Homeland Security-April 2008
India’s perilous borders make the home insecure
By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
It is a journey she has been making annually for the last three years without fear or trouble. After working as a domestic help for 11 months in Delhi she goes on a month-long break to the mountains in north Nepal. In her bag, she carries small gifts for her parents and nearly Rs 20,000 in Indian currency. Her oldest brother was first to cross the non-existent border between India and Nepal, to enter the Siliguri corridor in north Bengal nearly seven years back. He had to do it because the Maoists had come on a recruitment drive to their village. He was particularly vulnerable because one of his cousins had joined the Royal Nepal Army while a few others were in India. So, he took the bus. Over the years, his younger brothers followed suit and finally the sister. From Siliguri, the siblings fanned out to various parts of India, with one landing in far away Kerala. None understands borders and don’t even realise when one is crossed, except that at some point the bus veers towards a narrow mud road for some time before hitting the metal road again. Only sometimes are the bags checked for ‘bad stuff’, otherwise it is a smooth drive. Just as it is for several others, economic migrants, smugglers, farmers and these days even terrorists, who frequently traipse across totally disregarding India’s international borders.

Of the 15,318km of the total land border that India shares with six countries — 3,223km with Pakistan, 4,095km with Bangladesh, 1,751km with Nepal, 1,643km with Myanmar and 699km with Bhutan — porosity is something which the Indian State has come to accept as a grim reality. In addition to the borders, which are clearly delineated and demarcated, India also shares a 4,056km long military- held Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China and 742km long military-held Line of Control (LC) and the 76km Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) with Pakistan. With Bangladesh, a mere 6.5km of the border remains undemarcated and still causes much tension between the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Bangladesh Rifles (BR) from time to time.

Traditionally, porous international borders, while being a nuisance, were not a cause for great alarm till terrorism (nurtured by Pakistan) gripped Punjab. Yet, despite the Punjab experience, it was not till the beginning of this decade, in the aftermath of the Kargil was of 1999, that the government awoke to the concept of border management. The Group of Ministers which reviewed national security formed a task force on border management, which submitted its report in February 2001, suggesting several steps to enhance security and reduce violations. Chief among the recommendations of the task force which were accepted and implemented by the government was deputing one force for one border. Hence, BSF was assigned the Pakistan border, and since Bangladesh used to be a part of Pakistan once, it also fell in BSF’s charter of responsibilities. The border with China, which in its entirety is now LAC and not a border any longer, was made the responsibility of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the border with Myanmar was handed over to Assam Rifles and for Nepal, erstwhile Special Services Bureau (SSB) was reinvented and rechristened as Sashashtra Seema Bal. The borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh have been completely fenced except for certain pockets which remain as India and Bangladesh have not been able to agree on where the fence should run. While the border fencing has considerably reduced infiltration, as a senior army official says, ‘no obstacle is insurmountable,’ hence transgressions continue.

Since the US-led Global War on Terror got underway and the Indian government realised that porosity of the borders was no longer a nuisance but a national security threat, more attention was paid to ensure the sanctity of the borders. Once Pakistan was co-opted as a partner in the American war (then in Afghanistan alone), India feared spill-over effects in Kashmir. Spill-over did happen, not only in Kashmir but the rest of India as well. Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba (LeT) which started as the liberators of Kashmir, despite not having any Kashmiris in its ranks, enlarged its scope to include the presumed oppressed Muslims of India. Indian intelligence agencies claim that LeT wants to turn India into Dar-ul-Islam (land of Islam) and are using indigenous fringe bodies like Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) among others to tot up the numbers. Going beyond the traditional and well-worn routes of ingress on the LC, Pakistan’s ISI-supported terrorists (LeT, for instance) discovered new passages through Nepal and Bangladesh into India to fan out to cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Kochi to establish modules and recruit locals. Even those exiting from India, either to avoid arrest or for training in the militant camps run by the friendly neighbours find these new borders hospitable and terrain friendly. Little wonder then, delivering the 25th Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal Memorial lecture in New Delhi, India’s national security advisor, M.K. Narayanan spoke at length about the threats and challenges that India faces because of its perilous neighbourhood.

Today, most of India’s borders need not just better management but better guarding as well, for which man has to be complimented by machine, tactics by technology; in short better sensors and surveillance equipment. The complacency induced by friendly neighbourhood has been replaced by the urgency caused by instability in the north and western borders of Pakistan; Nepal, especially the Terai area that borders the state of Bihar in India and is ironically fertile for both the Maoists as well as ISI-sponsored terrorists; and Bangladesh, where elements inimical to India, including a number of terrorist Islamic parties have been gaining ground. These changing dynamics have also influenced the nature of insurgent groups in the Northeast (ULFA, NSCN and so on), who have now found friends in Bangladesh, after Bhutanese government threw them out. The fact that India can no longer be confident of cooperation by its neighbours in fighting the menace of these inimical groups, guarding the border, making it as impregnable for the undesirable elements as possible becomes very important.

In addition to these new challenges are the old ones. India falls in between the two major narcotic routes, the Golden Triangle in the east, comprising Thailand, Laos and Myanmar and the Golden Crescent in the west which links Afghanistan and Central Asia to Europe. The volatile land border aside, India has a 5,422km vast coastline in addition to two island territories, Andaman and Nicobar in the east and Lakshadweep in the west which add another 2,094km to the Indian coastline.

The FORCE cover story focuses on the challenges India faces on these borders, both land and sea. Our expanse covers the BSF and the SSB which guard the three most perilous borders. The section on Indian Coast Guard focuses on coastal security. Since border management is one of the most important aspect of homeland security, to complete the picture we have a section on the Central Reserve Police Force, who has been designated as the primary Central force for counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. We have deliberately not included the LC and the LAC because these military-held lines have dynamics of their own. For this reason, even the armed forces have been left out, because homeland security in India is essentially the responsibility of the border and the police forces.
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