By Sunil Raman
• The sarpanch or headman of a village close to Pathankot airbase told TV channels that Punjab Police never told them that there were armed terrorists moving around undetected in the area for 48 hours after Gurdaspur SP reported of an attack on him.
• Villagers hold protest to demand that police take killing of an Innova vehicle driver seriously and register a case of terrorist attack and not term it a case of regular criminal offence.
• Punjab Police blames BSF for not checking infiltration across the international border.
• Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal says BSF responsible, offers to make Punjab Police second line of defence.
Little has changed in the basic narrative since July 2015 when terrorists from Pakistan were captured on CCTV camera walking confidently through a street of Gurdaspur. Then too, the Punjab chief minister and the government washed off their hands and put the blame on BSP personnel for not having stopped infiltration at the border.
Between July and December the blame game continued and today, several Indian security personnel including a Lt Colonel have been killed as a result of the attack on Pathankot airbase.
The length of the International Border in Punjab is 553 km, with some stretches running through riverine areas along the banks of the Sutlej and Ravi that cannot be fenced and, hence, remain susceptible to infiltration. Only a 461-km stretch of this border is fenced with 178 border outposts set up to man the border.
In recent days The Tribune reported that BSF Director-General DK Pathak had said that 62 infiltration bids were foiled on the International Border in 2015 as compared to 48 in 2014. Drug smuggling in Punjab continues to be a serious matter. In 2014 the BSF had seized 361 kg of heroin and 345 kg of heroin in 2015.
While border security is with BSF the hinterland comes under Punjab Police. Though there is little quarrel over the jurisdiction issue, the two forces have not been able to work amicably in the larger interest of securing the border and the resultant national security.
Since 2010 and earlier Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has complained about border management and requested raising the number of personnel on duty. He may have a point about BSF’s border management but that does not take away from the fact that Punjab Police has faced challenges for long. However, the strength, training and readiness of state police has been well below expectations and for years there have been demands that police reforms be carried out in the state.Former policeman Prakash Singh moved a petition in the Supreme Court on police reforms and Punjab has remained one of the laggard states.
The BSF last year announced a five year modernisation plan to secure unfenced borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh. Parts of the International Border are unfenced and in many places the fence comes off when riverine area of Ravi and Sutlej rivers flood. Proposal to rebuild a portion after it is washed away goes through a long channel of clearances and approvals year after year. This has now been sorted out somewhat with orders issued that any reporting of broken fencing would be attended to immediately.
Issues that have been major irritants on tackling challenges on border management need to be looked into.
Cross-border smuggling and narcotics: There have been reports of BSF and Punjab policemen working together in narcotics smuggling. Denied officially by both organisations intelligence officials for long have complained about local connivance in cross-border smuggling. Last year the Punjab and Haryana High Court served notices to Central government and BSF on a bunch of petitions filed by its personnel who were named as residents of Punjab and who would not be posted on the International Border on suspicion of being involved in smuggling.
Involvement of villagers in border areas: Integral to intelligence gathering in the sensitive border areas are communities living in villages. Last year the Punjab government announced setting up of Rapid Rural Response Force whose personnel would respond in ten minutes. A good initiative that has still to see the light of the day and nothing could be more damaging than the sarpanch’s comments on TV channels that Punjab Police did not warn them about the presence of suspected terrorist or activity.
Second Line of Defence: Yet again the Punjab government has stated that its police force would be the second line of defence on the border after last year’s announced modernisation plan. After July 2015 Dinanagar infiltration in Gurdaspur district and December’s Pathankot infiltration where state policemen failed to react, act and even use the local village communities, the Central government needs to do a serious rethink.
The government of India can no more rely on Punjab Police’s limited capacity and capability, assurances of Punjab government notwithstanding. Rashtriya Rifles could be seen as an option to provide a second line of defence along the International Border. So the BSF personnel would be at the border, RR personnel as a second line of defence and then the Punjab Police.
Punjab Police in border areas: Government of India needs to step in and carry out an audit of existing infrastructure and police personnel. Start a special programme that would retrain and equip personnel with knowledge and capacity and strengthen physical infrastructure.
Sort out BSF issues: For long the personnel policy of BSF has not been seriously addressed. The personal well-being of soldiers, their families, their training and equipment need to be looked into. Overworked, unfit men have to be taken off border duty to be rested and retrained.
Finally, bureaucratic obstacles must be removed. Border management needs to be looked at holistically and not in a piecemeal manner. The Pathankot incident is a wake up call to address the long standing problem with International Border management in the Punjab area, and it is time to act now. Blame Pakistan military, ISI for infiltration but that will not take away from the fact that we need to sort out serious issues first.