The Border Security Force (BSF) is the new flashpoint between the states and the Centre after the latter increased the powers of the paramilitary force in terms of arrest, search and seizure.
On Wednesday, the Minister of Home Affairs in a notification authorised the BSF to take action under the CrPC, Passport Act and Passport (Entry to India) Act. The notification added that border guarding force's powers were being extended from 15 km to 50 kilometres in the states of Punjab, Bengal and Assam.
Punjab and West Bengal immediately reacted to the news, describing it as an "irrational decision", a "direct attack on federalism" and an attempt to "interfere through Central agencies".
So what does all this mean and why is it causing such a row?
The MHA change
In a gazette notification, the ministry said it was amending an earlier notification of 2014 pertaining to the jurisdiction of the BSF to exercise its powers in states where it guards the international border.
It outlined the new jurisdiction as "whole of the area comprised in the States of Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya and Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh and so much of the area comprised within a belt of fifty kilometres in the States of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, West Bengal and Assam, running along the borders of India".
The 2014 notification had outlined the BSF's jurisdiction as "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 States of Punjab, West Bengal and Assam, running along the borders of India".
What does this mean for the BSF?
As per the modified notification, BSF personnel will be able to conduct arrests and searches in West Bengal, Punjab and Assam under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), the Passport Act, and the Passport (Entry to India) Act.
The MHA has empowered BSF personnel to carry raids and makes arrests up to an area of 50 kilometres inside Indian territory from the International Border (IB) along India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh. Earlier, this range was 15 kilometres.
The change also allows an officer of the rank corresponding to that of the lowest ranking member of the BSF, under the CrPC, to exercise and discharge the powers and duties without an order from a magistrate, and without a warrant.
The Ministry of Home Affairs, reacting to its notice, said: "The amendment effected on 11 October 2021, establishes uniformity in defining the area within which Border Security Force can operate as per its charter of duties and execution of its role and task of border guarding in its areas of deployment. This will also enable improved operational effectiveness in curbing trans-border crime."
How did states react?
The move has been slammed by the states of Punjab and Bengal, with both calling it "an attack on federalism".
Punjab chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi tweeted: "I strongly condemn the GoI's unilateral decision to give additional powers to BSF within 50 km belt running along the international borders, which is a direct attack on federalism. I urge the Union Home Minister @AmitShah to immediately rollback this irrational decision."
I strongly condemn the GoI's unilateral decision to give additional powers to BSF within 50 KM belt running along the international borders, which is a direct attack on the federalism. I urge the Union Home Minister @AmitShah to immediately rollback this irrational decision.
" Charanjit S Channi (@CHARANJITCHANNI) October 13, 2021
The deputy chief minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa also criticised the move, saying the reasons to change the existing arrangements "cannot be justified".
There are no justifiable reasons for unilaterally changing the existing arrangements by the Government of India, except to weaken the State Government and the spirit of federalism: Punjab Dy CM Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa on Centre extending BSF jurisdiction in the state (13.10) pic.twitter.com/CRV4EDrXyN
" ANI (@ANI) October 14, 2021
The Punjab deputy chief minister alleged that the decision has been taken to weaken the state government and the spirit of federalism. Further hitting out at the Centre, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa claimed that it did not consult the state governments and is therefore attempting to distort the federal structure of the Constitution.
Congress MP Manish Tewari tweeted that the Centre's decision "transgresses upon Constitutional public order and policing remit of states" and that "Half of Punjab will now fall under BSF jurisdiction".
In Bengal too, the state government reacted negatively to the news.
West Bengal transport minister and Trinamool Congress leader Firhad Hakim according to a PTI report said: "The Central Government is violating the federal structure of the country. Law and order is a state subject but the Central Government is trying to interfere through central agencies."
On Thursday, as per a PTI report, the Mamata Banerjee-led government said it was an "infringement" on the rights of the state and an attack on the federal structure of the country.
Demanding its withdrawal, the TMC claimed the decision was taken without consulting the West Bengal government.
"We oppose this decision. This is an infringement on the rights of the state. What was the sudden need to enhance the BSF's jurisdiction without informing the state government?" TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said.
"If the BSF has to conduct any search, they can always do it along with the state police. This has been the practice for years. It is an attack on the federal structure," he added.
Assam, on the other hand, welcomed the move with Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeting, "Assam welcomes extension of BSF's operational jurisdiction. In coordination with State police, this move will serve as a strong deterrent for defeating cross border smuggling and illegal infiltration. It will strengthen national security and national interest."
Assam welcomes extension of BSF's operational jurisdiction. In coordination with State police, this move will serve as a strong deterrent for defeating cross border smuggling & illegal infiltration.
" Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) October 14, 2021
Police forces wary
Many believe that the notification will lead to tiffs between the state police and the BSF. A senior police official, speaking to NDTV, said, "Their operational duties are around Border Outposts but with these new powers they would also operate well within jurisdictions of some states."
Another officer from the police, speaking to India Today said that the move would allow the BSF to make arrests at the Centre's behest.
However, the BSF says it will help in cross-border smuggling. In an Indian Express report, a senior BSF officer said: "If Punjab has the problem of drugs and arms smuggling, Assam and West Bengal pose new challenges in the form of cattle and fake currency smuggling. These borders are also prone to illegal migration. We have been getting inputs about illegal activity deep in the hinterland but our hands were tied beyond 15 km."
With inputs from agencies