Securing our borders with blinders on

Practitioners dealing with national security see the subject of borders from a traditional viewpoint.

 borders, local populations, security, illegal migration, military, PMF, CAPF
Photo: Sandip Debnath/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At a recent workshop at Observer Research Foundation on the subject of “Revisiting India’s Border Security” one could not help but be struck by the intensity and diversity of opinions on the immense challenges faced by our Para Military (PMF) and Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) deployed as the first line of defence on our borders. These are not just restricted to having to live and work in hostile terrain and weather conditions, but also the difficulties faced in preventing transborder criminal activity, illegal migration and attempts by our adversaries to push in terrorists. As was to be expected of dedicated professionals, the discussion focused on the ways and means by which such threats could be ameliorated, if not overcome, and the manner in which technology and better resource management, including human resources, could be better utilised to enhance capabilities.

Interestingly, in the discussions only cursory attention was paid to the issue of local populations living in the proximity of our borders and how that impacts our security environment. Considering that in large tracts along our borders the populations on both sides tend to belong to the same ethnic or tribal groups, this issue should be central to the way we look at security and not just treated as just another factor in a complex problem to be solved. This probably had to do with the fact that most practioners dealing with various aspects of national security continue to see the subject of borders from a very narrow and traditional view point, which stretches back at more than a century, and was best articulated by Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India, who in the Oxford University’s prestigious Romanes Lecture of 1907 stated “Frontiers are indeed the razor’s edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war or peace, of life or death to nations.”

This concept of national security has a purely military and economic connotation with an exclusive stress on securing the state and its territory by controlling the movement of people, goods and information through a wide variety of controls, including physical barriers. However, the impact of the information and communication technology (ICT) revolution has made such an outlook increasingly irrelevant and whether we wish to or not, we truly do live in a global village. As has been graphically demonstrated over the past decade and more, in Latin America, Africa, Central Europe and the Middle East, it has become impossible to lock up people or ideas and isolate them from the global discourse. This has forced a shift of the discourse from security of the state to security of the people through sustainable human development. As Thomas Wilson and Donna Hastings so aptly noted nearly two decades ago “International borders are becoming so porous that they no longer fulfill their historical role as barriers to the movement of goods, ideas and people and as markers of the extent of power of the state”(Border Identities: Nation and State at the International Frontiers, UK Cambridge University Press, 1998).


The concept of national security has a purely military and economic connotation with an exclusive stress on securing the state and its territory by controlling the movement of people, goods and information through a wide variety of controls, including physical barriers. The impact of the ICT revolution has made such an outlook increasingly irrelevant and whether we wish to or not, we truly do live in a global village.


That is not to suggest that traditional physical threats, of the type we confront in Kashmir or the one that was recently averted in Doklam do not exist. Far from it, but there can be no two opinions that if we are to truly progress such confrontations will have to be resolved through a spirit of mutual cooperation and we have to strive to achieve something akin to border controls that exist on the US-Canada border or in the European Union. Only such an action will allow our security establishment to focus on the more serious non-military threats that arise due to internal ethnic conflicts, social and economic deprivation, endemic corruption and organised crime with its unholy nexus between criminals, security and bureaucratic establishments and politicians.

It is no surprise then that while the security establishment continues to focus on its rather constricted view of protecting our national integrity at great cost to itself, our political and bureaucratic establishment is happy to continue with the prevailing status quo for the advantages that it gives them. Thus, for example, while security elements deployed on the Indo-Bangladesh border may risk life and limb to prevent illegal immigration or cross border trade in cattle, the political establishment incentivises the illegality to meet their own narrow political goals, be it building up their own vote banks or as a quid pro quo to criminal elements for the muscle they provide during elections.

It isn’t as if the issues involved cannot be formalised. After all Bangladeshi illegals do play an important role in the non-formal service industry, in jobs which our own citizens are unwilling to do. It does not require an Einstein to realise that if they are permitted to enter the country through legal channels, with work permits for example, they would be less likely to contravene our laws or attempt to acquire citizenship through illegal means. More so, given that we have in place robust digital architecture, such as Aadhaar, which can also probably be utilised in this case to ensure that once their biometrics have been captured on entry they cannot procure identity documents illegally. Similarly, if the rule of law is the lodestone on which our democratic system and future progress hinges, then what prevents us from legalising the cattle trade, especially since it is a huge source of employment in our hinterland?

Even the Army deployed in Jammu and Kashmir and in the Northeast, for that matter, faces a similar situation. It has had to repeatedly launch campaigns at regular intervals to control levels of violence as militants have been given a free run by the political establishment for their own nefarious purposes. Once militancy levels are brought down, at great sacrifice on the part of army personnel, the government, both at the Centre and State go into prolonged hibernation and self- induced paralysis so that they can avoid having to resolve outstanding issues politically. Thus, once again, giving impetus to the cycle of violence and ensuring that the prevailing situation continues to simmer.

It is fairly safe to then conclude that practioners in our security establishment, be they from the military, PMF or the CAPF will continue to be duped and get the wrong end of the stick as long as they are unable to convince the political and governing elite to move away from the status quo. That can only happen when they take a broader view of issues that are integral to national security and insist that they must have an equal share in formulating of goals and policies that is then their responsibility to implement. It is all very well for racehorses to be wearing blinders during races to ensure they focus on the track, but surely our security establishment can and must do better.


This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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