Uproar in West Bengal against extending BSF jurisdiction

Print edition : December 17, 2021

BSF personnel patrolling the international border in West Bengal's Malda district. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

Education Minister Partha Chatterjee. Photo: PTI

Suvendu Adhikari, the Leader of the Opposition. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on November 24, 2021. Photo: PTI

The ruling Trinamool Congress and non-BJP opposition parties in West Bengal condemn the Centre’s decision to increase the BSF’s jurisdiction in the State to 50 km from the international border.

A recent notification by the Union Home Ministry extending the territorial jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF) from 15 kilometres to 50 km from the international border in West Bengal (and some other States) has triggered a political uproar in the State. Not only has the State Assembly passed a resolution demanding the withdrawal of the notification, all non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parties, including the ruling Trinamool Congress, the Left parties and the Congress, have strongly condemned the Centre’s move.

The BJP, on the other hand, has welcomed the notification, leading to a fresh round of jousting between the two main political adversaries in the State: the Trinamool and the BJP. Of the 4,142–km-long border that India shares with Bangladesh, West Bengal alone accounts for 2,217 km.

On October 11, the Centre issued three separate notifications under the Criminal Procedure Code (1973), the Passport (Entry into India) Act (1920), and the Passport Act (1967), extending the BSF’s jurisdiction in West Bengal, Assam, and Punjab up to 50 km from the international border from the existing 15 km. In the case of Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, and Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, the BSF’s jurisdiction will cover the entire State or Union Territory.

The non-BJP parties said the notifications were against the basic tenets of federalism and yet another example of the Centre’s blatant interference in the functioning of State governments.

Resolution

On November 16, the West Bengal Legislative Assembly passed a resolution under Rule 169, demanding the withdrawal of the Centre’s notification. The resolution, moved by Partha Chatterjee, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, stated: “This Assembly believes that in the context of law and order, which is under the State government, the increase of the BSF’s jurisdiction goes against the principles of federalism and falls outside the purview of the BSF Act. This Assembly believes that the notification will hamper cooperation between the State police and the BSF, and the BSF will impinge upon the authority of the State police.”

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee even personally urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to withdraw the notification when she met him in New Delhi on November 24. She told mediapersons that in her meeting with Modi she had said that the federal structure was very important in our country and “we have to keep it strong”.

She added: “Giving the BSF greater powers leads to confrontation with the State’s law and order…. A few days ago three poor people died in BSF firing in Cooch Behar district. Earlier too there have been many deaths [as a result of BSF firing] in Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur, Malda, Murshidabad, Cooch Behar, and Uttar 24 Parganas…. We are willing to extend whatever support necessary to the BSF, but the federal structure in the country should not be unnecessarily disturbed.”

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Non-BJP opposition parties in West Bengal too expressed concern with the Centre’s move. Before the resolution was passed in the Assembly, both the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the Congress wrote to Mamata Banerjee requesting her to take up the issue with the Centre. In a letter to the Chief Minister, the Left Front Committee pointed out that it was standard procedure for the Centre to consult the State government concerned before taking such decisions. It said: “The Centre cannot disregard federal provisions in this manner.”

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha and president of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee, drew Mamata Banerjee’s attention to the Punjab Assembly, which had already passed a resolution against the Centre’s move. In a letter to Mamata Banerjee, he said: “I appeal to you to pass a resolution in the West Bengal Assembly against this move by the Centre as has been done in the Punjab Assembly. It will be a strong message from the people of West Bengal to the Centre....” While moving the resolution, Partha Chatterjee said: “The BSF will have control over 32,400 square km of West Bengal’s 88,752 sq. km area. It is a ploy to usurp power through the back door.”

The BJP, on the other hand, not only welcomed the Centre’s move but also suggested that the BSF’s jurisdiction be extended up to 80 km from the international border.

The BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari, who is the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, alleged that terrorist organsations were mushrooming all over the State. After the resolution was passed, a bitter war of words followed between the Trinamool and the BJP members when Udayan Guha, the Trinamool legislator representing Cooch Behar, accused the BSF of physical harassment of women.

Guha said: “BSF personnel touch women inappropriately under the pretext of conducting searches. A child watching his or her mother suffer cannot grow up to be patriotic, no matter how shrill your ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ slogan is.” This sparked angry reactions from the BJP MLAs.

Partha Chatterjee pointed out that the allegation was not against the entire BSF, but nevertheless there have been allegations against the force from different parts of the State. He said: “Our point is: when it was not successful when its jurisdiction was within 15 km, how can it be successful when the jurisdiction is 50 km? Illegal activities should take place within 15 km of the border itself. This is nothing more than an attack on the rights of the State, and on the work of the State police. It is an attempt to destroy the federal fabric of the nation so that the Centre can have its way in the State.”

The protest also found echoes in the intellectual circles in the State. Noted film-maker Aparna Sen said: “A militarisation process is on. The Union government is increasing the strength of the BSF, as if it was not enough… those who are killing and raping.”

BJP leader Anirban Ganguly reacted by sending her a legal notice. He said on Twitter: “I have issued a notice through my lawyer to Aparna Sen asking her to issue an unconditional apology for terming the BSF a force which indulges in “rape” and “murder”. Her behaviour is obnoxious, toxic, vicious and disgusting. She speaks the language of India’s enemies.”

The BSF has denied allegations of harassment made by Trinamool representatives, and has tried to allay fears of interference in the State’s affairs.

BSF response

Speaking to mediapersons a day after the resolution in the Assembly was passed, Y.B. Khurania, Additional Director General, BSF (Eastern Command), said: “There is some apprehension that the BSF will now start interfering with the law and order machinery in the State now that the jurisdiction has been extended up to 50 km. I would like to clarify that the BSF has no power of investigation. We do not have the power to register FIR [first information report]. Whatever search, seizure or arrest that we make is handed over to the law enforcement agencies concerned, which include the State police.”

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He added: “Even after the notifications, the situation remains the same; only the area has been extended from 15 km to 50 km…. The notifications do not confer any additional power to the BSF, so the apprehension as reported in certain media is unfounded. We will continue to function in complete synergy with the State police and other law enforcement agencies.”

Khurania maintained that the BSF enjoyed a “very comfortable relationship” with the State police and other law enforcement agencies at all levels. He said: “From time to time we interact and share intelligence and information; at times we also conduct joint operations both at the border and in the hinterland.”

He denied the allegation that BSF jawans were “inappropriately touching women”, saying: “We have about 4,000 women personnel deployed in the Eastern Command….In a number of locations CCTVs have been installed, and we are in the process of installing CCTV cameras in all the points. It is unfortunate that such allegations are made.”

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