Expansion of BSF's powers in Punjab stirs hornet's nest

| | Chandigarh
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Expansion of BSF's powers in Punjab stirs hornet's nest

Thursday, 14 October 2021 | PNS | Chandigarh

The Union Ministry of Home Affairs’ decision to expand Border Security Force’s (BSF) powers of arrest, search, and seizure to a 50-kilometre belt in Punjab has sparked a debate on State autonomy with the ruling Congress and its rival political parties in the State opposing the decision.

Strongly objecting to the MHA’s decision, the leaders of Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) have lashed out at the Centre for “infringing upon States’ policing powers”. However, the former Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh, who has always been vocal on matters related to the border security, has welcomed the move asserting that BSF’s “enhanced presence and powers will only make us stronger”.

Notably, the MHA has issued a notification, by introducing amendment in Section 139 of the BSF Act, expanding BSF’s powers to arrest, search, and seizure in the states of Punjab, West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura to 50 km from the border, up from the previous 15 km, on par with their counterparts in the police.

Condemning the Centre’s “unilateral” and “irrational” decision, Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi took to Twitter to call the move “a direct attack on federalism”, while urging the Union Home Minister Amit Shah to immediately roll back the decision.

“I strongly condemn the GoI's unilateral decision to give additional powers to BSF within the 50-KM belt running along the international borders, which is a direct attack on federalism. I urge the Union Home Minister @AmitShah to immediately roll back this irrational decision,” he tweeted.

Also slamming the Centre for the decision that tantamount to an attack on federalism, Punjab Deputy Chief Minister-cum-Home Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa has asked the Union Home Minister to immediately withdraw this decision.

“This illogical decision is absolutely against the spirit of the raising of border guarding forces, which are required to focus on the international border and act as the first line of defence. Policing in the hinterland is not the role of a border guarding force, rather it would weaken the capacity of the BSF in discharging its primary duty of guarding the international border,” he said.

Randhawa said that he would soon personally call on the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Union Home Minister Amit Shah to resolve this issue.

Randhawa said that the Centre’s notification, without obtaining the State Government’s concurrence amounts to encroachment upon the powers and roles of States by the Centre. “The Union, State, and Concurrent Lists specify the subjects under the domain of the Centre and the States. Police and law and order are subjects under the State List and are looked after by the States. By conferring powers of police officers upon BSF officers without consulting State Governments or obtaining their concurrence, the Central Government is attempting to distort the federal structure of the Constitution,” he added.

Emphasizing the need for excellent cooperation between Central and State agencies, Randhawa said that such coordination must be enhanced with information sharing for taking prompt action to resist illegal activities.

“Joint operations against drugs and terrorist modules have been successfully conducted between the BSF and Punjab Police in the past besides mechanisms for information sharing and coordination are already in place. There are no justifiable reasons for unilaterally changing the existing arrangements by the Government of India, except to weaken the State Government and the spirit of federalism,” he asserted.

Punjab Congress’s former president Sunil Jakhar blamed the Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi for having unwittingly handed over “half of Punjab to the central government”.

“Be careful what you ask for! Has @CHARANJITCHANNI unwittingly managed to handover half of Punjab to Central govt. 25000 sq km (out of total 50,000 sq km) has now been placed under BSF jurisdiction. Punjab Police stands castigated. Do we still want more autonomy to States,” Jakhar said in a tweet, referring to Channi’s meeting with Union Home Minister a week back seeking Shah’s personal intervention to “seal borders to check illegal supply of drugs and weapons”.

Randhawa categorically said that the Chief Minister Channi has neither raised this issue with Centre nor asked for enhancing the jurisdiction of BSF along with international border.

Coming down heavily against both the Union and Punjab Governments for what he described as “central rule by proxy”, SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal said that the “sudden and unscheduled” meeting which Chief Minister Channi had last week with the Union Home Minister had apparently cleared the decks for this “highly provocative and dangerous move”.

Asking the Chief Minister to show intent and “act or abdicate”, Sukhbir said that it was most unlikely that the Centre would have taken such a drastic decision without the knowledge and prior consent of the State Government. “And all the noises which Channi and his colleagues are now making are a mere attempt to hide their complicity in this decision,” he said.

Sukhbir asked the Chief Minister to take the people of the State into confidence on what his Government proposes to do to stop the Centre from sabotaging the democratic processes and the federal principle in Punjab.

“You are not the opposition. You are the Chief Minister, Mr Channi. Your job doesn't stop at issuing a customary press release mildly criticising the Centre’s dangerous step. You must tell the people what exactly you propose to do to put a stop to this humiliating move from the Centre,” said Sukhbir, the former Deputy Chief Minister.               He also asked the leaders of the Congress party in Punjab to clarify their stand in case the State Government simply surrenders to the Centre. “Law and order is a state subject. Centre has no constitutional right to deploy forces in the State without the prior concurrence of the state government. There is no state government worth its salt if law and order is handed over to the Centre. The Chief Minister must immediately share with the people his line of action on saving Punjab from this central rule by proxy,” he said.

SAD chief, reacting to the Centre’s move to hand over practically half of Punjab to the BSF giving the central forces full powers for even normal policing, said that the Punjab Police  has been rendered toothless and totally powerless in these circumstances. “In fact, they have lost their relevance. It is a drastic decision and it is impossible that the Centre would implement it without taking the state government into confidence beforehand,” he said.

Congress MP from Sri Anandpur Sahib Manish Tewari also tweeted, “MHA Notification enhancing operational mandate of BSF, 15 to 50 KM’s in Punjab, West Bengal & Assam transgresses upon Constitutional Public order & Policing remit of States Half of Punjab will now fall under BSF jurisdiction @CHARANJITCHANNI must oppose it.”

In related tweet, he said: “Mischievous part of Section 139 of BSF Act ‘…or of any cognizable offence punishable under any other Central Act; or punishable under any other Central Act..,’ It allows GOI to institutionalise an alternative policing paradigm. Was Punjab Govt consulted?”

Equally incensed by the Centre’s move, the Akali Dal described it as imposing an “internal emergency in Punjab”.

Describing the move to hand over almost half of the State to the BSF as “the imposition of the President’s rule through the back door in nearly half of Punjab”, SAD’s semipro leader and former Minister Daljit Singh Cheema said that the decision virtually turned the State into a de facto Union Territory. “This devious attempt to place the State directly under the central rule must and will be opposed,” he said.

“This is, at the same time, a frontal assault on the federal principle through highly questionable misuse of constitutional provisions. It is shocking that the BSF has been given sweeping powers divesting the state police of even the normal policing duties,” he said.

Cheema said that as per the Constitution, only the State Government can call out the Central forces to aid and assist the state administration. The Center cannot thrust these forces on the State without a formal request from the state government, said Cheema,

The Akali leader also called upon the Chief Minister Channi to come clean on the State Government’s stand on the sensitive issue.

However, Capt Amarinder has welcomed the move while asking all not to drag central armed forces into politics. He maintained that partisan considerations “can’t and shouldn’t dictate our stand on issues of national security”.

“Our soldiers are being killed in Kashmir. We’re seeing more & more weapons & drugs being pushed by Pak-backed terrorists into Punjab. BSF’s enhanced presence & powers will only make us stronger. Let’s not drag central armed forces into politics,” Capt Amarinder’s media adviser Raveen Thukral said, quoting the former Chief Minister in the first of two tweets.

“Partisan considerations can’t & shouldn’t dictate our stand on issues of national security. I’d said that at the time of the 2016 surgical strikes & am saying it again. We’ve to rise above politics when India’s security is at stake, as it is now,” the second tweet on behalf of Capt Amarinder said.

SAD chief Sukhbir Badal, reacting to Capt Amarinder’s tweets, said: “Reaction of former Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh, who is still a part of the Congress party, clearly shows that something deeper than meets the eye is at play. Chief Minister Channi and other Congress leaders, who never waste an opportunity to go viral over even the most minor issues, are content to issue routine and formal statement showing their disagreements.”

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