Unfamiliar territory

Last week, Border Security Force personnel guarding a section of the railway being built to link Jammu to the Kashmir Valley fired on a crowd of protestors at Dharm Sharti village near Ramban, killing four and injuring a dozen. The circumstances around the case are murky. Some allege that the BSF desecrated a Koran, others claim that they walked into a mosque wearing shoes. Another account says that a local Imam’s brother was detained by a BSF ambush party the evening before and following an argument over his identity papers, a crowd attacked the BSF camp, leading to the firing. The BSF had handed over its security responsibilities to the Central Reserve Police Force since 2005 so it is surprising that the force at Ramban was allegedly conducting “ambushes” and detaining people. The BSF’s task there was to specifically guard the railway project. This is a matter that requires some investigation.

Valley on fire: Though BSF was not trained it took on the militancy frontally

The incident has caused widespread protest in Kashmir and once again brought into focus the atrocious record of the BSF in Kashmir, for which the responsibility must rest with the Union Home Ministry. When the force was moved into the Valley in the wake of the uprising that began in January 1990, it had never participated in a law and order operation, at least for a sustained period of time. However over the next decade and more, the BSF was, in addition to the Indian Army, the key paramilitary force involved in combating the Kashmir insurgency.

From the outset, there were charges of serious human rights violations against several BSF units and personnel. The Union Home Ministry did not provide the force with any guidance and simply threw it into the turbulent waters of Kashmir and expected it to learn how to swim. Led by its Inspector General Ashok Patel, it built up its intelligence wing, the G-Branch, by turning around captured militants. Some of the “turning around” involved use of torture. The force’s Papa II detention centre became dreaded for what went on inside them and to date there has been little or no accounting for what happened there.
Given the circumstances the BSF did a remarkable job and even though it was not trained it took on the militancy frontally. But its record will forever be tainted by the excesses of some of its rogue personnel and the failure of its senior officers and the MHA to try and remedy the situation.

While in the case of the Army, there were several officers and men who were sentenced to prison terms for human rights violation. There has been virtually no BSF official who has been punished for his actions which ranked among, if we may say so, world class atrocities. Among these were incidents of arson that killed hundreds in Lal Chowk in Srinagar and the Bijbehara massacre of October 1993 that led to the deaths of 31 people. In 1996, all twelve persons who faced a court martial for the Bijbehara incident were acquitted. More recently in 2010, a BSF commandant was accused of ordering the shooting a 17-year old boy for no reason other than that he and his friends shouted slogans against the BSF.

The sad fact is that the BSF procedure, unlike that of the Army, has failed to convict a single person for the human rights excesses carried out in the two decade period the force was deployed in Jammu and Kashmir, except in the case of the rape of Mubina Gani in 1990.

As part of the reform of the security system suggested by the Group of Ministers in 2002, the BSF was designated specifically as a “border guarding force” and tasked to look after the India-Pakistan border and the India-Bangladesh border. In the latter case, the force once again got into trouble. On one hand, there have been charges of its complicity with cattle smugglers, and on the other, it has been accused of using excess force against Indians and Bangladeshis. According to a Bangladeshi human rights organization, so far this year, 15 people have been shot on the border by the BSF and many more have been abducted and tortured, an Indian outfit has claimed that more than 1,000 people, mainly Indians have been shot on the border by the BSF in the last decade. Some of the claims are, no doubt, propaganda, but the reports of the past decade are too insistent to be completely untrue.

Primary blame for the BSF’s predicament must rest on the Ministry of Home Affairs. They were never raised as a counterinsurgency force, yet, in 1990, they were pitched into Kashmir. Even as a border guarding force, the BSF was originally viewed as a trip wire for the India-Pakistan border, one that would act as a screen against any Pakistan army thrust into India and was thus equipped and organized like the Army. But the India-Bangladesh border is a very different place with lots of human movement back and forth, and requires a force which has a great deal of tact, as well as integrity. Unfortunately, both have been in short supply where the BSF’s record is concerned.  

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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