Border Management: Need for Reform

Due to the proclivity of India’s neighbours to exploit the country’s nation-building difficulties, India’s internal security challenges are inextricably linked with border management. This is so because Indian insurgent groups have for long been provided shelter across the nation’s borders by inimical neighbours. The challenge of coping with long-standing territorial and boundary disputes with China and Pakistan, combined with porous borders along some of the most difficult terrain in the world, has made effective and efficient border management a national priority. However, due to the lack of understanding of such military issues among the decision-making elite, India’s borders continue to be manned by a large number of military, para-military and police forces, each of which has its own ethos and each of which reports to a different central ministry at New Delhi, with almost no real coordination in managing the borders. 
External threats to India’s territorial integrity are not the only complex border management issue that the national security decision makers need to deal with. India’s rate of growth has far outpaced that of most of its neighbours and this has generated peculiar problems like mass migrations into India. The demographic map of Lower Assam has been completely re-drawn by illegal migration from Bangladesh over several decades. Other threats and challenges have also emerged. The border security scenario is marked by increased cross-border terrorism; infiltration and ex-filtration of armed militants; emergence of non-state actors; nexus between narcotics traffickers and arms smugglers; left-wing extremism; separatist movements aided and abetted by external powers; and, the establishment of madrasas, some of which are potential security hazards.
Ideally, border management should be the responsibility of the Ministry of Home Affairs during peacetime. However, the active nature of the Line of Control (LoC) and the need to maintain troops close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in a state of readiness for operations in high altitude areas, have compelled the army to permanently deploy large forces for this task. While the BSF should be responsible for all settled borders, the responsibility for unsettled and disputed borders, such as the LoC in J&K and the LAC on the Indo-Tibetan border, should be that of the Indian Army. The principle of ‘single point control’ must be followed if the borders are to be effectively managed. Divided responsibilities never result in effective control. Despite sharing the responsibility with several para-military and police forces, the army’s commitment for border management amounts to six divisions along the LAC, the LoC and the Actual ground Position Line (AGPL) in J&K and five divisions along the LAC and the Myanmar border in the eastern sector. 

This is a massive commitment that is costly in terms of manpower as well as funds, as the deployment areas are mostly in high altitude terrain, and needs to be reduced gradually. The real payoff of a rapprochement with the Chinese would be the possibility of reducing the army’s deployment on the LAC. To some extent, the advances in surveillance technology, particularly satellite and aerial imagery, can help to maintain a constant vigil along the LAC and make it possible to reduce physical deployment as and when modern surveillance assets can be provided on a regular basis to the formations deployed forward. Similarly, the availability of a larger number of helicopter units will enhance the quality of aerial surveillance and the ability to move troops to quickly occupy defensive positions when it becomes necessary. However, these are both costly ventures and need to be viewed in the overall context of the availability of funds for modernisation. Also, rapid deployment forces will need to be kept ready for unforeseen eventualities.

The deployment patterns of CPOs are marked by ad hoc decisions and knee jerk reactions to emerging threats and challenges, rather than a cohesive long-term approach that maximises the strength of each organisation. According to Dr. G. P. Bhatnagar, a practitioner and a perceptive observer of the border management scene, the major lacunae that exist in the process include the deployment of multiple forces in the same area of operations and the lack of well articulated doctrinal concepts. He has also written that border management is designed for a ‘fire fighting’ approach rather than a ‘fire prevention’ or pro-active approach; it is based on a strategy of ‘reaction and retaliation’ rather than on a holistic response to the prevailing environment, resulting in stress and decision making problems at the functional level; it leads to wastage of energy and efforts; and, the lack of coordination and synergy between the security management organisations is harmful to the national interest.

A task force on Border Management was constituted by the Group of Ministers (GoM) formed to review the major issues pertaining to the management of national security after the Kargil conflict. It was led by Madhav Godbole, a former Home Secretary, and had made several far-reaching recommendations. It had recommended that the CRPF should be designated as the primary national level counter-insurgency force. This would enable the other CPMFs like BSF and ITBP to return to their primary role of better border management. It had also recommended that all para-military forces managing unsettled borders should operate directly under the control of the army and that there should be lateral induction from the army to the para-military forces so as to enhance their operational effectiveness. Besides these recommendations, it had suggested several perceptive measures for better inter-agency and inter-ministerial intelligence coordination. 

The task force had studied the steps needed to improve border management and had suggested measures for appropriate force structures and procedures to deal with the entry of narcotics, illegal migrants, terrorists and small arms. It had also examined measures to establish closer linkages with the border population to protect them from subversive propaganda to prevent unauthorised settlements and to initiate special developmental programmes. The recommendations of the task force were accepted by the GoM and are being implemented in phases. While some action has been taken, clearly much more needs to be done to make border management more effective. It is time the Godbole task force report on border management is de-classified and put in the public domain.

Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.