In his column earlier this month, ThePrint’s national security editor Praveen Swami argued that the deaths of cattle smugglers along the India-Bangladesh border adversely impact our relations with the country. His conclusion is unexceptionable.
The recommendation that the Union government must do much more to minimise such casualties, including legalising the cattle trade with our eastern neighbour, is also logical as it will benefit both our economies and also tackle the problem of stray cattle.
However, what does not stand scrutiny is the implied conclusion that the Border Security Force is a trigger-happy force.
The mandated role of BSF, founded in 1965, is to promote a sense of security amongst the border population while preventing trans-border crimes and prevent smuggling. It also has an important wartime role to assist the defence forces in their effort.
The cattle smugglers – both Indian and Bangladeshi — try to push cattle across, mainly at night, in large numbers. The cattle from India is a chief source of protein, and also the mainstay of the leather industry of Bangladesh. Its smuggling is allegedly actively promoted by the country’s border authorities and politicians.
After crossing over, the cattle smugglers reportedly pay a certain fixed amount to the nearest post of the Bangladesh Border Guards (BGB) after which they are allowed to move into the interiors.
When I was commanding the North Bengal frontier of BSF, the open signal communications of the Bangladesh Border Guards were a useful tool for me.
I would compare the number of cattle reporting to the outposts of the BGB and the number seized by my troops. It helped me to hold my unit and section commanders accountable.
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Context is necessary
Statistics quoted by Swami regarding the deaths of cattle smugglers (although highly exaggerated) paint a gloomy picture, however, one needs to put it in perspective. BSF personnel have also been injured and killed when trying to prevent smuggling. As many as 439 BSF personnel have been injured and eight killed by cattle smugglers from 2017 to 2022. It is a sign of the aggression by these smugglers.
No other law enforcement agency along the 2,000 km route in northern India intercepts the smugglers before they reach the border. It falls on the shoulders of the BSF. Three to four persons of the BSF patrol are responsible for a stretch of 1-1.5 km of the border.
If one spends some time with these BSF patrols — especially at night — one will be confronted with a situation where hundreds of cattle smugglers with sharp-edged weapons and even guns rush towards them, pushing thousands of cattle in an attempt to cross over through fence gaps and riverine areas.
It would therefore be patently unfair to dub the BSF soldiers and the entire force as trigger-happy and not to expect them to exercise their right to self-defence in such life-threatening situations.
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Collaboration has helped
It is not that BSF doesn’t realise the ill effects of violence on our relations with Bangladesh, and the concomitant bad optics that it creates for the force. Several steps have therefore been taken to address the issue.
At a bilateral level, the DG BSF and DG BGB signed a Coordinated Border Management Plan (CBMP) in 2011 for more effective control of cross-border crimes and maintenance of peace. Steps like Simultaneous Coordinated Patrols, intelligence sharing, identifying vulnerable areas and better interaction at all levels have been taken under the CBMP.
This has led to better coordination between the two forces and proactive action by the BGB as they advise Bangladeshi nationals to stay away from border areas at night. Intelligence sharing and periodic review of sensitive areas have allowed us to revise deployment patterns of patrols and ambushes to intercept criminals as they are committing the crime.
Independently, the BSF implemented ‘Non-Lethal or rather less-lethal Strategy’ early last decade. The first step in this strategy was the introduction of Pump Action Guns (PAGs) in place of normal infantry weapons.
Troops are briefed to fire from a distance and aim at the lower limbs of criminals thus reducing the chances of fatal injury. Resultant injuries immobilise the criminals for a few days and if properly pursued by intelligence agencies they can also be identified from the places where they seek medical attention.
BSF troops are also using stun grenades and chilli grenades to immobilise the criminals and help apprehend them. However, even the use of PAGs may at times cause fatal injuries because of aggressive attacks by criminals under the cover of darkness.
The above steps combined with suitable modification in training will further empower the troops. The commander-on-spot must however retain the initiative to decide the quantum and type of force to use.
An order to avoid confrontation with cattle smugglers was once issued sometime in 2011 or so by the Eastern Command of BSF. Such orders however are impractical and fraught with dangerous implications. Using it as cover, the troops could have even connived with the smugglers.
But it is beyond doubt that border areas cannot continue to witness perpetual violence. The government and law enforcement agencies have to come together to stop this.
Legalising cattle trade is the first step along with addressing the issue of extreme poverty and lack of infrastructure in border areas. The skillset of border residents also needs to be enhanced to make them employable and thus wean them away from crime. The reach and spread of BSF can be used to great effect in achieving this aim.
Sanjiv Krishan Sood is a retired additional director general of Border Security Force. He tweets @sood_2. Views are personal.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)