The Border Security Force was raised in 1965 with the aim of “securing the borders and matters connected therewith. The most important task being to inculcate sense of security among the border population”. Other tasks include preventing trans-border crimes and smuggling.
It is, however, the third task which has become the most important task for the BSF personnel.
On the eastern border of India with Bangladesh, it is the perceived inability of the BSF to prevent cattle smuggling or alleged excesses committed by its troops against smugglers, for which it receives most brickbats.
Menace of Cattle Smuggling
Cattle smuggling to Bangladesh is estimated to be worth $500 million annually. Every night, when troops go out to patrol the borders in groups of three-four, they are faced with hundreds of cattle smugglers armed with sharp-edged weapons and country-made firearms, pushing thousands of cattle to Bangladesh through the riverine border.
Similarly on fenced border, large groups of smugglers attempt to cut fence at several places to smuggle across the cattle.
Troops trying to stop criminals face lethal attacks as they are heavily outnumbered. Several cases of serious injury and lynching of troops in the process have taken place. Human right groups act with alacrity to decry any action by troops to use force. Troops are also mocked at by the criminals for their inability to use force because of the restrictions imposed through government directives.
The troops are, thus, literally compelled to operate with one-hand tied behind their backs.
Troops Bear the Brunt of Illegal Smuggling
The response of the BSF to the situation is an ambiguous one as the troops are not at all sure about what to do. On one hand, the jawans could be charged with negligence and/or connivance if a report suggests that smuggling has taken place from their area. On the other hand, if use of force to prevent smuggling results in casualties, they are still faced with the prospect of being court-martialled.
Instances where troops have faced court martial and remained under suspension are common. Last year, an officer remained under suspension as the patrol being led by him had killed a Bangladeshi cattle smuggler in self-defence, ironically by fire of a Pump Action Gun which is supposed to be non-lethal. The fact that the incident happened when a BSF delegation was in Bangladesh for biennial talks worsened the situation.
That most of these personnel come out unscathed after the trial is no consolation as the long-drawn process leaves a scar on their psyche and their families.
The policy of Bangladeshi government is unambiguous in this regard. They want Indian cattle because of their protein needs and for the survival of their meat and leather industry – their main foreign exchange earners – is totally dependent on Indian cattle. They have in fact institutionalised the system and the cattle crossing over to Bangladesh is properly accounted for and sent to the hinterland after paying an entry tax.
Govt Policy is Ambiguous
The Bangladeshi and Indian criminals who act in tandem are also clear about what they want. Their aim is to maximise income. With no viable employment opportunities available on both sides of the border, they are ready to take any amount of risk in smuggling cattle as it earns them high profits. This leads to the avoidable loss of lives among the troops as well as criminals and civilians.
It is apparent that the policy of Indian government in this regard is incoherent. The stated policy is to prevent cattle smuggling but in actual practice very little is done to prevent the cattle reaching their destination located at a short distance from the border. The policy which is based only on sentiments is far removed from ground realities.
The cattle fetches much higher price on the border as compared to the hinterland. Due to a shortage of grazing grounds compared to the large cattle population – a lot of which is unproductive – it is natural for the surplus cattle to be so channelised to maximise earnings.
There are well-entrenched cartels that indulge in transporting animals from as far as Rajasthan and Haryana to the Bengal border. It would be wrong to assume that persons of only a particular religion form part of these cartels. Lure of profit unites everyone, whether they are Hindus or Muslims.
The only offence committed while transporting cattle from interiors relates to the prevention of cruelty to animals as they are transported in extremely pitiable conditions. The police in all the states, falling in the route, perhaps has other priorities. Even if the police proceeds against the transporter or the truck driver, they are unable to nab the actual kingpin.
Legalise Cattle Trade with Bangladesh
Even the cattle seized by the BSF – which is a small percentage compared to the total number smuggled – are channelised back into smuggling because the same cartel buys them in auction from the Customs.
Considering the facts discussed above, I would suggest that it’s high time that the Government of India took a realistic view of the situation and legalised cattle trade with Bangladesh. It would help the economy of Bangladesh prosper and India will earn their gratitude forever.
Further, it will also avoid a lot of deaths and injuries to border population and BSF personnel. Legalised export will also earn revenue for the exchequer which is presently pocketed by smugglers and criminals.
More importantly such an action will leave the BSF free to focus on more important matters of border security like preventing illegal migration and terrorism-related activities and preventing fake Indian currency from entering the country.
(The writer retired from the BSF as an additional director-general. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)