants breach the BSF’s first tier, they can be intercepted by the Army. What then explains the breach of this second tier of security? How is the transfer of command to the Army going to help?

Resorting to blame game and tinkering with well-established systems, therefore, should be avoided. The aim should be to identify and rectify mistakes. Instead of indulging in a turf war, we should analyse our attitude towards security of borders in general and fill gaps so that such incidents are minimised in future.

One Border One Force

The Group of Ministers (GoM) set up after the Kargil war had mandated the principles of ‘One Border One Force’ and ‘One task one Force’. As a result, the BGFs were relieved of their internal security responsibilities and deployed as per their original mandate of guarding the borders. The BSF, which primarily conducted anti-militancy operations in J&K, was relieved by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) early last decade.

However, over the years, this principle has been diluted to a great extent with BGFs being frequently withdrawn from borders and deployed for internal security and election purposes. Nowadays, every requirement of troops for internal security requires thinning of BGF troops from the border. Consequently, the vigil on the border gets heavily diluted.

One can sympathise with the government because internal security issues have cropped up in large parts of the country, necessitating heavy deployment of forces. The gravity of situation can be assessed from the fact that as many as two frontiers’ strength (over 15,000 troops) of BSF are deployed in anti-Naxal operations in central India, besides deployment for anti-infiltration duties in J&K.

The requirement of additional forces for smooth conduct of elections is understandable. However, withdrawing forces for a long duration for conduct of even minor elections like Tripura Tribal Council (TTC) or Panchayat elections in states and now for District Development Council (DDC) elections in J&K amounts to downgrading the importance of securing our borders. The forces are not only withdrawn, but continue to remain away for long durations — the 2018 Panchayat elections in Kashmir was one such instance. Large number of troops have been reportedly withdrawn even from the sensitive Jammu border for the DDC elections.

Such thinning out, coupled with other accentuating factors —general shortage of manpower (on an average each unit is said to be deficient of about 100 personnel), limited technology access, excessive attachment of soldiers with higher supervisory headquarters and commitments like annual raising day and Republic Day parade — are constant challenges that the BGFs face. Covid, this year, has taken an additional toll.

Predictability of operational methodology, too, has contributed to suboptimal vigil along India’s borders. Despite these challenges, the fact that the enemy is compelled to take tunnels and use drones, instead of adopting surface route, points towards effectiveness of domination by BSF and the fence. However, use of technology and more effective domination of areas across the fence is likely to yield better results.

The Tunnel Problem

The area in J&K where the tunnel has been detected has thick foliage spread, both on the Indian as well as Pakistani side. This makes it easy for the Pakistanis to disperse the dug earth without being detected even by a drone. The same method has been adopted in the past. The average depth at which these tunnels are dug is about 10 feet or more and, therefore, cannot be detected from the surface.

While one cannot do anything about the foliage on the Pakistani side, it is possible to manage it on one’s own side. Areas where the land belongs to private persons are clear of the foliage. It’s the government land or unused land that is the problem. The BSF neither has funds nor the implements to clear such vegetation. And why should the land lie idle? If it is government land, it can be used for some useful purpose.

Most importantly, the intelligence branch of the BSF must reorient to collect information related to border crimes, instead of deciphering the intentions and plans of other security agencies.

Secure borders are crucial to the security of the nation. Proper border guarding and management, therefore, is particularly important in context of our western borders, where Pakistan’s focus is to destabilise us by exploiting our fault lines. We must realise that border guarding/management is not a single agency function. We must concentrate on foiling all attempts to breach our borders through coordinated efforts, instead of indulging in futile debates.